Anchors, mermaids, skulls, daggers, cannons, and full rigged ships. You know you’ve seen your fair share of sailor tattoos. Between the cool symbolism and their classic look, lots of people have these tats that pay homage to the sea. There are many different motifs associated with sailors, and while some people just dig the way they look, for others it’s a part of an age-old culture. Whether you know what they mean or not, sailor tattoos are unavoidably very, very cool. The Honolulu-based “Sailor Jerry,” whose unmistakable work was a symbol of American seafaring tattoo perfection, did some of the best modern examples of these types of tattoos.

Some of the most well-known sailor tattoos are those that mark specific nautical achievements, literally earned. Crossing the Atlantic would result in an anchor tattoo on the forearm. If one traversed around Cape Horn, minute stars in blue on the hands would symbolize this. Sailors have always been a superstitious lot, and many traditional sailor tattoos serve to protect the wearer, both from drowning and from losing their way. Nautical stars and compasses were symbolically done to ensure the sailor would always be able to find their way home. “Hold Fast” spelled out across the knuckles is one of the coolest, served to remind the sailor to keep their grip on the rigging. Swallows are earned for every 5,000 nautical miles traveled, and if a sailor was to drown, they would lift him to heaven.

Tattoos and sailors have long been associated with one another; sailors take them pretty seriously. As the art of tattooing dates back anciently, even the earliest sailors traveling far distances were exposed to indigenous peoples who bore tattoos. Like most of us who encounter beautiful and different forms of body art, they were smitten. Getting tattoos in these traditional styles was a form of keepsake, something memorable showing the places they have traveled. If you’ve traveled far distances, you understand the magnitude of this kind of rite of passage; you become changed in some way or another permanently, tattoos are a constant reminder.

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