Sailor Tattoos

by Jay Hamburg | illustrations by Ryan Went

Rooster and pig sailor tattoo


Tattooed on the feet or ankles, these emblems symbolize survival at sea. Pigs and roosters were often kept in wooden crates, making them likely to float to shore in the event of a shipwreck. A pig on the left knee and a rooster on the right foot references an old ditty: Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight.

Swallow sailor tattoo


A swallow tattoo signifies having sailed 5,000 miles or the idea of returning safely. It also can symbolize the belief that if a sailor dies while on a voyage, birds will complete the journey of the wearer’s soul by carrying it heavenward.

Marks of Distinction

The connection between sailors and tattoos stretches back at least 250 years.

The crew of British explorer James Cook brought the word “tattoo” to England after voyaging to Tahiti, where they observed the custom in 1769. Sailors in the Royal Navy eagerly adopted the idea, giving rise to body art of anchors, dragons, ships, and swallows that functioned as badges of honor and indelible good luck charms.

Even the future King George V, who served in the Royal Navy, got a dragon tattoo while visiting Japan in 1882. Winston Churchill was rumored to have had an anchor tattoo on his forearm.

By 1900, about 90 percent of American military men had tattoos. One popular theme—scantily clad women—grew so widespread that, by 1909, the U.S. government declared it illegal to recruit military applicants with obscene inkings. That edict eventually sparked a minor industry of tattoo artists who added appropriate coverings to the female figures.

The outbreak of World War II initiated a rise in patriotic-themed tattoos. During that era, Norman Collins—an artist in Hawaii known professionally as Sailor Jerry—created a bold, colorful style that still draws admirers today. Collins’ designs have adorned the label of Sailor Jerry rum and a line of Converse sneakers, among other items.

So how did tattoos make it from the outer reaches of an older, seafaring world to the mainstream of America? What common trait joins those sailors of two centuries ago to the Tars of today?

Psychology Professor Paul Harris says the answer may be simple: “There’s a basic human need to express identity through symbols.”

Hold Fast sailor tattoo


Tattooing “HOLD” and “FAST” across the knuckles was thought to give sailors a sure grip on a ship’s rigging.

Shellback turtle sailor tattoo


Commemorates crossing the equator. 

Crossed anchors sailor tattoo


Placed between the thumb and index finger, this tattoo stands for the naval rank of boatswain’s mate. It also can commemorate sailing experience on all the world’s oceans and seas.

Golden Dragon sailor tattoo


Indicates crossing the international date line, an imaginary line that runs north to south through the Pacific Ocean, roughly along the 180th meridian.

*A dragon (of any color) is for those who have served in or sailed to a port in Asia.

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