The Nautical Roots of the Modern Tattoo

Tattoos have long been associated with sailors, for good reason. Travelers from way back in history got tattoos to identify who they were and where they had been, as a portable and indestructible record. Sailors who explored the world picked up tattoos from all over.

Body art was particularly well-suited to the transient and dangerous nature of life at sea. “These sailors were traveling the world, and wanted to bring back souvenirs from places they had visited,” explains Eldridge. “Aboard a ship, you don’t have much room to carry fancy souvenirs, so you end up getting tattoos as travel marks.” By the late 18th century, navy records show that around a third of British and a fifth of American sailors had at least one tattoo, while other accounts reveal that French, German, and Scandinavian navies were also fond of getting inked.

But beyond mere records of their travels, tattoos also served a superstitious purpose among those living an unpredictable, and often risky, lifestyle. “Sailors are extremely superstitious,” says Eldridge, “so they would get specific tattoos to relieve this anxiety over their beliefs. There are stories of guys in the old, wooden-ship days who would get Christ’s head tattooed on their backs so if they got into trouble and had to take lashes, the person wielding the lash would be more sympathetic.”

Sailors had other tattoos for various reasons, like hinges on their elbows to ward off arthritis, and later, evidence of war campaigns they participated in. Collector's Weekly has much more in their history of sailors and their tattoos. Link

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