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the meanings behind classic sailor tattoos

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: 

Nautical Star

the meanings behing 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. 


The Meanings Behind Classic Sailor Tattoos

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

The Meanings Behind Classic Sailor Tattoos

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

The Meanings Behind Classic Sailor Tattoos

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. 

Compass Rose

compass 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. 

Crossed Cannons

crossed cannons 

A tattoo of crossed cannons means a veteran has seen military service as a sailor. 

Hula Girl

hula girl

A tattoo of a hula girl means the sailor has been to Hawaii. 

Crossed Anchors 

crossed anchors

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.

Hold Fast

hold fast

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!  

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