Reflections on the Water-Blog by Lynn Whitney


Reflections on the Water-Blog by Lynn Whitney

Tattoos  - A Sailor’s Life History

By Lynn Whitney

Your teenager just came home sporting a new tattoo.  Or maybe you are thinking of getting one yourself.  Long a symbol of rebels and gangsters, the modern tattoo has become a widely accepted fashion statement.   So, just how did this exotic yet painful practice make its way into the mainstream population?

The first documented tattoo was found on Otzi the Iceman.  Found in the Otz Valley in the Alps, Otzi’s mummified remains date back to the 5th or 4th millennium BC.  He was tattooed with some 57 dots and lines, located on his lower spine, behind his left knee and on his right ankle.  Their placement resembled acupuncture placing and is generally regarded to have been a form of healing. 

Various other cultures around the world and throughout time had their own tattoo traditions.  Julius Caesar described in Book V of his “Gallic Wars,” the dark blue, war-inspired tattoos of the Picts, the ancient race of Britons and first known inhabitants of Scotland.

By the 19th Century the art of tattooing had infiltrated British society, largely due to the influence of sailors.  The sailing tradition of tattooing is believed to have begun with Captain Cook’s three voyages to the South Pacific.  While in Tahiti in 1769, aboard the Endeavor, Captain Cook and his Science Officer and Expedition Botanist Sir Joseph Banks, first noticed the indigenous body art and coined the word tattoo, from the Tahitian tatau.

Banks himself, along with many of the crew, returned with tattoos, introducing the practice to Europe, from where it continued to gain popularity in seaports around the world.  However, the reasons behind the exotic, yet painful art form bewildered Banks.  “What can be sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say; not one Indian (though I have asked hundreds) would ever give me the least reasons for it.”  After much consideration, he concluded:  “……possibly superstition may have something to do with it.  Nothing else in my opinion could be sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom.”

And superstition was one thing sailors shared with the Polynesians.  With the inherent dangers and uncertainties of their lives, sailors often resorted to talismans to ward of bad luck and invoke good fortune.  Intensely proud of their accomplishments, they also used tattoos to record certain milestones in their voyages.

Here are some meanings and de-codings of traditional tattoos and piercings.

  • Sailors pierced their ears to improve their eyesight.  This practice has some correlation with acupuncture.
  • A black pearl earring marked a survivor of a ship wreck.
  • Because sailors were often at sea and away from loved ones for years at a time, they often wore a gold earring, to be used as payment for a proper burial if they died in a foreign port.
  • The left ear was pierced for each crossing of the Equator, Arctic Circle or
    Antarctic Circle.
  • Sailors also believed that earrings prevented spirits from entering through the ear.
  • A rooster and a pig tattooed on each calf or foot was believed to prevent drowning.  These animals were usually carried aboard in wooden crates.  If a ship sank, they would float ashore and be rescued, often the only survivors.
  • A tattoo of a pig and a chicken ensured that  they would always have eggs and ham and never go hungry,
  • Crosses on the soles of the feet would ward off sharks.
  • Two stars ensured a sailor would always know the way.
  • A nautical star or a compass rose meant he would always find his way home.
  • Sailors were notoriously poor swimmers. HOLD FAST tattooed across the knuckles would remind them to hold the line and prevent them from falling overboard or dropping a line.
  • A rope around the wrist denoted a dockhand.
  • Crossed anchors between the thumb and index finger identified a bosen’s mate.
  • A swallow always found its way home.
  • A tattoo of a sparrow was used to mark every 5000 miles traveled.
  • A full rigged ship denoted sailing around Cape Horn.
  • A dragon meant a sailor had entered a port in China.
  • A golden dragon signified crossing the International Date Line.
  • A turtle standing on its back legs denoted crossing the Equator and being initiated into King Neptune’s Court.
  • A dagger through a rose meant willingness to fight or even kill something as fragile as a rose.


Originally part of the sailing culture to protect from harm and record a living history, tattoos have become a modern expression of individuality.  Every picture tells a story…..