What is the History Behind Nautical & Sailor Tattoos?

Jul 11, 2023 · 8 mins read ·

Fun Stuff
AI generated image of an old school sailor tattoo design

Only a couple of decades ago tattoos were seen as something that only people who were into an alternative lifestyle normally had. For example, those who were into a certain type of music - usually rock or heavy metal. But there is another section of society for whom tattoos go a much longer way back: sailors. So what is the history behind nautical tattoos? Let’s take a look.

The history of sailor tattoos is a long and interesting one. And unlike heavy metal fans, seafarers have been getting tattooed for hundreds of years. And instead of swearing allegiance to a certain band or genre of music, sailor tattoos exist to, almost, serve a purpose. 

So why do sailors have tattoos, what are some sailor tattoo designs, and what’s the meaning behind nautical tattoos?

What is the history behind nautical and sailor tattoos?

Nowadays, nautical tattoos are seen as hip and trendy. But the last thing the mariners of yore had on their minds was looking cool when they got themselves inked!

Instead, back in the early days, tattoos were often used as a way to identify individual sailors but, perhaps more importantly for the wearer, they were used as a way to ward off bad luck and protect them from harm. 

Sailors can be a superstitious bunch and this was seen as crucial protection for those living and working at sea. Ships can be dangerous places at the best of times and add in the elements and changeable weather conditions and any added protection would only be seen as a good thing.

Read more: 13 (Unlucky for Some!) Sailors' Superstitions

Unsurprisingly, as time went by, tattoos became more and more popular among sailors, and as well as being worn to protect them from danger, nautical tattoos began to be used to express a seafarer’s pride in their profession, as well as their own individuality.

Today there has been a resurgence of interest in sailor tattoos and it’s not uncommon to see maritime motifs such as compasses, nautical stars, anchors, mermaids and ships adorning the bodies of the average man or woman on the street - regardless of whether or not they work at sea. Or even have anything to do with seafaring!

It’s obvious why a sailor would choose a nautical image for their tattoos, after all when you work in a seafarer job, it is very much a lifestyle choice. Careers at sea are not 9 to 5 jobs where an employee can switch off once they close their laptop and leave the office, they are all consuming.

Read more: 5 Questions to Ask if Considering a Career in Seafarer Jobs

And choosing to have a tattoo of an anchor, galleon, mermaid or nautical star was often due to their symbolic meaning. 

For example, an anchor tattoo was seen as a symbol of hope and stability while a tattoo of a ship represented a sailor's home away from home. 

Mermaids, the sirens of the sea, were often seen as a symbol of beauty and temptation, while nautical star tattoos were a symbol of guidance and protection.

Interestingly, although seafarers would visit a tattooist on land to get inked, for example while they were on shore leave and drinking and carousing in one of the many ports they visited on their voyages, nautical tattoos were also often done by a tattoo artist who traveled onboard the vessel. 

Read more: Why Ships Used to Have Cats Onboard

Using basic tools and materials, such as needles and, hard as it is to believe in our hygiene-obsessed culture, ink made from soot and gunpowder, the ship’s tattoo artist would usually ink the crew in the evening after a sailor had finished his work or shift.

Nautical tattoos and their meanings

Thinking of getting a sailor tattoo and want to know the meaning behind the design? Here’s our quick and handy guide to some of the most popular sailor tattoos and their meanings.

  • The anchor tattoo: The anchor is a symbol of hope, stability, and protection. It is often seen as a reminder that even in the midst of a storm there is always hope for a safe harbor.
  • The ship tattoo: The ship represents adventure and exploration but also home - after all, sailors spent many months on a voyage and their vessel was truly their home away from home. Nautical ship tattoos are also often seen as a reminder of the seafarer’s journey and their deep connection to the ocean.
  • The mermaid tattoo: The mermaid is a symbol of beauty, temptation, and mystery. In some cultures, the mermaid represents life and fertility in the ocean, however in others, she lures sailors to their deaths and symbolizes the destructive nature of the water and is an omen for bad weather and rough seas. To sum it up, a mermaid tattoo was often seen as a reminder of the dangers of the sea, but also of its allure.
  • The nautical star tattoo: The nautical star is a symbol of guidance, protection, and hope. It is often seen as a reminder that even in the darkest of nights, there is always a guiding light to lead the way home.
  • The compass tattoo: The compass is, of course, a symbol of a seafarer’s travels and it was believed that this tattoo would bring them luck and good fortune during their voyage, but would also always guide them home where they would be reunited with their families.
  • The nautical heart tattoo: Old school heart tattoos were often worn by sailors and, like non-seafarers, were used as a universal symbol of love. Sailors often got heart tattoos to express their love for their family at home or their sweetheart.
  • The cross tattoo: Perhaps not traditionally thought of as a nautical tattoo, nonetheless, many sailors would have a cross or crucifix inked upon them to express their Christian faith. Cross tattoos also represented prayers for a safe voyage.
  • The swallow tattoo: Swallows were a popular sailor tattoo as they were a symbol of good luck and protection - something every mariner hoped for on their next journey at sea.

Should you get a nautical or sailor tattoo?

Tattoos aren’t for everyone but if you’re tempted by the idea of an old school nautical tattoo, the good news is, you don’t have to be a licensed seafarer! (Although if you are and you’re looking for your next job at sea, we have seafarer job vacancies right here!)

Just make sure you do your research before booking your appointment and ensure that the tattoo artist you choose is professional, meets the necessary hygiene standards as dictated by your country, and that you’ve seen samples of their work.

Because, while you want your sailor-inspired tattoo to look as authentic as possible, the days of dodgy needles and ink made from soot and gunpowder are long gone!

Eve Church

Eve Church

Eve is Martide's content writer, publishing regular posts on everything from our maritime recruitment and crew planning software to life at sea. Eve has been writing professionally for more than two decades, crafting everything from SEO-focused blog posts and website landing pages to magazine articles and corporate whitepapers.


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