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Nautical Tattoos – What Do They All Mean?

Posted on: 16.11.16

We’ve all seen them, adorning the arms, legs, chests of sailors – and quite a few people who have never been to sea – nautical themed tattoos…

Chances are if you know more than a few people with tattoos, one of them will be rocking something nautically themed. Swallows, anchors, compasses, to name just a few, all started their storied ink careers at sea, but what do they mean exactly?

Before you go signing up for history classes, hold on. We have decided to put together a list of our favourite nautical tattoos and the meanings behind them. We’ve also separated these tattoo meanings into four different areas; milestones at sea, symbols of good luck, identifying tattoos and those tattoos used in memory of others.

nautical tattoos full rigged vessel

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Swallows – Each swallow represented 5,000 nautical miles of sailing. Swallows also acted as a beacon of optimism, because swallows never flew too far into the ocean, and their sighting meant that land was quickly approaching.

Dragon – There is no animal more synonymous with a country than the dragon is with China. Having a dragon tattoo signified a sailor had been stationed in China or stopped at a Chinese port.

Full Rigged Ship – After sailing around Cape Horn, a sailor would have this tattoo.

Anchor – Sailors would get an anchor after crossing the Atlantic Ocean successfully. The anchor also acted as a reminder to stay grounded, reflecting the use of the anchor on board ship.

nautical tattoos hold fast tattoo

Good Luck

“Hold Fast” – Beginning as a identifier of someone who worked as a deckhand, “hold fast” across the knuckles evolved into a good luck charm for sailors to not be thrown overboard in stormy weather. The command coming directly in bad weather was to stop what you were doing and ‘hold fast’ to the ship’s line for security.

Pig and Rooster – Pig and rooster tattoos, usually one on each foot, were supposed to be a good luck charm in case a sailor was shipwrecked. This is because pigs and roosters usually survived shipwrecks because they were held in wooden crates on board that would float in the sea.

Nautical Star – This represented the North Star and the idea of course plotting. It was used to give navigators the good luck to find their way at sea and ensure that they had a guide back home.

If you’re a Tall Ships Races or Regattas trainee who’s had a nautical tattoo, then send us a photo and we’ll do a Facebook gallery of our favourites.


Dagger Through Swallow – This tattoo would be used as a memorial of a lost comrade at sea. You’ll remember the swallow represented 5000 nautical miles, and in this circumstance, it also represented the sailor who sailed those miles too.

nautical tattoos ROPE TATTOO


Crossed Anchors – Indicated the sailor wearing them was a Boatswain Mate.

Rope – Deckhands would use this tattoo as a mark of identity.

Guns or Crossed Cannons – Identified a sailor as serving in the Military Navy.

Nautical tattoos are just one example of the great history and culture you will find at sea. With people from all corners of the world as your potential shipmates, you can be sure to find out even more interesting facts and insights about the world in which we live. Head on over to our adventures page and find out where you can Sail On Board today.

(Originally published 1 July 2016.)