Sailor’s Tattoo Code

Sailors are renown for two things: their tattoos and their strict adherence to superstition, but did you know the two are often one part of the other?

Inked sailors date back thousands of years in ancient China, and it’s believed that Captain Cook’s voyage to the Pacific Islands popularized the practice with western sailors.

Once they became popular, complex systems of meanings and associated superstitions developed within sailor culture, and today the sailor’s tattoo has become popular with tattooed landlubbers as well.

Tattoo Symbology

sailor jerry anchor tattoo

CC retrospects via Flickr

Anchor: Anchors were symbols of stability to sailors and were often accompanied by “Mom” or “Dad”, authority figures likened with a seaman’s stability. Anchors also could mean that a sailor had crossed the Atlantic and returned safely. Eventually, merchant marines would adopt the anchor as a de facto badge of membership.

Crossed anchors: A pair of anchors crossed on the webbing of the hand—between the thumb and index finger—meant you were a boatswain’s mate. A boatswain was the foreperson on deck, in charge of managing the crew on duty and directing any rigging, anchoring, or cabling of the ship.

Crossed cannons: A pair of crossed cannons designated military service among sailors. Though you might think of an old naval warship equipped with just cannons, many early navies also used sharpshooters on deck and in rigging to fire at enemy ships’ decks. In some cases, crossed guns could mean a sailor was such an appointed sniper instead of a cannoneer.

compass rose tattoo

Compass Rose: Not all tattoos were supposed to mark service or accomplishments; some tattoos were meant to act as talismans of protection for the sailor and ship carrying them. A compass rose may not have actually worked as a compass but was supposed to help keep sailors from getting lost, and remind them of the way home.

Star: A star, much like a compass rose, was a safeguard against being lost at sea, but instead was meant to protect a sailor lost overboard or otherwise stranded at sea.

queequeg wielding harpoon

Harpoon: Harpoons were a direct reference to whaling and as such were symbols of time aboard a fishing boat or service in a fishing fleet. Though the harpoon was simply a tool of the trade, many eventually came to associate it as a symbol of protection against vengeful whales and sea monsters.