"A Sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog: not sea worthy" -Samuel O'Reily, Famous New York based tattoo artist
Tattooing has been linked with the seafaring life of the navy for centuries. The tradition began in the 1700s when Captain James Cook discovered the tattooed natives of the South Pacific. Cook's sailors were looking for the perfect memento of their journey into foreign lands, and the tattoo was the most exotic souvenir they could bring home. This Tattoo trend soon spread quickly throughout the British Navy.
Tattoos where inspired by the cultures and places that these early explorers and seamen encountered.
"Over this scene the sun set in a wonderful glory. i did not have to wait long to see some of japan's art up close. I realized what had inspired the tattoos had admired."-George Burchett's Memories of Kobe, Japan 1889.
Sailors also got rank, personal initials and regiments (numbers, letters and symbols significant to there naval life, and country) tattooed.
The tattoo trend that had started within the British Navy began to become a popular practice within other world navies, such as France, Germany, and the USA.
Within the French Navy in the 18th century, many french sailors returning from voyages in the south pacific had been tattooed.I n 1861, french naval surgeon, maurice berchon, published a study on the medical complications of tattooing. After this, the navy and army banned tattooing within their ranks.
America's Navy the USN has some of the richest history in tattoos. Tattoos tend to be patriotic (star spangled banner, ships, landmarks, the bold eagle).
Tradition Navy tattoos tend to be:-
- Nautical stars
- Naval Vessels
- Female Sailors
- Sailor Jerry Style Tattoos
Sailor Jerry tattoos depict an old-school style of tattooing that is an extremely popular style of tattoo amongst the Naval ranks of particularly the USN. As with the work of any great artist, every one of Sailor Jerry's designs reflects an extra level of depth, some detail that communicates more than the content would indicate. In one surprisingly beautiful design, a sailing ship crosses ocean over the word "HOMEWARD"- the shading is meticulous, the lines are perfect, but it's a burst of bright red coming from behind the boat that makes it extraordinary, depicting the romance and optimism necessary to sustain a life at sea.
Swallows are another popular tattoo that has its origins with the Navy. Swallows can't fly far so they are always close to land. Sailors were joyful to see swallows because it meant they were near land. Some seafarers got swallows as navy tattoos before they left to help ensure a safe return home.
HOLD, on the knuckles of one hand and FAST, on the other. This is said to help the seamen to better hold the riggings.
A Pig, on the top of one foot and a Rooster, on the other. This is said to protect the seaman from drowning, because both of these barnyard animals cannot swim so they would get the seaman quickly to shore.
An Anchor showed the seaman had sailed the Atlantic Ocean.
A Dragon showed the seaman had served on a China station.
A Golden Dragon denotes a seaman who has crossed the International Date Line.
A Shellback Turtle denotes a seaman who has crossed the Equator
A Full-Rigged Ship showed the seaman had sailed around Cape Horn.
Port & Starboard ship lights were tattooed on the left (port) and right (starboard) side of the body.
Rope, tattooed around the wrist meant the seaman was a deckhand.
An Australian Tattoo artist Mim Dabbs has left her mark on more than her fair share of military skin, and knows the common requests. "The combined defence forces - RAAF, Army, Navy - would make up 30 to 40 per cent of our clientele," says Dabbs. In 15 years at Darwin City Tattoos she's "seen everything" but says military personnel often request patriotic images, such as the Southern Cross and the Australian flag. "We've had a real run on the Australian Coat of Arms lately, which makes a beautiful tattoo, but it needs to be done quite large," says Dabbs.