Updated: Aug 7
Tattoos have become more common and welcomed in our society as a tool for self-expression and art, utilized across the globe for thousands of years as a form of tradition, ritual, and identity. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin states that all countries, from the northern polar regions to the southern parts of New Zealand, have a tradition of permanent body art.
According to Bruns in Skin & Bones-Tattoos In The Life Of The American Sailor (2009), tattoos among sailors date back to the late 1770s with the voyage of Captain James Cook to the Polynesian islands in the South Pacific. The word “tattoo” is an onomatopoeia derived from the rhythmic tapping pattern made by the hand-tapping tatau tools. In The History of Traditional Tattoos, Captain James Cook’s crew were the ones who had the idea to get tattoos as souvenirs of their journey. These sailors selected each design with significant meaning as a commemorative piece of their expedition and life on deck. The desire to permanently ink symbols into their skin became popular among sailors and integrated into the Navy culture. In this article, I will be focusing on tattoos specifically among divers and travellers, a modernization of the naval culture.
There are many styles and genres of tattoos, one of them is called American Traditional or Old-School, introduced by a Navy sailor, Norman Collins in the 1920s-1930s. He was also known as Sailor Jerry. In Who is Sailor Jerry, they say that he built his reputation and altered the world of tattoos. He combined influences from Japanese art and western styles. He integrated bold outlines, bright colourings, and minimal shading resulting in his very well-known and distinct style. This tattoo style is what we can see on Navy seamen. Now, it is still a prominent style and tattooed in many tattoo parlours.
Traditional/ AmericanTraditional/ Old School style: Humpback Whale Tattoo by @august_trd
Each naval tattoo design has significant meaning to the sailor’s way of life and beliefs. Some of the typical symbols according to Sailors’ Tattoos: A Basic Primer (2019) are anchor, a swallow bird, a dragon, a hula girl, and a nautical star. An anchor often represents stability and grounding, sometimes embellished with the word “Mom” or the name of their loved ones. Each image of a swallow bird means that a sailor has sailed 5000 nautical miles. If a sailor has been to China, they may get a dragon or a hula girl if they served in Hawaii. A nautical star helps a sailor stay on their course.
Though not all divers and travellers get inked, those who get tattoos usually select ones that are marine-related. There are countless design possibilities, for instance, marine creatures like sharks and rays or small ones such as nudibranchs. Coordinates of their favourite dive site or destination is another popular idea. Some also choose artistic representations of waves, anchors, shells, ships, mermaids, even silhouettes or portraits of scuba divers.
In How Much of the Ocean Have We Explored? (2009), NOAA states that more than 80% of the ocean has yet to be mapped and explored by people. With so much that we still do not know about, there is a lot of room for superstitions. For example, a sailor would get a rooster and a pig tattoo on their feet, which they believed to be their protector. If the ship goes awry, pigs and roosters are usually the only ones afloat and safe.
The sailors hope this is true if they ever experience a shipwreck. Another superstition is that a naked woman could calm the stormy seas. We could find their statues on the bow of the ship and tattooed on sailors. Bruns claims that a complex system of superstition at sea evolved and offered comfort and protection in the dangers of being in the open seas. Mythical sea creatures like the Kraken or mermaids became popular designs. In addition, sea gods and goddesses, drawn and customized to the tattoo owner’s gaze and perception, are believed to act as their protectors.
Divers today generally get a tattoo after they finish a trip since new tattoos should not get wet for long periods. When passionate about scuba diving, travelling is inevitable, and choosing a tattoo as a souvenir reminds divers and travellers of a great time and journey they had, just like the sailors. Another reason divers get a tattoo is to celebrate finishing a course, like their divemaster or instructor program. Similar to seamen, divers want to commemorate their achievements. Tattoos became a tool for storytelling. In the text On Souvenirs and Metonymy (2005), Morgan and Pritchard assert that souvenirs can provide pleasure, security, escape, and self-gift. Tattoos often become a conversation starter, connecting fellow divers with their love for the deep blue sea.
Tattoos create a sense of belonging. They remind the owners of their vacation and reminiscing their adventures. Tattoos are also a way of showing a part of your identity and how you allow people to perceive you. Having something permanently on your skin is also a big commitment and investment, showing that diving, travelling, and the ocean are a big part of your life.
There is an Indonesian phrase “Jauh di mata, dekat di hati.” It implies that when something is far away, we still feel it very closely in our hearts. Morgan and Pritchard suggest that souvenirs are essential in one’s travel experience. It is proof and a reminder of their trip. Morgan and Pritchard also say that travellers use their souvenirs to recreate the tourism experience. In this case, that experience is when they explored and admired the ocean.
While many people still purchase souvenirs like fridge magnets or t-shirts, tattoos are emerging as a popular souvenir option. In the last few years, more people have adopted a nomadic and minimalistic lifestyle. They want to minimize materialistic items and move to digital souvenirs like photographs and videos. Tattoos are seen as another solution to keep their memories alive permanently where everyone can see them, sharing them with the world. When people talk about their tattoos, they usually respond with an anecdote, explaining the design and where they got them. Then, a conversation begins about the meaning of their tattoo and their experience and often becomes a memorable encounter.
Though I am not a tattoo artist myself, I am very intrigued about tattoo history and how tattoos are perceived. In 2020, I partnered up with few tattoo artists in Bali to open a tattoo studio. This environment encouraged me to explore the art through origins and get acquainted with the tattoo community. As the studio manager, I get to do most of the initial consultation. I ask our clients about their design idea, sizing, and placements. I usually start a conversation on what the tattoo means for them. It is fascinating to see that the naval designs are still adopted even by non-sailors and non-divers. Some are merely people who find their meaning from the traditional naval/sailor design and symbolism.
Tattoos are a part of the human experience. They create a sense of belonging and identity. Getting tattoos is one of many ways for us to be a part of a community and often becomes a ritual after our travels. We get to show a part of ourselves through our experience and influencing how we would like to be perceived. Getting a tattoo keeps the naval tradition alive, evolving with the current society. What tattoo are you getting next? Comment below!
Written by Putri Martosudarmo
Putri Martosudarmo graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with degrees in Anthropology and Theater. She is a certified Divemaster and Scientific Diver. Putri is currently a partner and manager of Private Atelier Tattoo Gallery in Seminyak, Bali.
2009 Skin & Bones-Tattoos In The Life Of The American Sailor
Pennsylvania: Independence Seaport Museum. Pp. 13-73
1871 The Descent of Man
London: John Murray
Morgan & Pritchard
2005 On Souvenirs and Metonymy: Narratives of memory, metaphor, and materiality. London: Sage Publications. Pp. 29-53
Naval History and Heritage Command
“Sailors’ Tattoos: A Basic Primer”, Naval History and Heritage Command. U.S. Navy, 29 March 2019. Web. 11 July 2021. <https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/heritage/customs-and-traditions0/sailor-s-tattoos.html>
NOAA's National Ocean Service
"How Much of the Ocean Have We Explored?" NOAA's National Ocean Service. NOAA,
01 Jan. 2009. Web. 25 July 2021. <https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/exploration.html>
William Grant & Sons
“The History of Traditional Tattoo”. Sailor Jerry. William Grant & Sons.Web. 16 July 2021.
William Grant & Sons
“Who Is Sailor Jerry”. Sailor Jerry. William Grant & Sons.Web. 16 July 2021.