Sailor Tattoos and Traditional Tattoo Designs

By | January 4, 2014

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The visitor to Tattoo Me Now can choose from thousands of tattoo designs and access reviews of more than 10,000 of tattoo studios in over 38 countries. There is also an active members’ forum, image gallery and educational material on the art of tattooing. But tattooing has not always been common or socially acceptable.

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Heavily tattooed men and women were exhibited in circuses and fairs in the 19th century as rare exotic specimens. And one class of people used to be associated with tattooing: sailors. Traditional tattoo designs that adorned their arms were “true love”, “mother” and Saint George and the Dragon.

Sailor Tattoos

Tattooing and seafaring seem to go together. The word “tattoo” itself comes from Tahiti and has first been recorded by James Cook in 1769. It was during the age of exploration, Encyclopedia Britannica informs, that Europeans rediscovered the ancient art of tattooing and tattoos became popular among sailors.

A famous literary persona is the one of Queequeg in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick whose tattooing – the “hieroglyphic marks” written out on his body – were “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth… a mystical treatise… a riddle to unfold, a wondrous work in one volume… destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed.”

The Seamen’s Records of the UK National Archives establish the traditional link between sailors and ink. Sailor tattoos were part of the description of the seaman in the records that span 1853-1923. Before the widespread use of photography, sailor tattoos were the best way of identifying seamen: “The description of tattoos and scars in the records were used in identifying and catching those sailors that deserted the navy”, said the National Archives naval specialist (press release 28 Sept. 2005).

Traditional Tattoo Designs: True Love, Hands Across the Sea

The sailor tattoos described in the archives are not as diverse as the ones offered today by sites such as Tattoo Me Now. The tattoos were mostly confined to sailors’ forearms. Traditional tattoo designs included roses, naval flags, daggers, “True Love”, “Hands Across the Sea”, hearts and swallows, “Mother”, and Saint George and the Dragon.

The records also describe a thistle with “Scotland Forever” tattoo and one with a Japanese woman and bathing girls. The records also referred to the sailors’ skin condition (fresh or shallow).

A legendary tattooist was a sailor himself. George Burchett-Davis of Brighton, England, sailed on the HMS Victory in 1888 at the age of 16, and went on to eventually establish his studio in London where he developed new tattoo designs. His customers included royalty, including the “Sailor King,” George V. His studio would have no doubt secured a favourable review from Tattoo Me Now.

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