by Miranda Max
Tattoos have been part of sailing lore since James Cook rounded Cape Horn, crossed the Pacific, and arrived in Tahiti in 1769. Cook, the man given credit for discovering tattoos during his famous explorations to Tahiti, Hawaii and New Zealand, came across the tattooed natives of the South Pacific where his sailors at last found the perfect mementos from their journeys into foreign lands.
Believed to begin in the 1700s, the history entwined within nautical tattoos is one of thrill and mystery. We find many fascinating figures within tattoo lore, from Samuel O’ Reilly to Sailor Jerry, two famous tattoo artist from the 1700’s.
Nautical or maritime tattoos are derived from the very roots and history of modern tattooing. Sailors were among the first to revive tattoos.
The English word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word, ‘ta-taw’, thought to simulate the sound made by Polynesians as they made a tattoo.
The most symbolic sailor tattoo is the nautical star. The nautical star is a five pointed star and refers to the North Star, or Polaris, located in the Northern hemisphere and in the celestial sphere above the North Pole.
At this time stars served as one of the only ways for sailors to navigate the sea at night. Stars went hand and hand with other forms of natural navigation guides, such as the moon. Relying on the stars for a safe journey, the nautical star tattoo was thought to provide protection and guidance to the sailor.
Much like the night sky, tattoos were for some sailors, a map, illustrating adventures abroad and paying homage to people and ports encountered throughout a seafaring career.
A seafaring life has always been was among the more difficult and challenging. Through sailor’s constant involvement with natural elements, such as the wind and water, Mother Nature appears again and again within nautical tattoo design.
The nautical five-pointed star is one example, but many other elaborate symbols emerged, meant to represent life at sea, depicting not only Mother Nature, but also sea life in general. These images represented any number of things, from falling overboard, drowning, to being eaten by a shark.
Here are some more interesting facts on nautical tattoos from WikiAnswers.com;
* A sparrow for every five thousand nautical miles traveled at sea.
* A swallow because it will always find its way home from a long voyage.
* The pig and the rooster are tattooed on either the calves or the top of the feet, to prevent a sailor from drowning.
* Roosters were meant to symbolize virility. These animals were originally carried on most ships in wooden crates. When a ship went down, these crates would float and then catch currents and wash ashore with the other debris from the ship, making the pigs and roosters often the only souls to survive a shipwreck.
* A tattoo of a pig on the left knee and a rooster (cock) on the right foot signified “Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight.”
* Tattoos of pigs and chickens were to make sure they always had their ham and eggs so that they never go hungry.
* A turtle standing on its back legs (shellback) for crossing the equator and being initiated into King Neptune’s Court.
* Religious images
* Images of women.
* Sailing articles such as an anchor, full-rigged ship, a port and starboard, and rope. An anchor showed the seaman had sailed the Atlantic Ocean. A rope tattooed around the wrist meant the seaman was a deckhand. A full-rigged ship showed the seaman had sailed around Cape Horn. Port and starboard ship lights were tattooed on the left (port) and right (starboard) side of the body.
For further reading, check out Memoirs of a Tattooist: From the Notes, Diaries and Letters of the Late ‘King of Tattooists, published in 1958.