Tattoos with sailors can be traced back as far as the 1700s when Captain James Cook came across the Maori of the South Pacific, and his crew decided to get tattoos as "souvenirs" of their visit. After that the connection between sailors and tattoos steadily increased.
Using simple techniques and tools, tattoo artists in the early days worked on board ships using anything available as pigments, even gunpowder and urine.
A focus on the regulation of tattoos did not begin until the early 1900s when the United States government declared that anyone with an "obscene" tattoo would not be allowed in the navy. With the declaration many young men took advantage of the easy way out of serving, thus creating a boom in tattoos of nude women. However, if they later decided to join the navy they had to have a tattoo artist "dress" the woman.
Over time, tattoos became a graphic language and a way for sailors to record important events or experiences such travels, achievements, naval hierarchy, rank, status, membership, and/or any other significant event in life.
Examples of popular symbols in the sailor tattooing are:
- Anchor: Refers to a sailor who has achieved the rank of Boatswain or Chief, though historically indicated sailing across the Atlantic.
- Dragon: Refers to a sailor that has served in Asia.
- Fully rigged Ship: Represents traversal of Cape Horn.
- Golden Dragon: Means a sailor has crossed the International Date Line.
- Harpoon: Refers to a member of the fishing fleet.
- Hula Girl: Reflects being stationed in Hawaii or sailing there.
- Rope around the wrist / "Hold Fast" across the knuckles: Represents a sailor who is or was a deckhand.
- Swallow: Initially obtained when first setting to sea, now traditionally received for each increment of 5,000 miles sailed.
Tattoos also grew in popularity in the port districts frequented by those sailors. Consequently, the tattoos became associated with the criminals, prostitutes, and gangs who dwelt in these same districts. Sailor tattoos differentiated from these terrestrial tattoos as sailors continued to design new mariner motifs of their own, creating a distinct tattooing culture among sailors. By the 19th century, about 90% of all United States Navy sailors had tattoos.