Tattooing has been associated with the seafaring life of the navy for centuries. This tradition began in the 1700s when Captain 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 a tattoo was the most exotic souvenir they could bring home.
A Sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog: not seaworthy.
The United States Government issued a recruiting circular in 1909, which stated, “Indecent or obscene tattooing is cause for rejection, the applicant should be given an opportunity to alter the design, in which event he may, if otherwise qualified, be accepted.
In the 1940s this obscure ruling caused one of the biggest booms the tattoo trade had known in years. From far and wide, eligible young men were flocking to their favorite
needlers with demands for lingerie, skirts, brassieres, fans, bubbles, flowers, butterflies, almost anything that would cover up a bare spot.
Some meanings of sailor designs;
HOLD on the knuckles of one hand and FAST, on the other. This is said to help the seaman 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 FULL-RIGGED SHIP showed the seaman had sailed around Cape Horn.
A DRAGON showed the seaman had served on a China station.
A SHELLBACK TURTLE denotes a seaman who has crossed the equator.
A GOLDEN DRAGON denotes a seaman who has crossed the International Date Line.
ROPE tattooed around the wrist meant the seaman was a deckhand.
Miss Eleanor Barnes of the Seaman’s Institute once remarked,
“Some people pour out their colorful stories to juries. Others relieve the tension by writing for the confession magazines. The sailor enlists the tattooers needle upon
his own body in dull blues, vivid reds, greens and yellows to record the story of his loves and hates, his triumphs, his religion, and his patriotism.”