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. Matt’s avatar


    Worked in the merchant marine for ten years ( 1991-2001 ) and got my hands done in the proper manner just the other day. Have also ropes round my wrists and a nautic star on the back of my neck. A huge anchor all over my back and a mermaid wrestling an octopus on my butt cheeks….

    Steady as she goes



  2. K.C.’s avatar

    Howdy, i like what you were saying about the anchor, but if you would please enlighten me your use of the word fowled.. My anchor is broken mid-shaft, as when i crossed, the boat sank, i survived, but the boat obviously didn’t. and matt, what is with the mermaid and octupus wrestling? before i got to this page i was thinking about a tatto much similar, not in the same place though.



    1. Andrew’s avatar

      A fouled anchor is an anchor that is doing it’s job. Anchors represented a last hope for vessels that were in terrible whether and were trying ride it out in a poor shelter or those being pushed on a lee shore.

      The fouled anchor gives the idea that it will hold the seabed and thus save both men and ships.


    2. TJ’s avatar

      I’m in the USN right now, and, it seems to me that your interpretations are pretty accurate. I’ve also heard of the swallows representating certain distances traveled from home port. I, myself, don’t (yet) have “Navy” tattoos, but I’m considering breaking tradition, so to speak, and getting a parrot on my shoulder (just to see if anyone gets it).

      K.C. the word “fouled” in relation to an anchor refers to the line that is wrapped around it. For instance, if you look at the USN’s Chief Petty Officer’s rank insignia, it is described as “a gold fouled anchor with a silver superimposed USN.”


    3. Matt’s avatar

      I’ve actually got a few Navy related tats.. pig on my left foot, rooster on my right, traditional looking pin up girls on each forearm and some newer styled ones. an anchor with a celtic knot shield as the shaft on one arm to protect me at sea and an anchor with s celtic knot heart shape for the shaft on the other arm to protect my heart while i’m away (keep them cheatin land women away haha)


    4. aj’s avatar

      Turtle tattoo does in fact represent crossing the equator. It is often called shell back or leather back.


    5. Trey’s avatar

      I’m very new to the Merchant Marines. I’m very excited about my new career but I’ve only sailed the Gulf of Mexico right now. Anyone know of any tattoo’s that would qualify for that? I certainly don’t want to break tradition. Thanks.


    6. wyatt’s avatar

      Serendipitously I chanced on your site while researching swan 43s.
      A couple of comments. Pigs and fowl were routinely carried on sailing ships and sailors believed they would not drown when losed/tossed overboard. As most sailors could not swim the believed these tattoos would prevent them from drowning. An excellent image of ‘hold fast’ is portrayed in the well researched film ” Master & Commander” . The character Joe Plaice is seen hauling a line during a storm at the horn with ‘hold fast’ on each hand.
      As you note, traditionally tatoos had a direct connection with the culture and community they emerged from which has been lost since they became a fashion item – hence the stupidity of poorly or wrongly written chinese/japanese characters on caucasian kids. Only gangsters in those cultures would be caught dead with tatoos: similarly with russian prison tatoos – which are nicely done in “Eastern promises”


    7. Jacob  Fabian’s avatar

      I’m 18 years old and i want to sail for the rest of my life. I’m attending the UKSA (united kingdom sailing academy) i want to sail and build boats. i’m racing boats up in seattle. My father was a sailor, and his father was a sailor. My older brother is a sailor and builds boats. i want a nautical tattoo that shows sails in my blood. i’m a capricorn (if that helps at all) i have been reading up on what is means and both capricorn and the mermaid (with red or blonde hair) mean that you are life-long driven person. Thinking i can cross the mermaid capricorn with a tail would be apropriate, thoughts?


    8. osteoderm’s avatar

      Any decent tattoo is a symbol whose meaning evolves and changes over time. Likewise, it changes the wearer. By the same token, the sea changes the seafarer in manifold and mysterious ways over time… take this great quote from Conrad’s “Mirror Of The Sea”:

      “Everything can be found at sea, according to the spirit of your quest.”

      My experiences as both a tattooed and seafaring person have been generally very positive… but your own life is what you make of it.


    9. Samantha’s avatar

      Hi there – I found your blog from a search on historic sailor tattoos. I am a tall ship sailor and have the Rooster and Pig (aka “Cock & Sausage”) tattoos on my feet. I’ve met two other sailors with them. I also have “Haul Away” on my knuckles… that was my own idea πŸ˜‰

      What I had heard about the Pig & Rooster tattoos was that because most sailors could not swim, frequently the only survivors of shipwrecks were the pigs & chickens kept on board because they would float to shore in their wooden cages. Apparently this is what lead to the myth that these animals could not drown.

      I had also heard that the Rooster was for balance in the rigging.

      I am trying to find out about the Crossed Anchors = Boatswain’s Mate concept. Is this a US Navy thing only? Or does it have its roots farther back? Anyone know? I’ll be sailing as a Boatswain’s Mate soon, so I am curious.


    10. osteoderm’s avatar

      Between talking to other tattooed sailors and some farmer folks, I’m certain that both pigs and roosters are animals that are just about impossible to force into open water, such is their fear of it. I’ve certainly never seen a pig or rooster out for a swim…
      Not sure about the Bosun’s Mate symbolism… except that only a lubber spells it “Boatswain”. πŸ˜‰ Now where did I put my m’ns’lo’t’l or f’t’g’nts’ls?


    11. Byrd’s avatar

      I was in the Navy. After you join you will see the old salts and their tattoo’s the crossed anchors is a BM Tatt. Wait till you get in to get a feel for it. Sadly you are going to be in the “New Navy” Davy Jones and old stories like my parents had are a thing of the past. I myself have many tattoo’s none are traditional navy tatts though I wish I had. I’m leaving that to my husband who is still in. Happy sailing!


    12. B@N@N@’s avatar

      I… always thought that sailors originated from bikies and streeties and the primitive sort… I’ve always respected sailors and seen them in a sort of superior light. That’s why I find it hard to believe that tattoos had anything to do with them. I mean, why did sailors wear tattoos? Why were tattoos part of their culture, I ASK YOU!

      My impression of sailors: HANDSOME, GOOD-LOOKING, FLIRTY… every girl’s dream! Tattoos? NO WAY!

      Bikies and streeties… isn’t it them that you ALWAYS see with the roses and the ‘MY MOTHER’ and eagles, dragons, pythons. etc printed at large on their beefy joints? Ok… I really hope I haven’t offended anyone… I’m letting out what I REALLY think about this… I was taught to be honest with everything.

      If you have information about sailors and their connections with tattoos, I would be quite pleased if you sent them to the email address listed below. Thanks a MiLLiON!



    13. B@N@N@’s avatar

      I still reckon tattoos are just too OVER for sailors, guys… if you don’t agree, bear with me… I’m gonna need a little convincing. My bf’s Dad is a sailor, by the way… like… a fisherman dude… and he’s pretty sweet!


    14. Kim’s avatar

      Mermaids are bad luck, but if it’s on Matt’s bottom then that could be seen as disrespecting a mermaid I suppose. And it might be better if the octopus is getting the better of her.

      It IS really weird that anchors are always fouled. I was thinking up some elaborate explanation, like maybe by fouling them they won’t work well and therefore the wearer is less likely to get figuratively “grounded” but of course the anchor could already be stuck before it got fouled, which would actually worsen the situation. In actuality the design is probably just to show off more line. Purely aesthetic. Sailors are traditionally simple folk and as with the pig and rooster the meaning is not as mysterious and deep as one might think.


    15. wayne’s avatar

      The Fouled Anchor is the emblem of the Rate of Chief Petty Officer of the United States Navy. Attached to the Anchor is a length of chain and the letters U.S.N. To the novice, the anchor, chain and letters only identify a Chief Petty Officer of the United States Navy, but, to a Chief, these have a more noble and glorious meaning.

      The “U” stands for Unity, which reminds us of cooperation, maintaining harmony and continuity of purpose and action.

      The “S”stands for Service, which reminds us of service to our God, our fellow man and our Navy.

      The “N” stands for Navigation, which reminds us to keep ourselves on a true course so that we may walk upright before God and man in our transactions with all mankind, but especially with our fellow Chiefs. The Chain is symbolic of flexibility and reminds us of the chain of life that we forge day by day, link by link and may it be forged with Honor, Morality and Virtue.

      The Anchor is emblematic of the hope and glory of the fulfillment of all God’s promises to our souls. The golden or precious Anchor by which we must be kept steadfast in faith and encouraged to abide in our proper station amidst the storm of temptation, affliction and persecution


    16. Daniel’s avatar

      I’m a second class petty officer in the U.S. Navy and I love traditional tattoos. I have a nautical star on each shoulder so no matter which way I look I will always know which way is home. I also have a red breasted swallow for 5000 nm and a blue breasted one for 10,000mi on the peck’s of my chest. And a full masted ship on my back for my trip around cape horn. Still have to get an anchor for sailing the atlantic and either a sea turtle or a depiction of king neptune for crossing the equator.


    17. Hashbrown Slim’s avatar

      Unless I misred someones post nobody explained the fouled anchor. to get the chain wrapped around the anchor is supposedly the worst thing that can happen. I have never seen it happen but I guess it would be a big deal when you are trying to get that heavy ass thing secured back to the hull again.

      Anyhow, moral of the story: a fouled anchor means…people make mistakes. Thats all there is too it.

      I only know this because I used to paint decorations on different doors around my ship. When I did the Chiefs Mess the first design had an anchor but it wasnt fouled and they schooled me on why it had to be fouled.


    18. Chris’s avatar

      Just to throw a comment into the mix of everything…
      The crossed anchors on the hands of BM’s is to signify working with the hands, and to display rate. Gunner’s Mates also do the same thing with their rating symbol. GM’s tattoo crossed cannons on their “gun hand” for steady shooting.

      Also to add onto the swallow tattoo, usually a line is strung between to two birds mouths, and a sock hung for each additional 10,000 miles done at sea.

      Also if you were to get a dressed ship tattoo, make sure the bow if foward (same thing with flag tatts). This ensures the wind is always at your back pushing you allong.

      Anyone who is joining the navy, or is in and hasn’t reported to a ship, DO NOT show up with crossed anchors/cannons/hold fast/line around the wrist/or anything like this. YOU WILL BE MADE FUN OF! I waited until my 4th year ON SHIP until I got my crossed cannons.


    19. osteoderm’s avatar

      Great comment from Chris! This post is getting all the interesting/interested traffic. It’s great to see some actual contemporary naval sailors weighing in with this stuff.
      I totally agree about getting these sorts of tattoos without “earning” them; folks see my “hold fast” knuckles, and so many assume I just ripped off Master & Commander. The truth is, I earned these knuckle tats as a topman on tallships.
      I dig that there are some “old skool” non-sailing tat afficionados who appreciate and collect these sorts of tats in homage to the tradition, but I like it even more that there are still those people working on the water, especially in the navies, who are keeping these maritime tattooing tradtions alive and current.


    20. Rich D’s avatar

      Got my fouled anchor tattoo at Pinky’s in Hong Kong. Made 6 Pacific crossings, also crossed the Equator. Fouled anchors not for Atlantic crossings only. WesPac forever.


    21. max’s avatar

      According to “Folklore and the Sea” by Horace Beck, the fouled anchor is earned by sailing as bos’un (merchant mariners, at least.). This is because a fouled anchor is a dangerous and difficult situation to remedy. The Bos’un earns the fouled anchor as he is the most capable and experienced seaman aboard, and is recognized as the man that can fix the problem. And believe me, unfouling an anchor is difficult indeed! The rules may differ in the navy, but the “fouling” is a representation of superior seamanship, and not mere decoration in the merchant marine.

      Though I had made Atlantic crossings, I waited until I was a bos’un until I got my fouled anchor.


      1. max’s avatar

        Hear Hear. This is what I’ve always been taught, and waited to foul my anchor until I became a bosu’n.


      2. allie’s avatar

        i’m 17 I have no tattoos at alll but I have been thinking a lot on what to get and I was watching a tv show on tattoos
        And I saw the pig and rooster tattoos and I really want them I have no wanting to be a salior I wonder if people would get pissed

        I hope there cute


      3. Joe A’s avatar

        I have some questions if some of you sea salts know I would appreciate it . . .what are the traditional nautical tattoos for:

        1.) Crossing through the Panama Canal
        2.) Shell Back
        3.) Golden Shell Back (Crossing the Equator @ Greenwich Meridian, this is West Africa where 0 / 0) I dont know if such thing is true? ? ?
        4.) Passing through the Magellan Straits
        5.) Galapagos Islands
        6.) Passing through the Straits of Gibraltar
        7.) Crossing the Atlantic more than 4, 5, 6 times
        8.) Barbary Coast
        9.) Mediteranean, Adriatic, Carribean, Mediterreanean Seas

        Some may not have any but if any of you folks know I would appreciate it. . .



      4. Tinaya’s avatar

        For my first professional tattoo I chose and anchor with three nautical stars in black and red. I chose this symbol for many reasons: I swam for over eight yrs, tried for jr. olympics, I was a life guard and swim instructor for four yrs, My paternal last name is German for a Sailors rope, on a personal note I feel that I am an anchor for all in my life, I hold fast and I hold strong. The US navy however, won’t have me. I have elderly men at gas stations when
        I wear a tank ask me about my service. I wanted to join the navy, but I can’t. Is there a specific meaning to an anchor with three nautical stars? I picked my design for my family, my parents and my brother. I know that an anchor designates navy but does the combination with stars designate more?


      5. Nicole’s avatar

        My grandfather, who raised me for a good part of my childhood and was a Navy man(and served) whom my neck tattoos are representitive of. Nautical stars, fouled anchor, horseshoe with wings added after his passing.
        As explained to me, the nautical star was seen as the compass rose “the way home” .. the northern star, as you will..


      6. radioman’s avatar

        here are some tats i found
        Rope around your wrist means you’re a deck hand
        Golden Dragon means you cross the international date time line
        Port & Starboard ship lights were put on your left and right sides
        Turtle is for shellback which is crossing the equator
        Golden Shellback is for crossing both the equator and 000N/000E at the
        same place
        Dragon is for being in the china sea
        Full-Rigged Ship is for going around cape horn
        Anchor is for crossing the alantic
        sparrow is for 5.000nm at sea during the day, to show you the way home if
        ever forgotten
        nautical star is for 5,000nm at sea during the night, to show you the way
        home if ever forgotten


      7. CC’s avatar

        I’m debating getting a tattoo based on a Sailor Jerry piece of flash. The art in question is nautical in nature and has an anchor on it. I’d like to know if anyone has an opinion as to whether or not it’s “ok” for a lifelong civilian to get a tat with an anchor. Will sailors want to kick my ass when they see it and I explain I was never in the service? Just looking for anyone’s opinion on the matter.


      8. osteoderm’s avatar

        Just this one sailor’s opinion: Nautical tats are totally cool on anybody. Especially nowadays, as such work is being increasingly seen as retrospective art, and a celebration of history and culture.
        As long as you respect the traditions behind the image, and never misrepresent yourself as being something you’re not, I think getting a great old-school nautical tattoo is just fine.


      9. Stina’s avatar

        I thought you might think it was funny.. But I’m actually a tattooist. I am making a series of small videos for our website, and because we’re right next to a naval base (Portsmouth NH shipyard. Subs) I have tattooed “Hold fast” a few times. I decided to use an experience tattooing those words on an old sailor’s knuckles. I have to do a voice-over and I thought to myself, ok, I know what it means.. but how to describe it to other people? I didn’t know any of the proper terminology, and I didn’t want to sound like a douche. So I was searching for an easier way to explain it. So I found your blog. Funny.
        You definitely have all the most important stuff down. Although, I believe the swallows originally were for the tropics, that changed a long time ago and became more of a distance thing. Unfortunately, due to the changes in boats.. . It kinda makes no sense because one trip out in your first year in the navy and you can cover the amount of distance for them haha.
        My personal favorite sailor tattoo, that you left out is something a lot of the navy guys had in ww2. Propellers on their butts. Which is a superstition that if you have them, any ship your on will never sink.
        There’s really an awesome book out there that has some other explanations. It leaves a lot out.. but it also has a lot that you might never know. It’s called

        The Tattoo Encyclopedia

        by: Terisa Green M.D.

        And thank you for your explanation- Stina


      10. A to-the dam’s avatar

        One other thing that is not mentioned at all (though i cant say im surprised) is the United States Coast Guard has many of the same symbols as the USN. I got my swallows on the collar bones after 20k miles, red (or port) on the left and green (starboard) on my right. The coast guard has a lot of the same traditions and tattoos, and yes, if you show up to a unit with sailor tattoos that are un-earned, you will get ripped into. times have changed and you cant be as rough and tough like the ‘old days’ but the traditions still have a lot of meaning.

        also, ive crossed the equator a couple times, but never have gotton the tattoo… but i did participate in the line crossing ceremony… hahaha, that was such a blast doing it and then the second time giving it out to all the wogs…. hahaha, the traditions that go with the tattoos is what makes them special… for those of you that dont live on a boat for 6 months out of the year, you have no idea how insane it is relying on the 200+ people with you fopr everything, not seeing land for weeks, eating old food as your supply gets low… and these are modern times! i can opnly imagine how much ahrder it must have been back in those days! this ink is a way to take all that frustration of long days (as an operations specialist, i get 3-5 hours a sleep on average while underway), hard work fighting the ocean (she really can be a bitch!), and of course getting EXTREMELY LOW GOVERNEMENT wages and show of how tough we are… haha, sorry iots a bit long and i rambled, but i love the ocean and my tattoos…

        “to the good ships,
        the wood ships,
        the ships that sail the sea.
        but the best ships,
        are friendships,
        and may they always be.”
        – my favorite drinking toast


      11. Dirtydirtsailor’s avatar

        some cool information on here. But Im pretty sure you become a golden shellback when you cross the date line and the equator at the same point which is in the middle of the pacific not near africa. thats some crazy other shit. but hey Ive only spent 6 months on a ship maybe im wrong. Im a corpsman at a hospital right now so I get to see all the sweet ass old tattoo’s when doing assesments. The old guys have the best stories and most love to tell em. Go to your VA hospital and talk to some old sailors youll get some great sea stories and probally make someones day.

        I think someone should start a new tradition of a ladyboy pin up trying to get you to buy shim a 32 dollar beer tattoo – for escaping 4 floors dude love free

        “To O2’s grinding up on E4’s!”
        -my favorite drinking toast


        1. FC2’s avatar

          You know you’ve been to Singapore if you are familiar with the “Four Floors”


        2. littlestsailorgirl’s avatar

          hello! I am in the navy myself and have many different stories about tattoo’s. i myself have a anchor (with no chain or rope) but the story i have been told about the anchor is “should the ship sink the anchor woud guide you to davy jones’ locker.” that is what i have been told. Also with there is another shellback and that is when you have crossed the Arctic Circle. From what i have also been told is crossing the equator a certain number of times makes you a golden shellback and crossing the equator and greenwitch mean time makes you a dimond shell back.

          To add something that got to me was when sailors were getting their tattoo’s there were no ‘Bikies or streeties’ there were no motorcycles back then and sailors depened on the wind not Desiel Engines! I am sorry but its true!

          With the sparrows/ swallows i have heard both and heard different stories with them is that when you curcomnavagat (sorry its late and cant spell!) Africa or 5,000 mn for one and 10,000 (total) for 2. All depends on what drunken sailor you talk to!

          A to-the dam- i know what you mean about the living on a ship for 6 months out of the year. Gotta love the “Navy Gravy!” (aka Ketcup) it can be your best friend when getting supplies from Africa!

          Does anyone know the meaning behind the pinup? As stupid as that sounds that is the only one that i cant get a straight answer for. I have heard why they call ships “she’s” its so a sailor will think of his wife or mother and treat her with respect also take care of her cause if not she can be a real bitch!

          “To my wives and sweethearts, may they never meet!” My favorite toast!


        3. Wendy’s avatar

          At another website (I have told my USN husband for years that once we got married I was getting an anchor tat) I heard that a fouled anchor was good luck, in that your anchor gets a-fouled when you have dropped anchor and are thus in port.

          Course, I also know about the Master’s insignia anchor…but any thoughts on the good luck bit?


        4. Squid’s avatar

          I am in the Navy and very into the old school sailor tattoos. From what i have read the pin-up girl was to remind the salty squid of what he had waiting for him in port or back home.
          Another old traditional tattoo that most don’t know about was getting Shellback with the date and longitude that you crossed the equator on your upper thigh. That was there so that you would never have to go through the rigorous ceremony from being a pollywog to a shellback ever again.


        5. Brad’s avatar

          In response to Joe A:

          There are 3 types of shellback.

          Shellback – Crossing the equator at any point.

          Golden Shellback – Crossing the equator at the international dateline.

          Emerald Shellback – Crossing the equator at the prime meridian.

          Emerald Shellback’s are the most rare in modern days as most West African ports lack the port facilities or basin depth to moore large ships. I wear my Emerald Shellback title with pride.


        6. dave’s avatar

          I am in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, have been in for 2 years now and in my first year on board my ship HMS Albion i have crossed the Arctic circle and the Equator at 000 degrees n/s 000 degrees e/w. planning on getting a Shellback turtle on my thigh with the date and lat long, anyone know what you get for crossing the Arctic??
          Have got 1 Naval tattoo wich is an anchor with the date i joined up, with a 6 point star that represents my first step up in the promotion ranks.

          Able Seaman (Warfare Specialist) First CLass Burrows


        7. FDNF Sailor’s avatar

          I am currently forward deployed to Japan, which means I spend more than 8 months out of the year underway and I am big fan of traditional Sailor tattoos. As of right now I have my pig and chicken tattooed on my feet. FYI, it hurts like hell and if you are open to getting your tattooing started on your arms or anywhere else that is less painfull, go for it.

          First of all, to respond to an earlier post, a Sailor is the generally accepted title for a man or woman serving in their country’s naval military force. Perhaps at one time a Sailor was a Sailor but now, in the U.S., Sailor is a title you have to earn in boot camp. No offense to the merchant marines, you are brothers from different mothers and Sailors none the less.

          Now for the tattoo tradition. To address tattoos not covered in previous posts:

          The fouled anchor is the most difficult challenge a topside Sailor can face and correcting this problem is a test of your seamanship. The symbol is meant to show a Sailor’s skill.

          King Neptune with a date and or lat. and long. is tattooed on the upper thigh for crossing the equator. You will also find turtles to signify shellback status but there is no specific place where this one is adorned.

          “Pig on the knee, safety at sea. Rooster on the right, never loose a fight.” As in, a pig tattooed on the knee and a rooster tattooed on the right foot.

          You can also consider a Sailor who has a rooster tatooed on his lower leg as having a “cock below his knee.”

          WWII Sailors used to tattoo propellars on their butt cheeks as good luck to prevent a sunken ship. I believe this was a black gang (engineer) tattoo, due to the amount of snipes who lost their lives in WWII from torpedo attacks and the like. This is also a rarely documented tattoo.

          The tattooing of a Sailor’s earlobes red and green for Port and Starboard is a tradition I will not be following, but I would love to see it on someone else.

          One of my favorite tattoos is the Sailor Jerry “Rise & Shine” tattoo done on the chest. This one is of a pin-up girl “showing a leg” out of her hammock with 2 swallows on either side of her. This tattoo has a couple of interpretations. The swallows on the chest can signify 10,000 miles at sea, a milestone that was much more difficult to reach in olden times, and a Sailor’s wife “showing a leg.” In the Royal British Navy when Sailors were allowed to keep their wives on-ship, there would come a time when Sailors were told to “show a leg” to prove that it was a wife sleeping in past reveille and not a Sailor who overslept. If the leg came out as hairy and tattooed, it probably belonged to a Sailor. If not, it was his wife.

          A hula girl was tattooed to signify a trip to Hawaii and if you were lucky enough, it was done by Sailor Jerry Collins in Honolulu’s Chinatown.

          A pin-up girl is pretty much self explanitory. I can’t begin to express my love for the internet and file sharing. I have made the joke that if I get a pin-up grl tattoo that it would be on my left, inner, fore-arm and it would be facing me. Figure it out.

          A dragon is for a Sailor who has served a tour in East Asia. There hasn’t been a China Fleet Sailor since the days of the Sand Pablo but any service in the 7th fleet AOR would qualify you for this one.

          Crossed guns usually denote military service providing they are not depicted in the style of the gunner’s mate’s rating badge. Personally I am thinking about the crossed musket pistols, which is the symbol for the Harper’s Ferry armory, to represent my time spent on the USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49).

          For our friend Dave, in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, I have never heard of a tattoo for crossing a Arctic; however, I have heard of becoming a “Blue Nose.” “What is the answer to my question?”

          For any other specific answers, e-mail me at mark2six@lycos.com. I am about to go on deployment, so if you reply a little late, don’t get mad that I don’t reply right away.




        8. matthew Peck’s avatar

          finall someone knows the difference between the sparrows and the swallows. sparrows are normally prison tats while the swallows have a couple of nautical meanings, 1 being that they stay close to shore so if a sailor sees a swallow he knows he is close to land. the other being that the swallow is a bird that mates for life and was a way for a sailor to show devotion to his girl. the sparrow on the other hand was hope for freedom for those in prison.


        9. humphrey’s avatar

          i am 18 and am joining the australian navy (RAN) i have a few questions. my second name is Macleod and the family crest of macleod is HOLD FAST, i am wondering how macleod got such a crest. my grandfather was in the merchant navy and was coverd in tats i have hold fast tattooed over my chest but i got it done becouse it was my family crest, i was unaware of its significants. and i am also wondering if there is a simble for crossing the pacific? one more thing the last thing i want to do is brake the tradition so im wondering is there a tattoo for young men who are just starting there navy or sea faring career.?. cheers


        10. Ben’s avatar

          Hello Feb 5,
          Crossing the Pacific…keep track of ur Nau. miles for your stars..thats about all for the pacific


        11. Broderick King’s avatar

          Yes like FDNF Sailor said crossing the Arctic is getting your Blue nose. I was told back in the “OLD NAVY” you had to paint an anchor in your underwear to get that title. I was in the 7th fleet from 91-96 CTT/CTR I miss it a lot.

          Served 1990 -1996 US Navy

          Calm seas and fair winds


        12. Jonathon’s avatar

          I have been looking for a Tattoo that signifies sailing all the way around the globe. I went from being a WesPac Sailor to 2nd Fleet and I am wondering if there is anything out there for those of us that have gone around the world. I already have my 2 swallows with a ribbon between their beaks. any info would be great.

          Red at night sailors delight; red in the morning sailor takes warning.


        13. patrick’s avatar

          Well I have 5 tattoos now and I am just waiting to get that much more. I care allot about the way that things work and if it is not broken why fix it I just got my compass rose on my for arm and I am going to get my red and blue breasted swallow for 5000 nm and a blue breasted one for 10,000nm
          I am on deployment as I right this I have been underway since September and it is now April and I am on my home and I would do it again I am a lifer if I can have my way. I am a snipe for those that don’t no that is an engineer and I am proud of it there is no harder worker then and snipe


        14. Tyler J’s avatar

          I’ve been an enlisted sailor for 2 yrs in the USN and on my way to the USS Key West out of Pearl Harbor. I want to get 2 nautical stars, one on the left [red and black], and one on the right [green and black]. I know the meaning of the red on the port side, but I’m wondering what the green on the starboard is for. Also, is it acceptable to get them as a good luck charm (finding my way home) and not as a counter for time at sea?

          Any input would be appreciated, especially from some of you experienced sailors.

          MMN3(SS) Johnson


        15. osteoderm’s avatar

          I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: as far as I’m concerned, any true sailor tattoo is alright on any true sailor, as long as you’re not trying to deliberately fake it or misrepresent yourself. Tattoos are powerful personal symbols that mean what we want them to mean; nothing is more personal that ink in the skin!


        16. Jim’s avatar

          Ok guys, I was in the USN for a breif period in the early 1990s and then a merchant sailor for a few years after – While in I picked up a Snake tattoo on my right shoulder, inscribed with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” in honor of John Paul Jones and after almost 18 years I plan to have it “freshened” up a bit (lots of time workin in the sun hast faded it pretty badly) here was my thought –

          I’d like to have my tattoo artist work in some of the traditional symbols as a reminder of my time at sea, but I want to do it right –
          I’ve done two Atlantic crossings (there and back as it were), crossed the equator near the Azores(shellback HOORAH), Been through the Straits of Gibraltar twice (in and out) and sailed the Adriatic near Greece before heading back to work on the Great Lakes for a while.

          As I read the info above, I’d think it would be appropriate to have him work in the following symbols:
          Red Breasted Swallow – for the distance
          King Neptune – Shellback
          and perhaps the North Star – to show the way back home.

          Am I on the right track? Am I missing anything?

          I left the USN as an E-3 with an honorable discharge and (if I could have stayed) would have been a BM3 within a couple of months, but I didn’t earn it so I’m thinking the crossed anchors is out.

          It’s INK so I’d like to get it right…

          Thanks for any help


        17. chris’s avatar

          i grew up in alaska, and am now a u.s. merchant marine. as far as the question of what tattoo you get for crossing the arctic and antarctic circle i have done a bit of research both online and talking to some old salts. for crossing the arctic circle you get a polar bear and for the antarctic circle you get a penguin. and for dirtydirtsailor, my ship ported in singapore about 3 weeks ago and i completely agree with the tranny pin up for escaping the orchard towers tranny love free, haha.


        18. Stacie’s avatar

          Figured I wuld add my 2 cents.

          I come from a family of Sailors and Seabees. My grandfather on my mom’s side was a Retired Master Cheif. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a Retired Senior Cheif. My dad served, as did all of my uncles.

          I was married to a EO1 in the Seabees and am now engaged to a SW3.

          I am covered in Navy tattoos. Everyone of mine were put for the actual meanings behind them. I may not have earned them physically, but believe me, I earned them!!

          My grandfathers were the ones who taught me about the Sailor tattoos. They were both covered in original work by Sailor Jerry Collins. I was taught what all the meaning were, so if anyone has any questions….feel free to ask me!


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