Sailors Tattoos Tradition / Ritual in Red Sunrise | World Anvil

Sailors Tattoos

Sailors have long been known for their tattoos. But a lot of them have a specific meaning. And one doesn't get all of them easily. They tell the story of a sailor, the ranks they hold or held. The experience they gained and challenges they faced. It says something about the people they left at home, or the ones that fell.



The tattoos can be split up in different groups, there are the ones that are earned through actions or experience.

Single anchor

The sailor has crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Pair of crossed anchors

The sailor has reached or had held the rank of Boatswain.

Shellback turtle

The sailor has crossed the equator and has been presented to King Neptune's Court and passed the rites.


The sailor has sailed to the Orient/Far East/Asia

Golden dragon

The sailor has crossed the International Date Line.

Golden shellback turtle

The sailor has crossed the equator and the international date line, at the same time.


Traditionally tattooed on the chest/shoulder facing inward, earned during the first trip, it also symbols the sailor has done 5.000 nm. It also signifies the promise of returning home, as swallows are a migrating bird species.

Two swallows

On both shoulders, facing inward. The sailor has done 10.000 nm or more.


The sailor has sailed the Northwest passage or the Northeast through the Arctic Ocean.
A to the left (of the sailor) facing Narwhal for the west passage, and a to the right facing one for the east passage. Two for both passages, sometimes they cross tusks.

Pair of crossed cannons

The sailor is or was serving in a military navy.


The sailor is or was a fisherman.

Five pointed star

A five pointed star with the points split and coloured red and green alternating. Signals that the sailor has won a bar fight in a foreign port.

Fully rigged ship

One of the most prestige tattoos, the sailor has rounded Cape Horn.

Hula girl

The sailor has visited Hawaii.

Rope around wrist

The sailor is or was a deckhand.


The sailor can navigate by the stars only.


The sailor has circumnavigated the earth on the same ship in a continuous term.


The sailor has been below the antarctic circle into the Southern Ocean or to antarctica itself.


A dagger piercing a piece of skin, a hart or a rose. Signals they sailor has lost a friend, colleague, shipmate or someone at home. That is worth being honoured.



The following tattoos are used for good luck or to ward off ill fortune.

Religious symbols

To support the sailor in their faith.

Compass rose

A sign to help the sailor so he can always find his way home.
See also: Vegvísir
Additionally: The sailor is a competent navigator.
See also: Sextant

Pig and Rooster

A pig on the left foot and a rooster on the right, well help the sailor in preventing drowning.


As a protection against being eaten incase one fell overboard.

H O L D   F A S T

The letters tattooed on the knuckles/fingers, to help the sailor grip the lines and railings.


Viking tattoo, also known as a runic compass. Is a stave rune that is to aid the wearer in find their way in bad weather.


Or other big cat head, always with the mouth open. Signifies bravery and the readiness and willingness to fight whatever gets in the sailor's way.



Last ship/Homeward Bound

The text Last Ship or Homeward Bound generally in a banner form under a ship, signals the sailor is on his last trip (or has made such a promise) or is retired.

Pin up girl

To remember the loved one that is waiting at home.



More commonly seen in military navy sailors.


Popular among sailors from the USA.



Fore example, rank insignias, or group designations.


Based on the badge submarines wear.


National or unit flag, often together with mottos.



Other symbols used which do not necessarily have a meaning.



Playing cards or Dice

Catch phrases or Mottos

Sea monsters



Skull and crossbones


Steering wheel

Glasses and bottles

Oars, buckets, marlin spikes and other sailors tools

Articles under Sailors Tattoos

Cover image: by Johannes Plenio


Please Login in order to comment!
Jul 7, 2021 14:13 by Amélie I. S. Debruyne

Those are all very fascinating! Do you know by chance if the symbols are an old tradition or if those some of those meanings are more recent?

To see what I am up to: World Ember 2023 list of articles.
Jul 7, 2021 14:44 by Bart Weergang

Firstly this is written on World Anvil, as a form of creative writing. I did not take care of sources and 100% accuracy. I did even invent one or two because they add to the story I write. So to have that disclaimer out of the way.
Yes they trace back to at least the 18th century. Or that is how far written sources go that I found. I believe the meaning and tradition grew over time, and where not decided from the start. even because it is unclear when was the start. The pre-cristian europeans did have tattoos, then in the middle ages that was 'savage' and sailors brought it back during the age of exploring /colonising. (I should've added this to the article lol) Also tattoos served as ID markers, they where recorded in early forms of passports, that way USA sailors could prove that they where who the paper said, and they could not be pressganged into the British Royal Navy.

Jul 7, 2021 14:24 by Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull

'Signals that the sailor has won a bar fight in a foreign port.' I'm enjoying that this is something worthy of remembrance. I love that the tattoos actually mean something.

Emy x   Etrea | Vazdimet
Jul 7, 2021 14:45 by Bart Weergang

It's a strange world, I think this was more important in the past than in the current age :D

Aug 28, 2022 12:01

This was really cool and interesting. Thank you for an interesting tradition :D

Check out my On the Shoulders of Giants article: Satlonia
Aug 28, 2022 21:03 by Bart Weergang

Thank you Panthers!

Aug 28, 2022 22:56

I think the article could benefit from having pictures or icons of the tattoos, that will make more eye-catching, I think :D

Check out my On the Shoulders of Giants article: Satlonia