The Nautical History of Tattooing

“A sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog: not seaworthy.” –Samuel O’Reilly
There are three important aspects when sailing. First, find your current location. Where are you now, in regards to where you want to be? Then, plot your course. Map out the journey. Lastly, prepare for every possible mishap or impulsive test. Sailing is a lot like life itself.
In the 15th century, pilgrims would mark themselves with prior locations, names of their hometowns and family members to identify them if something bad happened during their travels. Sailors in the 1700s had a large influence on tattooing in western culture. Sailors discovered tattoos through their voyages with Navy Captain James Cook. In as early as 1786 sailors were inspired by the ink they saw on Native Tahitians. The more conventional tattoos like pierced hearts, swallows, anchors, mermaids, and crosses were all common tattoos when men started enlisting for branches of the military. Other parts of the World finally started to see tattoos as more than just needles and blood; they realized it was a sincere form of body art. In the 19th Century, getting tattooed was more of a tradition with the maritime life of Sailors. A few sailors worked as amateur tattoo artists. Traveling the seas allowed them to work wherever they wanted to. The most common tattoos back then are still very common today.

The 1920’s to the 1950s was an era that saw surprisingly quick developments in technique, equipment, and safety. Wartime was the busy season for tattoo artists, like World War II. Tattooists set up along military bases. Some men wanted names of girlfriends or wives by hearts or flowers, pin-up girls, and things that reminded them of home. Let’s take a moment to reminisce about how a simple tattoo could be had for only $3. Those were indeed simpler times. Nautical drawings were regularly copied and passed from artist to artist.
 Enter Sailor Jerry, enlisting in the Navy in 1928 and tattooing sailors since the early 1930s. Even when his tattooing career flourished, he always remained a sailor. He gave tours about the Hawaiian Islands by boat. He took pride in mentoring hopeful tattoo artists. This cleared way for him to meet Don Ed Hardy and Mike Malone. He technically only tattooed for 12 years but left a major mark in tattoo history. Now Don Ed Hardy is a prodigy in the tattoo nation. When Sailor Jerry passed away he left his shop to his apprentices. 
On a separate side of the world Norfolk, Virginia was considered a major seaport. Ships would come in every day. Sailors would flood in from the sea, eagerly expecting tattoos to tell stories of where they had been. This is where August "Cap" Coleman worked and collaborated with fellow artist, Paul Rogers. The pair was an interesting duo. Cap was born in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio while Rogers had a very different upbringing, born in North Carolina and raised on a variety of Cotton Mills. Rogers worked the carnival circuit for nearly a decade with his wife before getting his own shop in Charleston, South Carolina. After his shop was successful, he ventured to Norfolk to work alongside of Cap. Cap Coleman was a very well-known artist at the time, so getting the opportunity to work with him was a great honor to Rogers. They stayed in Norfolk until the summer of 1950, when tattooing was issued illegal. So, Coleman traveled across the Elizabeth River to Portsmouth, Virginia to continue tattooing for a few more years. Meanwhile, Rogers paired with Lathan Connelly and opened a few shops in Petersburg, Virginia and Jacksonville, North Carolina. Over time, Paul was ready to stop traveling between shops, so he decided to focus on the Jacksonville location; leaving Connelly to take the Petersburg shop.
A new generation of artists emerged.  After Sailor Jerry, Mike “Rollo” Malone, was a man known for many things. He worked as a photographer, barber, carpenter, and as an artist in his lifetime. By a twist of fate, following Sailor Jerry Collin’s death, Malone was offered Sailor Jerry's renowned Street shop. He took on the shop, changing the name to China Sea Tattoo Company. From there Malone started up a tattoo flash business, called Mr. Flash that would later change the look of tattoo shops across the globe. Malone teamed up with his close friend, Don Ed Hardy, to jointly create Sailor Jerry flash books. Unfortunately, like many great artists, Malone passed before he got to see what a major impact he had in the industry.
Ed Hardy started as an artist when tattoos were still considered forbidden or reprehensible for the general public. Tattoos were made for military men and sideshow acts, and not much else in that era. He became interested in tattoos at age ten, so interested that he would try to tattoo his friends with colored pencils. In adulthood, he reached out to Sailor Jerry, asking for advice and sending him a few of his designs. That led to him being offered an apprenticeship. In the 60’s most of his first clients were hippies and sailors. In the 70’s he enhanced his portfolio by learning more Japanese inspired designs. Then in the ’80s, his career boomed, tattooing not only on bikers and hippies but high-class businessmen and rock stars. 

In the '80s Rock and roll changed more than the music scene, it also greatly impacted tattoo culture. Rock bands would show off their ink, influencing the general public to want to express their interests with ink too. Growing up watching his Dad tattoo, Ed Hardy’s son, Doug Hardy, took over the legacy.  In the early 90’s Doug was presented with the opportunity to apprentice under Mike Malone in Honolulu, Hawaii. Fast forward to 2009, Doug returned to his hometown of San Francisco to help his father with the shop, Tattoo City, where he currently resides.

These artists were captains of industry from the past that paved the way for present and future artists. 
For instance, similar to how Sailor Jerry got started Myke Chambers set out by train, fearlessly seeking a new adventure. Entering the 90’s he began his tattoo apprenticeship embracing Traditional Americana, but also providing his own uniqueness through his work. He apprenticed in New Orleans. Now Myke has Seven Swords Tattoo Company in Philadelphia, established in 2014. The shop is beautifully decked out with Tattoo Flash and creates an instant feeling of nostalgia. Artists like Myke keep Sailor Jerry’s memory alive, using the same passion and precision in his designs. 
In this day and age of Realism, Watercolor and New School tattoo styles, it’s refreshing to find an old school, traditional-style artist who, like the wistfulness of childhood memories, recalls the nostalgia of early tattoos. Samuele Brignati of Bold Will Hold in Florence, Italy, has opened a studio with his specializing technique of sailor-inspired, traditional tattoos. At the time his shop had opened before receiving his high school diploma, Brignati had already had a long history with tattooing. Learning by piercing his own skin at the tender age of 6, Brignati’s skill has since become a passionate profession that has landed him worldwide recognition and clientele. Tattoo collectors and enthusiasts alike have sought out the traditionalist tattooer for his throwback work and bright, bold colors – accurately defining the brand’s name and character. If vintage-styled, fearlessly daring tattoos drawn with the precision of a skilled sculptor is what you’ve been searching for, then look no further than Bold Will Hold tattoo shop.

Now, much like then, our tattoos are pieces we can use to define us and set us apart from a crowd. Most of the tattoos from nautical times were inspired by superstitions. These men lived unpredictable lives, only knowing with every rough wave and storm on the horizon they could die. They found comfort in these pieces.

For sailors, a rose with a dagger through it represents they’re willing to fight anything, even something as beautiful as a rose.

Fully rigged ship tattoos symbolized a sailor had survived rough waters.

A nautical star was designed to resemble a compass rose, reassuring family and friends that the sailor could always find their way home.

The words “Hold” and “fast” would often be tattooed on their knuckles because they believed it gave them good luck for gripping and rigging.

Crosses on the feet were believed to keep away sharks

Birds known as swallows symbolized a safe voyage home.

An anchor, being the most secure object on the ship, symbolizes stability and ongoing hope.

A dragon indicates the sailor has served in China or has sailed to a Chinese port.

A golden dragon, not be mistaken with a typical dragon, embodies crossing the International Date Line.

A Shellback Turtle tattoo honors a sailor who has crossed the equator and been initiated into the “King Neptune's Court,” (the line-crossing ceremony for Navy members who cross the equator for the first time.)

One of the most sentimental and emotional tattoos for a military member or sailor was a swallow (bird) with a dagger through it, this meant the lost comrade.

Majestic Mermaids were believed to be capable of seducing sailors to the sea, so a mermaid became a comparison for how tempting the sea could be, despite the possible danger. A tattoo of a mermaid was a way of displaying, "my life, my love, and my lady is the sea."

Hula Girls, you can probably guess this one, symbolized a sailor had been to Hawaii. A palm tree tattoo would sometimes also be used with the same meaning.

Celtic Sailor's Knot illustrated two entangled knots symbolizing the love and loyalty between the sailor and his significant other.
Polynesian Tribal Tattoo designs were meant to copy the currents of the sea, occasionally adding sea animals.

A tattoo of a rope on the wrist was ideal for deckhands to promote their abilities.

A pig and rooster tattoo was believed to be a good luck charm, keeping a sailor safe from drowning. Think this is weird? It's nothing compared to the alternative idea, twin propellers, one tattooed on each butt cheek, were also believed to prevent drowning, the expression behind that was "propel you ass-shore.”

Life at sea meant leaving behind wives and girlfriends. A tattoo of a pin-up girl represented the girls that waited for their return. 

History is a funny thing. Two people can impact each other's lives without ever actually meeting. Tattoo artists from the '20s, '30s, and so on are still alive in the work they left behind. Sailor Jerry said it best when he explained, "I haven't done my best yet…only my best so far." 
Written by: Olivia Edens

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