Navy bird tattoo

Navy bird tattoo DEFAULT

Sailors have traditionally favored tattooing of their bodies. Tattoos were common, for the most part, only among sailors in the early half of the 20th century. This tradition goes back to the 1700s when Captain James Cooke made his now-famous voyage to the South Pacific Tahitians and decided to get souvenirs of their “tatau” with his men. Over time, these men traveling between the Pacific and the United States was what helped introduce tattooing to our culture.

While there were undoubtably variations in meaning depending on time/region, here are a few of the most classic tattoos and what they’re believed to mean:

Swallow Tattoo
  • Dragon refers to a sailor that has served in China
  • Golden Dragon means the sailor has crossed the International Date Line.
  • Anchors: The original meaning, that you’ve sailed across the Atlantic. Crossed anchors on the web between the thumb and index finger for a bosns mate.
  • Harpoon refers to a member of the fishing fleet.
  • Rope around the wrist refers to a sailor is or was a deckhand.
  • Sparrow: for every 5000 nautical miles traveled.
  • Swallow: Initially, Sailors got swallows before they went out to sea, because swallows always come home; nowadays, one swallow means you’ve sailed 5,000 miles, and two means 10,000. Two swallows, one on each hand means "these fists fly" ie. the sailor likes to fight. Swallows on the chest would lift the soul to heaven if the sailor perishes.
  • Rooster and pig: on the ankles are to prevent a sailor from drowning. The pig and the rooster: are tattooed on either the calves or the top of the feet, to prevent a sailor from drowning. These animals were originally carried on most ships in wooden crates. When a ship goes down these crates would float and then catch currents and wash ashore with the other debris from the ship, making the pigs and roosters often the only souls to survive a shipwreck. A tattoo of a pig on the left knee: it was a symbol for safety at sea; it was a symbol of protection for sailors. A rooster on the right foot: because it never loses a fight; it symbolizes the fights sailors went while at sea. They were the symbol of fertility; to make sure sailors would always have ham and eggs, and never go hungry.
  • Turtle standing on its back legs (shellback): it meant that the sailor had crossed the equator and had been initiated into King Neptune’s Court.
  • King Neptune: it was acquired after you crossed the Equator.
  • Palm Trees: Royal Navy tattoos of palm trees were made to represent the Mediterranean cruises in WWII. Many US sailors would normally have a tattoo of a palm tree or hula girl from Hawaii.
  • HOLD and FAST: were tattooed on and across the knuckles. It is believed that the tattoos would keep them from falling overboard or dropping a line.
  • Full rigged ship: tattoo made after sailing around Cape Horn.
  • Two stars: a sailor who can perform celestial navigation .
  • Guns or crossed cannon: tattoo normally acquired by military naval service.
  • Crosses on the soles of one’s feet: tattoo acquired to ward off hungry sharks.
  • Nautical star or Compass rose: tattoo that symbolize and was used to help sailors to always find their way home.
  • Dagger through a Rose: symbolize a willingness to fight and kill even something as fragile as a rose.
  • Many sailors also got pornographic images: so that they would always have them with them, and sometimes so they would not be drafted by the military service in their countries.
  • Jolly Roger: A symbol for getting in trouble and going to Captain’s Defaulters.
  • Full-Rigged Ship: Means that the sailor has sailed around Cape Horn. Back in the day, when ships were actually powered by wind, you were also allowed to get a blue star on your ear, and if you did it five times, you could get one on your other ear.
  • Hula Girl: Means that you’ve been to Hawaii.
  • Crosses on the soles of one's feet is maent to ward off hungry sharks.

Sailor Jerry Tattoos

Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry, was a prolific tattoo artist for sailors. During the Second World War in Honolulu, Hawaii, the red-light district was ablaze with sailors and soldiers about to ship off, and in the very center of this was Collins. His skill and prolific work helped make tattoos an art form in America rather than merely a permanent souvenir for sailors.

Classic Sailor Jerry Tattoos

  • Sailor Jerry Hula GirlHula girl
  • Snakes
  • Wildcats
  • The “aloha” monkey
  • Birds of prey
  • Swallows
  • Motor heads and pistons
  • Nautical stars
  • Weapons, such as guns, and knives
  • Dice

Swallow tattoo

The swallow tattoo was a symbol used historically by sailors to denote their sailing experience. Of British origin in the early days of sailing, it was the image of a barn swallow, usually tattooed on the chest, hands or neck.

According to one legend, a sailor tattooed with one swallow had travelled over 5,000 nautical miles (9,260 km); a sailor with two swallows had travelled 10,000 nautical miles (18,520 km).[1][2] Travelling these great distances was extremely difficult and dangerous in the early days of sailing, so one or more swallow tattoos denoted a very experienced and valuable sailor.

Another legend holds that since swallows return to the same location every year to mate and nest, the swallow will guarantee the sailor returns home safely.[citation needed] A sailor would have one swallow tattooed before setting out on a journey, and the second swallow tattooed at the end of their tour of duty, upon return to their home port.

Yet another more common legend originating from the British Royal Navy and Merchant Navy is that a swallow tattoo between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, denotes that the sailor has sailed around Cape Horn. This tattoo design is worn by the comedian Billy Connolly, who acknowledges the legend but admits he has never sailed around the Horn but just admires and likes the design.[3]

It is also said that if the sailor drowns, the swallows will carry his soul to heaven.[citation needed]

Today, the symbol of the swallow can mean many different things. It is considered a staple of the "American Traditional" and "Sailor Jerry Collins" style tattooing.

Some ex-Sailors of the British Royal Navy have a swallow tattoo on both wrists as a symbol of a successful voyage.[citation needed]


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The Meanings Behind 19 Classic Sailor Tattoos

These days, tattoos are so commonplace in the U.S. military that every branch has its own policy as part of its uniform regulations, but a few years ago that wasn’t the case. The U.S. Navy, however, has a long tradition of tattoos.

Here’s the meaning behind a few of the classics:

1. Fully-Rigged Ships

A tattoo of a fully-rigged ship from the age of sail means the sailor had been around Cape Horn, the rough, stormy waters around the southern tip of South America. A fully-rigged ship is one with three or more masts, square sails fully deployed.

2. Nautical Star

The star is a symbol of a sailor always to be able to find his way home. The nautical star is a five-pointed star in dark and light shades counterchanged to resemble a compass rose.

3. Shellback Turtle

Sailors can wear the Shellback Turtle when they get initiated into King Neptune’s Court after crossing the equator. If you’re unsure what exactly this means, We Are The Mighty has an explainer for you:

4. Crossed Cannons

The crossed cannons mean a veteran has seen military service as a sailor.

5. Swallows

Sailors earn a new swallow tattoo for every 5,000 nautical miles traveled, which is about 5,754 regular miles, roughly the distance between New York City and Tel Aviv. The circumference of the earth is 21,639 nautical miles, just about 4.16 sparrows.

6. Anchor

A single anchor means the sailor crossed the Atlantic or has been a member of the merchant marine, a fleet of civilian ships that carries military cargo. In wartime, this fleet is mobilized to carry war materiel, including troops and supplies.

During World War II, the Merchant Marine took a beating with high casualties, entering the European war long before the United States itself. Since the U.S. was delivering war supplies to Britain through Lend-Lease, Nazi u-boats targeted U.S. shipping bound for the UK. The Merchant Marine casualty rate was 3.9 percent, whereas the Marine Corps’, the next highest, was only 2.94 percent.

7. Rope on the Wrist

A knot of rope on a sailors wrist identifies him as a deckhand, someone who maintains the hull, decks, superstructure, mooring, and cargo handling. Deckhands are still common in ocean-going vessels, though they’re far less likely to be maintaining wooden ships.

8. Hula Girl

Hula girls signify the sailor has been to Hawaii.

9. Crossed Anchors

Sailors wearing the crossed anchors on the webbing between their thumb and index finger are identifying themselves as boatswain’s mates, the guys who maintain the deck and take care of smaller boat operations and damage control parties.

10. HOLD and FAST

These words are a charm spelled out on the four front-facing fingers on each hand. Sailors hope it brings them good luck while gripping the rigging. Holding fast means the sailor isn’t going to let the line go, no matter what. Sailors were a superstitious bunch and life on a sailing ship was tough (to say the least). Anything that gave them the edge in saving their own lives was worth doing.

11. Pig and Rooster

The foot tattoos of pigs and roosters were worn by sailors in WWII in the hopes it would keep the sailor from drowning. The Navy shipped these animals in crates at the time. When ships went down, the crates floated, and the animals inside would sometimes be the only survivors.

12. Compass Rose

Another good luck charm that allows a sailor to find his way home.

13. Crosses

Worn on the soles of a sailor’s feet, these are thought to ward off sharks.

14. Dagger through a Rose

This tattoo means the sailor is loyal and willing to fight anything, even something as sweet and beautiful as a rose.

15. Dragon

Wearing a dragon means the sailor has served in China.

16. Golden Dragon

When a sailor crossed the International Date Line, he earns the right to wear the Golden Dragon tattoo. The International Date Line is the imaginary line of longitude that separates two calendar dates. When someone sails from East to West, they set their clock back one hour for every 15 degrees of longitude they pass. When they pass the date line, they’ve gained a full 24 hours.

17. Harpoon

Sailors tattooed with harpoons were serving or had served in a whaling or fishing fleet.

18. King Neptune

German sailors in the 1930s being addressed by King Neptune while “crossing the line.”

Another badge of honor earned for crossing the Equator.

19. Palm Tree

The palm tree has two meanings, depending on your navy. Sailors in the Royal Navy during World War II could wear it after sailing on Mediterranean cruises. It can also be worn by U.S. sailors who served in Hawaii.


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Image courtesty of Sailor Jerry

In celebration of Norman Collins’ 103rd birthday next Tuesday, Sailor Jerry will be hosting events around the country and giving out 103 free swallow tattoos! You might have a swallow tattoo already or you’re just mulling the idea around as a future tattoo, but you might find the origins of this traditional flash image quite fascinating!

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Tattoo by Samuele Briganti. Source:

Among the most popular recipients of this traditional bird would of course be sailors. Before the days of advanced navigation systems, sailors would only know they were near land once they spotted swallows in the skies. This transpired into the tattoo meaning of a safe return to home. They would also mark certain sailing accomplishments with a swallow such as traveling over 5,000 nautical miles, sailing all seven seas, crossing the equator, and sailing around the Horns (the bottom of Africa and South America). A bit more on the morbid, yet spiritual side, it was believed that the swallows would carry a drown sailor’s soul from the depths of the ocean up to heaven. To honor a fallen comrade, a swallow with a dagger through its breast would often be depicted.

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Print by Quyen Dinh. Source: Parlor Tattoo Prints

For the lover: Swallows will choose only one mate and remain true to them for life so they’re often a representation of finding true love or loyalty.

For the fighter: Men would often get swallows tattooed on the backs of their hands to show they were quick, strong, and ruthless fighters!

In some cultures the swallow is a symbol of rebirth and positive change which is something nearly all human beings experience at some point in their life. It’s a way to mark the passage through tough times or the promise of better ones ahead.

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Image courtesy of Sailor Jerry

The beautiful

 thing about any tattoo is that it can mean absolutely nothing or absolutely everything. No matter the interpretation of the swallow, this piece will always remain a staple in tattoo culture.


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Bird tattoo navy

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All My Navy Tattoos and their Meanings !!!

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Yes. Are you here for a long time. For some reason I wanted him to answer in the affirmative. Four days, it seems, I was pleased.

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