From Captain Cook to the Navy
Tattoos have been around forever and in every culture, but we have Captain Cook to thank for sailing the ocean blue, the Pacific specifically, in the 1700’s and bringing tattoo tales back to our shores. Whalers and sailors took to tattooing naturally, and not just to do something on those long voyages. Tattoos frequently had meanings, telling of mutinies, miles logged or the name of the girl you left behind. And in the event a sailor ended up in an untimely meeting with Davy Jones’ locker, his tattoos could serve as positive identification, like a modern-day driver’s license.
Mothers everywhere can thank famous tattoo artist Sailor Jerry for the Mom-on-a-Heart-banner, which grew especially popular during World War II.
There Be Monsters
Maybe you’d choose the thing you did not want to encounter: an octopus, shark or other creature of the deep, as a talisman of protection. Sailors were notoriously superstitious. Tales of sea monsters were fueled by strange sightings and fantastical evidence, such as tentacles inside whale stomachs. Today, tentacles still tantalize and tattoos with octopus imagery abound, despite how much more we know about cephalopods.
The octopus’ shape and color-shifting properties gives the tattoo artist latitude (and maybe even longitude). The tentacle lends itself to curling about an arm or leg, making for suggestive and intriguing body art.
For a great in-depth history and historic tattoo images, check out Hello Sailor! The Nautical Roots of the Modern Tattoo.