Sailor Tattoos

September 01, 2014

By Jay Hamburg

As tattoos gain acceptance, some on campus are choosing the Rollins anchor to mark their bond with the school. It’s also a nod to some of the earliest traditions of the Tars.

ANCHOR tattooANCHOR tattoo
ANCHOR An anchor is a badge of honor, signifying that a sailor has crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It can also have a personal meaning. Combined with a name (such as “Mom”), the anchor is a symbol of what keeps a seafarer feeling grounded and safe.

Marie Gilbert ’15, who plays forward on the Rollins women’s basketball team, has a small, blue anchor tattooed behind her right ear.

It’s not flashy; it’s only noticeable when she pulls back her hair. But if an opponent catches a glimpse while Gilbert flies by on her way to the basket, well, so much the better. The psychology major doesn’t mind leaving a lasting impression, especially when it concerns her love for Rollins or her religious beliefs. For her, the nautical design captures the feeling of being anchored in life through both team spirit and the Holy Spirit.

“It symbolizes Rollins and my basketball team, and it has spiritual meaning for me too,” Gilbert says. She relates it to the Bible verse Hebrews 6:19, which reads: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

Another member of the Rollins community also sports a small, blue anchor tattoo—Meghan Harte Weyant, executive director of student success. It’s visible on her left wrist. And she’s delighted to tell students why she got it: “I was falling in love with Rollins.”

Weyant views her tattoo as embodying her personal story. The anchor signifies her commitment to the campus, where she met her husband, Nate. He has his own connection to the Rollins anchor: As assistant athletic director, Nate led the anchor-themed rebranding of Rollins sports. “It was meant to be,” she says.

Setting the Anchor

Representing the North Star and points of the compass, these tattoos were said to ensure that sailors would always find their way home.

Although there is evidence of tattooing going back 5,000 years, tattoos didn’t become trendy in the U.S. until the 20th century.

In the recent past, body art could be a barrier to employment because it was often associated with gang members and prisoners. A 1983 study showed that about 9 percent of U.S. males and less than 1 percent of females had tattoos.

Today, almost 40 percent of millennials (age 18 to 29) and 32 percent of those age 30 to 45 have tattoos, according to a Pew Research Center study. Niccole Inclan ’14, who studied the correlation between personality and tattoos, estimates that one-third of her classmates have tattoos. She also believes that most students have made clearheaded decisions about their body art.

A fully rigged ship commemorates sailing around Cape Horn.

“They are symbolic expressions of the person’s identity,” says Inclan, a psychology major and a coordinator at The Lucy Cross Center for Women and Their Allies. “Personal growth is encouraged at Rollins, so you won’t see a lot of Tweety Bird tattoos.”

What you will see in inked students and staff is a connection to some of the oldest traditions of the Tars, dating back to the early 1900s.

An old-fashioned term for a sailor, “tar” referred to the thick, oily substance sailors rubbed into clothing and gear to protect it from salt water. Rollins came by the nickname during World War I when sailors trained on nearby Lake Virginia. Students gradually co-opted the word to honor the sailors. Those sailors of 97 years ago also favored anchor tattoos, often with names of people or beliefs that helped them feel safe at sea.

While nautical symbols have occasionally fallen out of favor with the Rollins community, they now seem firmly fixed. The familiar anchor intertwined with an “R” adorns clothing and shines prominently on the Rollins basketball court. Even College mascot Tommy Tar got a makeover.

Marks of Distinction

PIG & ROOSTER tattoosPIG & ROOSTER tattoos
PIG & ROOSTER 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.

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.

SWALLOW tattooSWALLOW tattoo
SWALLOW 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.

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.”

Tattooing “HOLD” and “FAST” across the knuckles was thought to give sailors a sure grip on a ship’s rigging.
SHELLBACK TURTLE Commemorates crossing the equator.
CROSSED ANCHORS 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 Indicates crossing the international date line, an imaginary line that runs north to south through the Pacific Ocean, roughly along the 180th meridian.

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