a true sailor tattoo


I just noticed that someone had arrived at one of my blogs from a web-search for “hold fast” tattoos. It’s something that seems poorly documented online, so I thought I might talk a bit about traditional sailor tattoos.
Tattooing is an incredibly ancient form of art and self-expression. From the earliest age of sail, sailors traveling farther and farther abroad had begun to encounter indigenous people who had tattooed themselves for years. Sailors often got tattooed themselves as a form of souvenir, to show where they had been. Even today, sailors tend to be somewhat superstitious, and generally very aware of symbolism. Tattoos are a most intimate way of associating a symbol (and accompanying meaning) with yourself.
Many “traditional” tattoos have their roots in the history and customs of sailors. The “hold fast” tattoo i have is extremely traditional. It has since been adopted by other tattooing subcultures, but the original intent was to prevent sailor’s hands from slipping on lines, or to secure yourself to the riggin’ when working aloft in weather. To many sailor-folk, the meaning of “hold fast” is obvious enough, but those whose ear’s aren’t trained to it, it might sound a contradiction.
On board, a line (a rope to you lubbers) is “fast” when it is firmly and positively secured. In traditional sailing vernacular, many line- and sail-handling commands have been extended to include persons as well. To “belay” a line is to secure it with a series of turns (wraps) around a cleat, pin, bit, or kevel, stopping it from further motion. Likewise, to call out “Belay that!” might just as well apply to a person doing some undesirable activity, or to stop a previous order from being carried out.
Many other traditional sailor tattoos have their origins in superstition. One great example is the pair of tattoos of a pig on one foot, and a rooster on the other. The implication is that both these animals fear water, and that they will keep a sailor’s feet from sinking into the depths, speeding them back to land all the sooner. The ubiquitous nautical star is variously representative of the polar star itself, or of the compass card; both are to help the sailor find (and keep) their way.
Other sailor tattoos are celebrations of particular milestones. A fouled anchor on the forearm signifies that the sailor has crossed the Atlantic. Small blue stars on the hands signify trips made around Cape Horn. I have read references to turtle tattoos for those who have sailed across the Equator. I also seem to recall something about those traditional swallow tattoos on the shoulders being markers to show the crossing of the Tropics Of Cancer and Capricorn.
I occasionally encounter people with these tattoos who have little idea of their cultural and historical significance. I usually take a little time to try and explain it to them, as I feel that sailing traditions are extremely important to us all. Having my hands tattooed makes me a bit of an ambassador, I guess. My own tattoo artist felt very privileged to be able to “put a real sailor tattoo on a real sailor”.
If you’ve encountered other traditions or histories relating to sailor tattoos, please comment!

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  1. Naits’s avatar

    Hold Fast is actually Norwegian and Danish for “Hold tight”. Both Norway and Denmark have always been seafaring nations – so it´s pretty obvious where the term Hold Fast comes from.

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    1. Mike’s avatar

      And it is also Dutch ( just another Germanic language ) which also has a great seafaring past with many boat terms coming from Dutch. And, yeah, it means the same thing in Dutch: “Hold tight!”. We even have a song about holding tight to the mast…

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      1. Sjors’s avatar

        The Dutch translation is “Houd vast”, and it almost sounds like “Hold fast”.

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      2. Cookie’s avatar

        awesome! now i think i should get the hold fast

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      3. Cookie’s avatar

        So, as I was reading, I was thinking, and have concluded that, as a sailor myself, and crew of a tall ship, it is quite important to be able to ”hold fast” to a line or rigging, so it may be good for me to get this tattoo. Reply’s would be great to have too!.

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      4. justin’s avatar

        Fouled anchors
        The way I learned it in boot camp: An anchor is intentionally fouled (line wrapped around the shank and fluke arms) to indicate that it is not suitable for practical use. Maybe a fluke broke, an arm bent, the shank became twisted, the anchor was simply too old and weathered to continue to be fully trusted, or, any other reason I can’t think of. A common fate of such retired anchors is to be displayed for decorative purposes as landscaping features as are seen in communities with a long maritime histories, or, on naval bases. The point of the fouling on anchor tattoos is so some old salt doesn’t make a line fast around your ankle and throw you overboard to see if your tattoo really can function as ground tackle.

        Cape Horn
        What I’ve found on other sites (sorry, but, I can’t find the links) is that aside from the clipper ship tattoo, sailors who rounded Cape Horn for their first time were entitled to a small blue star on their left ear and could wear gold earrings in their ears. After making five passages around the Horn they were entitled to a small blue star on their right ear. Those salts fortunate enough to survive the passage ten or more times could get two small red dots on their forehead (devil’s horns?).

        More at http://forums.military.com/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/415197802/m/1400016202001

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      5. Ryan’s avatar

        It is also said that a sailor gets a tattoo of a swallow for every 5,000 nautical miles traveled once they are up to three swallows they put a nautical star in the back ground for every 5,000 after their third swallow. Swallows are also know that if they are seen while out to sea they will guide you home because they never venture too far from land and always find their way home. There is one more for swallows and that is if a sailor drowns at sea the swallows will pull him from the merky waters and lift him to heaven. Just thought I would share some of the research I have done myself.

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      6. VanHelsing’s avatar

        The swallow is actually a symbol of return, as the bird is a symbol of getting the sailor home. Even home to heaven after he dies.
        Here’s a link that has this information, straight from the horse’s mouth (Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, who made all of these symbols famous in other places than just in sailors)
        http://sailorjerry.com/tattoos/

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      7. Ramsey’s avatar

        I am not a sailor by any means. My grandfather although was in the navy many years ago. He never talked about it too much. He passed away a little over a year ago. The night he passed my grandmother told me about the propellars he had on his butt cheeks. My grandfather was my world. My father was never in my life so he took on that role also. He is the greatest man I’ve ever known and always will be. The night my grandmother told me that story I knew what my next tattoo was going to be. I am thinking of getting the “twin screws” on the back of my arms (just above my elbows)with his birth and death year on top of each. I don’t care what anyone thinks about the tattoos or placement of them. It’s simply to honor the greatest man I will ever know. I have waited to get them because I wanted exactly what he had. This is the only website that I found with enough information for me to get as close to what he had and now I know the meaning behind the “twin screw” tattoos. Thank you so much. I have also taken a huge interest in naval tattoos because of this site. I think I’m going to dedicate my entire left arm to my grandfather with navy tattoos and possibly other parts of my body. I also want to thank all of the men and women who have fought for our country.

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      8. Laurianne Rieser’s avatar

        Shawn Ramsey is my nephew and he too is a wonderful man. I am so very proud of him and his accomplishments. I cried when I read his comments above. I know my father, his grandfather is looking down on him with a huge smile on his face. He adored Shawn and all of his other grandchildren. His children adored him as well and he was their world too! The world lost a one of a kind man when he went to Heaven. We love you DADDY!

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      9. Lina’s avatar

        Hold fast er sgu da dansk noobs.

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      10. Hans’s avatar

        to all sailing and for past seasmen..thank you ..me haha USS Reagan …golden shellback proud of it…ok from having my head and almost my whole body done in almost all sailor …pros is my next …i was told by a vet ha the va they have to spin a certain way…twin screws…any ideas ….hans landis edney look me up on fb..

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      11. pat berge’s avatar

        the pig and rooster also meant that the crates on the lore floats, and the sailors could always be on top on them to reach land. all the floating crates reach land a point.

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      12. Jake’s avatar

        While I was serving my time as conscript in Finnish navy, there was this one rule when running errands on deck on bad weather “keep one hand for yourself, give one hand for the navy”

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      13. Josh deck ape’s avatar

        Great blog. I served on the USS KLACKRING FFG 42 from 95-97.
        My grandpa and uncle both served as well.
        During the times of tall ships a sailor would have the cock and pig to represent never going hungry. This was a common concern. To ward of drowning a tat was not needed. You wore the semi precious stone christophase. Generally in a setting in the shape of your last initial. You would make this yourself. I inherited my grandfathers.
        I could not remember the meanings of all of them for a tattoo I am working on.
        Fouled anchor 96 med. well over 20,000 nm between the USN and sail boats.
        I did go over board in the middle of the Atlantic. Cap sized rhib boat. Is there a trad tat for that?
        Thank you for keeping this site up.

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      14. liberty’s avatar

        The dolphin tattoo protects sailors who fall overboard from shark attacks. The Japan tattoo symbolizes the souvenir mentality that so many sailors adopt. I know many sailor who would get a tattoo in different countries during deployment. The flying dollar bill signifies the military payday and the “easy-come, easy-go” mentality of “live today, die tomorrow”. The port and starboard star tattoo help keep all directions clear.

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      15. Mike’s avatar

        Just found this blog, great info. In regards to the swallows I too have also heard that it can represent a number of Nautical miles sailed. In addition to that another interpretation was that the swallows are a migratory bird and often return to the same nesting grounds, which in turn may represent two things: 1) Loyalty 2) A safe return home.

        Not sure if this is correct but it bares weight to me personally.

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      16. Mike’s avatar

        Great blog, just found it and very insightful. In respect to the tattoo of swallows I too have heard that they can represent a number of Nautical miles sailed. I have also heard that die to the fact that swallows are a migratory bird, and often return to the same nesting place, they may represent two other things: 1) loyalty 2) a safe return home. I have no way to verify this, but it bares weight with me personally.

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      17. montenegro’s avatar

        about ‘hold fast’..1. could be an order to keep somethig strong,firmly,secured..also to be steady. 2. You should know what is order ‘make fast’..Fast means secure or attach something (rope) to something. I have made around 500 000 miles in 12 years. Cheers!

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      18. T’s avatar

        I believe he/she got the foot tattoo theory wrong. One pigs dont fear water . Pigs and chicken alive, both swim. Two sailors ain’t afraid of water. Frozen both float. I herd that sailor would hold on to boxes of chicken or pork if shipwrecked to stay afloat. Thats where that tat comes from.

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      19. K’s avatar

        So have the Navy non-SEAL types that have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan started any of their own tattoo traditions?

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      20. Kayla’s avatar

        Just a side note… Hold Fast is also found on the Scottish MacLeod family crest (Isle of Skye MacLeod’s)

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      21. An Old Salt’s avatar

        I remember a few of the older men on my first ship who had the ship’s screws tattooed on their backsides, and others had either hinges or spider webs tattooed onto the inside of their elbows. My first nautical tattoo was an eagle and “USN” that I had done when on a one-day liberty from boot camp. I was the only man in our company to get one for some reason or another. Just as the men in the days of sail, we saw a tattoo first off as a rite of passage, and later to commemorate a port visit or milestone, such as the Equator crossing. I truly hope these grand old traditions are observed far into the future.

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      22. Ramsey’s avatar

        @ An Old Salt: My grandfather had the twin screws on his backside and I’m wanting to get them tattood on my arms to commemorate him but I’m having a very difficult time finding info or pics of what they should look like. Any info would be greatly appreciated. You can reach me here or @ shawnimac@gmail.com

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      23. Max’s avatar

        I’m curious about submariners traditional tattoo I’m a sonar op in the Canadian navy serving on diesel boats.

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        1. Dale’s avatar

          Dolphins badge over left breast.

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        2. chaoscoastie’s avatar

          Traditionally, they’re just a set of propellers – although the blades should be angled appropriately … most ships have counter-rotating props. If your tattoo is commemorating your grandfather, did he ever serve on a ship? Maybe look into what type of props they used (3 blade, 4 blade..) Good luck!

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        3. Hoop’s avatar

          Hold Fast is also my clan MacLeod’s motto http://www.houseoftartan.com/clan/badge/smline/cb101.gif

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        4. Brian’s avatar

          Just wanting to know what tattoo I would get for going around the Cape of Good Hope? Would it be a full rigged ship you would get for sailing around Cape Horn?

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          1. James Cleveland’s avatar

            Did you ever get this resolved? My voyage plan has us going around and I’ve been looking into the same question.

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          2. Nj’s avatar

            Always wondered what it meant. “Firm” is “fest” in German (my first language). Hold tight is “halte fest”. Didn’t see the obvious.

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          3. kyle’s avatar

            it is a box…and a chicken because when old ships went down thing only to float was cargo and livestock so if you go under it will “keep you afloat”

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          4. Maker’s avatar

            When there is a storm that exceeds your ability to compensate your choice is to hold on to the ship. This admonition must be read by the wearer. The point is that if there is confusion take charge of the thing that will end your life first, and move on from there.

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          5. jesse’s avatar

            Didn’t read all the comments, but you are incorrect about the meaning of the pig and rooster tattoo. Pigs and chickens naturally float and therefore survive shipwrecks.

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          6. Robert’s avatar

            I have a great pic I’d like to send you…reply if you are interested…thanks great blog.

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          7. Phil Ward’s avatar

            Damn! My dad had an approximately 3-inch, fouled-anchor tattoo on his left forearm. As a 30-year Navyman, he survived Pearl Harbor. In his younger sailoring days he was aboard the battleship USS New York, pre-war, when they “Crossed the Atlantic” for the ship’s official invitation to the Regal Coronation in England as part of an international show of solidarity. He didn’t have any other tattoos, however, he said it was on that cruise he got his tat, in London. I’m bettin’ he got that particular tat b/c he crossed the Atlantic aboard a ship; and what a grand ship! Thanks for the info. PW

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