Okay, so a friend of a friend gets this anchor tattoo, she’s in the Navy like me, so I thought “cool, Navy tattoo, alright.” Then I find out she’s got a swallow. She’s been in for maybe two years, and has never been to sea. A swallow. For those of you who don’t know, the swallow tattoo is a Navy thing that civilians thought was cool and stole. Civilians with swallow tattoos don’t really bug me, because they don’t really know the meaning behind it, so I just chalk it up to “hey, that looks cool, I want THAT!”. But, if you’re in the Navy, and you get all these tattoos, you might want to know what they mean before you start thinking you’re Joe Cool…
Swallows: 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. There’s a ton of hoopla about “flying fists” and other dumb stuff, but in the US Navy, it means you’ve done some time at sea.
Anchors: Depending on the way it’s done, it can mean a Boatswain’s Mate (it’s their rating badge) a Chief (it’s their rank symbol) or, the original meaning, that you’ve sailed across the Atlantic. There’s also ties to the Christian Church, however, so this one is kind of iffy. But it’s pretty much understood that if you’re in the Navy and you have an anchor tattoo, you’re either a Boats, a Chief, or you’ve at least gone underway at some point…
Dragons: Means you’ve served in the Far East. There’s a ton of people with dragon tattoos, and I totally wouldn’t rag on someone for having one, because they’re everywhere, and the Navy stole it from the Asians they met there, so this one is less of a big deal whether you’re in or out. Again, the style has something to do with it as well.
Pig and Rooster: Probably one of my personal favorites, the pig and rooster tattoos would be applied one on each leg (sometimes on the knee, sometimes the foot) to keep a sailor afloat. Back in the day, when live roosters and pigs would be shipped overseas in wooden crates, they were often the only remains left of a shipwreck, so it was believed the tattoo would help you stay afloat and get to land if the ship went down. If you have this tattoo and you’re not on sea duty in the Navy, or at least a hardcore mariner, you’re an idiot.
“Hold Fast” and/or Rope: It’s a deckhand thing. Helps you hold the rope, show people your profession, yada yada, not a whole lot of people get these anymore, and if I saw someone with “HOLD FAST” across his knuckles, unless he was an old, salty-ass Chief, I would laugh my ass off and probably die laughing. [EDIT: People are getting pissed off at me for saying I would laugh at someone with “HOLD FAST” on their knuckles, so let me explain. The Navy is no longer using sailing ships. Hell, we don’t even use steam ships anymore. We use jet engines. Sure, we still need to handle ropes in order to dock/moor, and we have all those fun flags we fly, but let’s be honest: Navy sailors just don’t do the rope work they used to! If you’re a literal “sailor,” and you actually sail, this is not directed at you, okay? Calm down…]
Jolly Roger: You know, the black flag with the skull and crossbones? Well, usually it’s a pirate thing, but I heard once a while ago that it was a symbol for getting in trouble and going to Captain’s Mast. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t really want to advertize that shit. Unless you’re one of my former Commanding Officers (who shall remain nameless) who kept black anchors on this ship to show what a badass he was for not getting fired during an official inquiry – you go, Cap!
Full-Rigged Ship: You’ve 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, because it was that badass to do it and survive that many times. Nowadays though, a lot of people have full-rigged ships, but most of them were, actually, in the Navy at some point.
Mermaid: Ahhh, the mermaid, everyone gets mermaids now, so it’s kind of the same situation as the dragon tattoo, but Sailors would get these cuz, hey, it’s porn you can’t lose. There’s also some linkage to the draw of the sea (“homeward bound, seaward drawn” type thing) These were really popular back in the day, and when the Navy banned nudity on the pin-up tattoos, they actually created a huge revenue for the tattoo artists because Sailors went back in droves to get little shell and starfish bikini tops added on in order to be in regs. Ask any tattoo artist that knows his history, and he’ll probably chuckle a bit.
Hula Girl: Similar to the mermaid, they’re sexy to look at, but it also means that you’ve been to Hawaii, nowadays I would say it means you’ve beenstationed in Hawaii, cuz let’s face it, it’s not nearly as hard to get there today as it was in the 1600-1700’s, so there you go.
Shellback Tattoos: Those of us that have been through Wog Day never want to go through that shit again. It’s embarrassing, you’re basically getting IT’d all day, and you’re in so much salt water that you’re pretty much a raisin for the next week and about 17 layers of skin will peel off of you. In the “kinder, gentler Navy” Wog Day is nothing like it was, we’re not allowed to make you crawl through garbage, or beat you up, or tie you down for hours and torture you. But it still sucks. So what some Sailors do is tattoo the date, time, and coordinates of their Shellback initiation on their lower leg, so come Wog Day when the Shellbacks would tear into berthing at 3am ripping people out of their racks and telling everyone to “show a leg” you would literally “show a leg” and prove that you’d already done it, so they’d leave you alone. Ahhhh, Navy tradition!
Nautical Stars: These can be five- or six-pointed, and usually have a light side and a dark side, it’s unanimous that they originated with sailors, but there’s so much debate over where and when and why and all that, but the two meanings I really think are the most authentic are these: Sailors used to navigate by the stars, using a compass. There you go. Covers them both. Musicians use these symbols as well (usually five-pointed) but that’s mostly because of Sailor Jerry and how everyone thinks it’s cool to get old school sailor tattoos (I can’t blame them, they are pretty fuckin’ awesome).
The Rose: HA! Bet you didn’t know that rose tattoos got their start in the Navy, didja??? Well, it’s true, they got popular when Sailors would tattoo a rose on themselves to honor their wife or girlfriend they left behind (well, it was a nice gesture anyways, we all know the rumors about sailor infidelity, I can neither confirm nor deny the purity of any actions of my shipmates while overseas, and there’s even a term for the wives left at home here in San Diego – WESTPAC Widows).
And then there’s all the rate, rank, flag, eagle, etc stuff that is self-explanatory, or is quite simply an obvious military tattoo, the first two you should definitelyonly have if you’ve served, otherwise I’d say that borders on impersonating a member of the armed forces, or at least being a major poser. And I think any patriotic American that likes tattoos would get a bald eagle and an American flag, you don’t have to be in the military to have it. But let me just say, if you want to get a tattoo, awesome, but please don’t be that guy that gets it only because it “looks cool” without doing your research, tattoo’s mean stuff, in tribal societies they’re literally magical, don’t shit on them like Russel Brand’s character from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch the movie right now, because it’s awesome). I don’t have any Navy tattoos yet, and you want to know why? I don’t know exactly how I want them done, I want to make sure they’re perfect because I want to make sure I don’t regret them, just like my other five. I thought long and hard before I got mine, because, especially as a chick, I don’t want to look at them when I’m 40 or 50 and be like “oh… why did I do that… Crap.” So THINK before you INK, and now maybe you’ll even have new respect for that salty dog in the corner of the bar with all the Navy tattoos, because now you know what they mean
Also, if there’s other types of Navy tattoos that I’m forgetting (and I’m sure I am, I didn’t spend days researching this, you know) put them here, and what they mean, thanks!