Jul 17

Earn Your Ink: Celebrate National Tattoo Day!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018 12:01 AM

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Getting “inked” is a tradition which spans back to the age of sail before the U.S. established its own navy. Many of the same tattoos from centuries ago are still found on sailors today. Sailors wear tattoos that depict their naval service.

Sailor with tattoos memorializing shipmates lost with the USS Vincennes when it sank on 9 August 1942. (U.S. Naval Institute)

Sailor with tattoos memorializing shipmates lost with the USS Vincennes when it sank on 9 August 1942. (U.S. Naval Institute)

1. Swallow

Legend has it tattoos began when seven sailors from the ship “The Swallow” tattooed a swallow on their chests to mark their mutiny [1]. However, it is generally used measure how far a sailor travels. Originally a swallow was earned every 5,000 nautical miles. Due to the enhanced capabilities of today’s ships a sailor earns a swallow every 10,000 nautical miles [2]. Swallows were often the first birds sailors would see indicating land and came represent homecoming. It is traditional for the swallow to be tattooed on a sailor’s collarbones so if the sailor drowns it will carry their soul to heaven [1]. The most common design used today, made famous by WWII sailor turned tattoo artist Norman Keith Collins, is better known as “Sailor Jerry.” This tattoo is often confused with the sparrow and became interchangeable over the years.

Sailor shows off his eagle tattoo. (U.S. Naval Institute)

Sailor shows off his eagle tattoo. (U.S. Naval Institute)

2. Shellback Turtle and King Neptune

Like most naval legends no one can say for certain the origin “The Order of Neptune” or “Shellback”. However, evidence dates the terms to at least 400 years [3]. Sailors went from “pollywogs” (inexperienced sailors) to “shellbacks” or members of Neptune’s court upon crossing the equator. Sailors endured intense initiation ceremonies. The tradition is still in practice today though it is a much milder experience. The tattoo is traditionally worn on the back of a sailor’s hand or the back of the calf and marked with the date he or she was initiated.

Cdr. David C. White on bridge of USS Cero (SS-225). Cdr. White beside lookout who keeps an alert watch.

Cdr. David C. White on bridge of USS Cero (SS-225). Cdr. White beside lookout who keeps an alert watch. (U.S. Naval Institute)

3. Anchor

Not to be confused with Popeye’s tattoos, a single anchor on the forearm or shoulder of a sailor has a couple of meanings. The less common meaning is the sailor is a merchant marine [2]. For U.S. Sailors the single anchor is earned after completing the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Similar to the crossing the equator, the Atlantic crossing is a mark of experience.

Seabee working in a construction crew in Guam, 1944. (U.S. Naval Institute)

Seabee working in a construction crew in Guam, 1944. (U.S. Naval Institute)

 4. Fully Rigged Ship

A fully rigged ship can represent a sailor returning home. Today a fully rigged ship marks a voyage around Cape Horn. “Rounding the Cape” was notorious for being one of the most dangerous voyages and was feared by even the most seasoned sailors [3]. Completing the trip around the southern most point of Africa meant that the sailor was on the homeward bound. [4]. Traditionally, the tattoo is worn on the sailor’s chest or upper back.

Two chiefs aboard the USS Hawkins (DD-873) play cribbage in the Chef's mess. (U.S. Naval Institute)

Two chiefs aboard the USS Hawkins (DD-873) play cribbage in the Chef’s mess. (U.S. Naval Institute)

 5. Crossed Cannons

Much like the single anchor can depict a sailor’s service as a merchant marine the crossed cannons represent service aboard a military vessel. Crossed cannons first appeared in the U.S. military to mark the Ordnance Department in the U.S. Army in the 1830s. However it was a naval symbol of military service before the U.S. was established. Cannons are typically seen as a weapon of defense which could explain why they are used to commemorate the defense of a sailor’s nation.

Veteran crewman comes topside with his cigarettes and coffee handy on board USS Cero (SS-225). (U.S. Naval Institute)

Veteran crewman comes topside with his cigarettes and coffee handy on board USS Cero (SS-225). (U.S. Naval Institute)

6. Golden Dragon

In Asian culture a golden dragon symbolizes a benevolent force and is known for its qualities of strength, wisdom and wealth [7]. The origins of tattoos are deeply rooted in South East Asia. Sailors traveled to China and the Philippines on voyages and tended to adopt pieces of the culture in favorite ports. The word “tattoo” comes from the Filipino word “tatu” [8]. The traditional dragon tattoo was modified from China to the sailors who crossed the International Dateline with a golden dragon. Upon crossing the line sailors enter into “the Domain of the Golden Dragon.” Unlike the crossing the Equator there is no induction or ceremony. Even without it, sailors still receive a traditional certificate and earn the right to wear the tattoo.

HELP WITH CAPTION PLEASE (U.S. Naval Institute)

Sailor shows off his tattoos ca. 1990. (U.S. Naval Institute)

7. Crossed Anchors

Since the age of sail Boatswains Mates or BMs were signified by crossed anchors. Out of pride for their hard job BMs got a tattoo of their rating badge on the webbing between their thumb and first finger. Traditionally the tattoo is on the right hand to reflect their history as a “right arm rate.” Until 1949, the rating marker for Petty Officers of the Line who wore in rates known as deck rates, to include Quartermasters and Gunners Mates, on the right sleeve to distinguish them [5]. The tattoo is placed on the hand to reflect the old naval saying “all hands on deck” when Petty Officers of the Line are called to the deck to handle what ever crisis arises [6].

References:

  1. https://sailorjerry.com/en/tattoos/
  2.  https://tatring.com/tattoo-ideas-meanings/traditional-old-school-nautical-sailor-tattoos-meanings-origins-ideas
  3.  https://www.tattooarchive.com/history/sailing_ships.php
  4. http://www.vanishingtattoo.com/tattoos_designs_symbols_full_rigged_ship.htm
  5.  https://bluejacket.com/naval_uniform_b.htm
  6.  https://www.thebalancecareers.com/navy-uniform-history-4054148
  7. https://goldendragonawards.wordpress.com/why-the-dragon/
  8. http://www.pbs.org/skinstories/history/