Means of Seeing what the eye brings

October 20, 2004

a true sailor tattoo

Filed under: art,learning,on the water,travel — Tags: , , , , — hold fast @ 7:55 pm

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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