• Tattoos

14 Common Navy Tattoos and What They Mean

Navy tattoos are a tradition that goes back to the time of Captain Cook's first voyage to Polynesia. He brought back the Polynesian word "tatau," which over time became "tattoo." Since then, navies around the world have incorporated a complex set of traditions and customs related to tattoos. Naval tattoos persist, even though some of the traditions they represent are gone.

You can learn a sailor's life experience through their tattoos. If they've crossed the Atlantic, served in combat, lost a comrade, or held a certain rank, you can tell by their ink. Sailors who don't even speak the same language can look at each other and know they're in the company of a fellow ocean traveler just by their tattoos.

Here are some of the most common sailor tattoos and what they represent.

  • Swallow

    A swallow tattoo represents 5,000 nautical miles sailed. It can also symbolize a sailor who intends to return home.
  • Anchor

    Photo: Public Domain
    An anchor can symbolize a trip crossing the Atlantic, the stability of an anchor, or achieving certain ranks.
  • Ship Mascots

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY
    Sailors often get tattoos based on the name or mascot of a ship they served on. This World War II sailor has a tattoo of a hornet based on his service on the USS Hornet aircraft carrier.
  • 'Hold Fast'

    Photo: Public Domain
    The words "hold fast" tattooed on the fingers or knuckles are a sailing tradition.