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Traditional sailor tattoo design
Did You Know?
It was British explorer Captain James Cook's crew who are credited to popularize sailor tattoos in the western society.

Frequently known as nautical tattoos, the traditional sailor tattoos were much more than pin-up girls and booze bottles tattooed all across their bodies. Before WWII, the only men bearing tattoos were sailors, hobos, and people working in the circus. During WWII, in Honolulu, Hawaii, it was the former Navy man named Norman Collins, a.k.a. Sailor Jerry, who popularized the world of tattoos and changed the course of history once and for all.

The techniques used to create the bold, vibrant, and artistic tattoo designs spread like wildfire, and are still a popular choice today. So, if you too are interested in getting such a tattoo or are attracted to a design concept that holds a personal meaning, then our following compilation will help you make the final decision.

Sailor Tattoos and Their Meanings

Even though the world of tattoos has evolved, and still keeps pushing its boundaries, many enthusiasts are still drawn towards the old-school flash tattoo designs inked by sailors. Here's a visual guide of beautiful and classic sailor tattoos.

Anchor
  • Traditional Anchor Tattoo
  • Traditional Anchor Tattoo with Banner
  • Traditional Crossed Anchor Tattoo
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Being one of the most secure objects aboard a ship, the anchor was a powerful tattoo for sailors, especially a Merchant Marine. It symbolizes stability, was used as a hidden symbol for the cross, or that a sailor has crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Bottles
Alcohol Bottle with Dice Sailor Tattoo

Whether you're getting a tattoo of an alcohol bottle or the one used to send letters off to sea, this is an old-school tattoo popularized by Sailor Jerry. You can add a variety of elements to the design, such as a banner, ship, skull, ship, or even dice.

Compass Rose
Compass Rose Sailor Tattoo

A basic design consists of the four cardinal directions―north, south, east, west―positioned around the base. Inside, there's a star that represents the North Star; a navigational tool that has been in use for centuries. Getting this tattoo can be a reminder that it is essential to focus on the future, not let your past haunt you, and moving forward in life, but honoring and learning from the past as well.

Dice
Flaming Dice Sailor Tattoo

A dice tattoo can mean that you're a risk taker, daredevil, and like to gamble or take chances. Adding flames to the design usually means that the person has an immense love for gambling.

Dragon
Golden Dragon Sailor Tattoo

A regular dragon tattoo means that a sailor has served in Asia. However, a golden dragon usually indicates that a sailor has crossed the International Date Line―the imaginary line that goes from north pole to south pole.

Eagles
Flying Eagle Sailor Tattoo

A tribute to hope and brotherhood, getting an eagle tattoo means that you support the idea of American unity even during terrible times, such as a war.

Full-rigged Ship
  • Full-rigged Ship Tattoo in Waves
  • Full-rigged Ship Tattoo with Banner
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A full-rigged ship tattoos have three or most masts, and makes for a wonderful tattoo for both men and women. For sailors, it was a representation of their travels around Cape Horn. In this day and age, getting a ship tattoo can symbolize adventure, safe journey home, and new beginnings.

Heart
Dagger through Heart Sailor Tattoo

The heart is a symbol of emotions, love, passion, and desire, whereas a dagger is a lethal weapon, having a negative connotation. Combining these two elements for a tattoo would suggest that the heart is in great pain, is suffering, and perhaps has been betrayed by someone you love.

Nautical Star
Nautical Star Sailor Tattoo

As most of you already know, this is a symbolic star that is greatly associated with the navy or Marine Corps. Even though it reminds us of a compass star, it is a 5-point star. The tattoo is a representation of navigation, way of life, or a safe passage home. Sometimes, the tattoo is inked in red or green colors, which usually symbolizes that the individual is a member of a port or starboard watch, respectively.

Panther
Wild Panther Sailor Tattoo

Getting a tattoo of a big cat―panther, tiger, cougar, cheetah, leopard, lion―can symbolize that you are a wild one at heart and love to live life by your own rules.

Pig & Rooster
Pig and Rooster Sailor Tattoo

A pig and a rooster tattoo was quite popular among sailors as it served as a talisman for them. It was believed that these animals would save them from a shipwreck. If history is to be believed, many times, both the animals were taken aboard in wooden crates. In case of a shipwreck, the crates would then float with the current and find a safe way to the shores.

Pin-up Girls
Pin-up Girls Sailor Tattoo

Being one of the most iconic sailor tattoos in history, pin-up girls wearing sailor hats and clothes is a popular concept till date. For sailors, getting such a tattoo meant that there's a special girl waiting for them back home.

Rope
Knotted Rope Sailor Tattoo

There are different types of sailor knot tattoos out there, but this is one of the most recognized and a popular design. Traditionally speaking, the tattoo is inked around the wrist and usually depicts that the sailor is a deckhand.

Shark
Angry Shark Sailor Tattoo

Remember the character Quint from the movie Jaws? If yes, then you'll have a fair idea of why the shark tattoo was so popular, and of course, still is. Although the tattoo doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the attributes related to the fish, the terror it brings is instilled in humans.

Snake
Snake with Fangs Sailor Tattoo

Depicted mostly with their fangs out and ready for a strike, a snake tattoo represents power, potential fight, and a don't-mess-with-me attitude.

Swallow
Flying Swallows Sailor Tattoo

A swallow tattoo is perhaps the most popular and common tattoo idea among sailors. As the bird is known for its navigational skills, its migration pattern where it can always find a way home, this tattoo holds a deep meaning for many. It was also believed that once a sailor died, the birds had the power to carry their souls into heaven.

Weapons
  • Gun with Rose Tattoo
  • Knife with Rose Tattoo
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Mostly, guns or crossed cannons were inked to represent military naval service. A tattoo of a knife can mean pain, skill, revenge, or even betrayal at someone's hand.

Harpoon
for a fishing fleet
Lucky 13
for flipping bad luck
Mermaids
for being tempted to your death
Twin Propellers
for prevention from drowning