Having tattoos is pretty common in the U.S. military, but that wasn’t the case for every branch in the past. However, the U.S. Navy has a long tradition of tattoos dating back to the 1700s.
Every tattoo has a different story; here’s the meaning behind a few classic sailor tattoos:
The star symbolizes protection for a sailor lost overboard or stranded at sea. It reminds them always to remember their way home. The five-pointed nautical star switches from dark and light shades to resemble a compass rose.
An anchor means a sailor has crossed the Atlantic and returned safely or has been a member of the merchant marine. Anchors were sometimes accompanied by “Mom” or “Dad.”
Fully Rigged Ship
Many sailors dreaded Cape Horn because of its rough waters. So a tattoo of a fully rigged ship was proof that a sailor crossed the dangerous waters of Cape Horn, also known as “Tierra del Fuego” (Land of Fire).
Rope on the Wrist
A knot of rope on a sailor’s wrist identifies him as a deckhand — someone who maintains the hull, decks, superstructure, mooring, and cargo handling.
Dagger through a Rose
This tattoo stands for a sailor’s loyalty and willingness to fight anything, even something as sweet and beautiful as a rose.
A compass rose tattoo signifies protection for the sailor and the ship they’re aboard. The tattoo does not physically serve as a compass. Instead, it reminds sailors of their way back home and keeps them from getting lost.
A tattoo of crossed cannons means a veteran has seen military service as a sailor.
A tattoo of a hula girl means the sailor has been to Hawaii.
A pair of crossed anchors are typically placed on the webbing between the thumb and index finger of a sailor’s hand. Sailors hope it brings them good luck while gripping the rigging, especially for sailors who were boatswain’s mates — the sailors who maintained the deck and took care of smaller boat operations.
Sailors with the words “hold fast” tattooed on their knuckles helped them do just that — hold fast. The words are a charm for their hands to keep the ropes from slipping through them.
Are you a sailor with tattoos? What do your tattoos mean to you? Tell us by submitting your story!