the navy and tattoos

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!


94 thoughts on “the navy and tattoos

  1. Cory says:

    Good stuff. 21 years and now retired. Looking to get some tattoos to remember my time of service and this has given me some good ideas. Thanks

  2. Bigmikedollarbillz says:

    You act as though no one from outside your gay little navy clique are allowed to get these tattoos, eat my 8 inch cock faggot i got all these and never served a day in my life, infact, i hate the navy, all you cocksuckers and gayboys packed onto a ship for 10 months of the year. Suck my dick fagots!. you are the real idiots, i didnt even have to serve to get these tattoos, enjoy wasting ur life whilst im fucking ur wife u left alone! HAHAHA

    • illnevertell says:

      See, you are the loser wannabe that I was referring to. You’re a poser and a moron, you’re not fucking a damn thing except your hand, I’m sure, and in case you still haven’t figured it out, I’M A GIRL. So you can make fun of “Navy fags” all you want, it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got tattoos that originated with those men, so who’s the real douchebag here? You may think you’re cool for having symbolic tattoos and not serving, but the rest of us know you’re a total toolbag and are totally not worth going to Mast for if we make the first move. So take the first swing at a Sailor motherfucker, I dare you 🙂

      • Illnevertell I think I love you…

      • I think I love you Illnevertell. And thank everyone for your service. I found this article trying to research for a tattoo for my husband who was in the Navy. Ive learned so much!

      • Bennie says:

        Look i was on the kitty hawk from 90 – 95 her name went from shifty kitty to battle cat I went around the horn been on 4 west packs one with a 180 day turn around and air quals I realy don’t know what to get but I want somthing i have two dsugjters and been married twice I don’t want a anchor don’t like dragons I think I would like a orca but I don’t know white on tats fades

      • illnevertell says:

        You don’t need to get actual white ink, you can just have it be negative space, like this one:

        I wouldn’t necessarily call that a Navy tattoo, though. Were you trying to commemorate your time on the KHawk?

    • Norman Rockwell says:

      youre giving the impression that you had served with those poor excuses you have on your skin. later you will be asked about your tats. you tell them no and everyone will think youre some faggot poser who did jack shit to earn that prerogative.
      eat shit motherfucker

    • Dexter Garcia says:

      Really Bro? Eat your 8in dick? And we are the faggots huh? Stuck on a ship for 10 months, so ignorant motherfuckers like you can write these dumb little comments. Its not like we weren’t the first ones called to Syria. Now we have some little boy, making cracks at people defending his rights. I hope your tattoo artist used dirty needles. And I’m glad you didn’t join. The navy is that much better, because you didn’t. Stay your ass home, and continue to do nothing with your life. Hopefully you don’t curse this country with any kids.

    • ukulelemaggee says:

      Why would you say this? Where is your patriotism? They go out and fight for our country so you can stay here with your pessimistic arrogant remarks. With all due respects keep your damn comments to yourself.

    • JOHN says:

      Hey “bigmike” as a former US Navy Corpsman WITH THE 2ND MARDIV, let me be the first to invite you to go fuck that whore mother of yours. You like to throw the word “faggot” around, and yet several times in your horse shit post you’re inviting men to suck your “8” dick” which as you know all too well, is more like 1-1.5 inches at full mast. So, in closing, I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that your queer bait father knocked that whore mother of yours up behind a dumpster at some gay bar. Not because he thought she was “special” it was because she looked more like a fucking man than a woman. Listen up pussy, you’re a fucking coward that never had the balls to lace up a pair of boots and sign the papers. Even if you had, you would never get in because clearly your intelligence ends at “101 ways to blow every guy at a glory hole party” ( papa would be proud I’m sure) anyway, eat shit faggot.

    • mike says:

      not all of us are on ships and your an ass hole for even calling a military member a faggot you should be ashamed of your fucking self and for my self i have at least 9 tats brother starting from my medical emblem, pig and rooster, anchor, heart with mom in the center with the arrow going through, pin up in the martini glass, and my sparrow i earned each one and im proud of them

    • Thomas Kerr says:

      Scottish ex royal Navy retiree here you deviant, lying piece of effluence ( oh I am using English here, you will struggle with that ) I object to your demeaning of my American colleagues and wonder if you are prepared to be that mouthy with a 55 year old ex RMC. Hint for you fantasist, regardless WHO you think you are, at my age I would STILL dismantle you. Learn some respect, internet hard man, before someone teacjhes you the hard way.

      illnevertell…very interesting article, thank you!

    • Edward says:

      Get over yourself, dude.

    • AJ says:

      After reading all the other comments and how others recognized how much a fool you really are. Another hole was ripped in your ass. I just wanted to add as a member in the military. I do not condone anyone to be released into the hands freely onto terrorist possession but I would gladly recommend and suggest that someone find you and take you to ISIS or a Cartel to get beheaded for your statements as punishment. Rusty and slow let your ignorant blood flow. Sincerely go choke on your vomit when you OD @bigmikedollarbills.

    • David Field says:

      Good work. Circled the globe and got totally knumb in every hell hole and mosquito infested swamp known to man. Never got a tattoo, cause I couldn’t decide, and no one on ship explained the significance.

  3. Skeet says:

    Illnevertell, damn good read. I’m a BM1 in the Navy and have a “few” tattoos that I have earned. Ole dollarbillz is entitled to his opinion, after all we Sailors are willing to die for his right of freedom of speech….however. If a Sailor fucked yer Mom, sister, or girlfriend or possibly kicked u or yer ole mans ass I can see why u hold a grudge. Thanks for the read, fair winds and following seas.

  4. What a laugh here is a woman in the navy talking about traditional tattoos. You forget that traditionally clothed woman were and still are considered bad luck on board a ship. Ancient superstitions don’t change in accordance with woman’s newly found liberties. Get out of this sheltered employment trance you’re entangled in and get a real job. Never forget that you are a public servant that gets paid to do a job through “Civilian” tax money. You don’t own any claim to any symbol so you can kiss my swallow tattoos.

    • illnevertell says:

      Your misogyny is unfortunate, but you’re obviously welcome to your opinion. I would ask that you not judge or form an opinion about those who serve in the military unless you yourself have actually served, because you CLEARLY don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. (Please see my other post about forming opinions without knowing a thing about the subject.) FYI: I’m no longer in the military, military members also pay taxes, and I would like to point out the irony of your attack and your disrespect of a Navy veteran on Veteran’s Day weekend. You bring the term “douchebag” to a whole new level!

      Looks like I have more balls than you do, at least I served. What have you done for God and country today?

    • Dover says:

      Well I don’t know about my fellow American salts, but here in the UK there is certainly documented history to prove that women in fact did serve at sea back in the 18th and 19th century and several were commemorated at the battle of Trafalgar. During battle they would assist the surgeon down in the belly of the ship in giving what little comfort and first aid they could. Either way they did serve, albeit not officially, although on some ships they were listed among the ships itinerary. Some women even disguised themselves as men and served in battle with distinction, see Hanna Snell who posed as a man in the Royal Marines, after deserting the army. Research is the key here, and many people like to give their opinions without doing any. The upshot of this? Your talking shit.

      • Dover says:

        By the way I’m ex Royal Navy and not American Navy so not sure if my above opinion counts, but I thought I’d throw my oar in.

      • illnevertell says:

        Hey, a sailor’s a sailor! Thank you for your service, and for the great history lesson! I’d never heard of Hanna Snell before now, very cool!

  5. SailorTilliDie says:

    From one sailor to another, I would like to thank you for this post, it was enlightening. I was unaware of the roster and pig tat’s on the legs meaning. Don’t let the hater’s drag you under, the ignorant are going to hate what they cannot understand.

  6. Anthony says:

    Great article, you did a wonderful job of showing the origin of tattoo symbols. I think the American Traditional style of tattooing is among the best in the world. These symbols look great and because of their meanings they hold significance. I do, however, think that symbols are just that, symbols. They represent a deeper meaning.

    I will speak for myself because there won’t be any speculation done on my part. I did not “earn” my hula girl, anchor, or swallows by navy standards. I picked to wear these symbols because of what they represent to me. My grandfather was a merchant marine and lived in Hawaii, my faith is my anchor, and I may not have traveled 10,000 miles at sea but the hard times and personal journey are not absent from my life. My point is symbols may have an origin but that does not mean that they were picked for that reason. That symbol may remind or “symbolize” something different for others.

    • illnevertell says:

      Hey, that’s great that you really took the time to choose pieces that mean something to you, I wish more people would do that.

      That being said, considering you aren’t a sailor, the swallows aren’t a big deal to me, but it doesn’t change the fact that I was pretty pissed when some chick with about five seconds in the Navy started getting all these tattoos (that had ZERO personal meaning). Like the idiot that commented above (bigmike), I don’t like people that get ink simply to show it off and look cool. Regardless of the origin of the piece, they give you a special feeling to have them, and that should be enough for anyone 🙂

  7. Garrett says:

    Love the article!!! I’m also a sailor but I work on the aviation side. I sadly have yet to do my sea time but I’m sure I’ll get there. I was actually thinking about getting the swallow and the pig/rooster tattoos before and after I took my first deployment and I was poking around to make sure I had the meanings correct and you definitely made certain tattoos clear. So thank you for the info.

  8. Sumner says:

    I started sailing at 9 years of age and I’m 49 next month. I have over 30,000 sea mile under my keel, many of them singled handed aboard a sailboat not a USN ship. I have many of these tattoos and have earned them. Your arrogance that only Navy seaman are worthy to have these tattoos is insulting. I’m always learning but I’ll match my seamanship to any Navy sailor.
    To head off any remarks to a term of service and the balls to lace up a pair of boots I served 6 years 101st Air Assault, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry, 2nd Brigade.

    To add to your list of tats, there is one that does belong to solely to Navy/Merchant Marines, is the “twin propellers” (1 on each cheek) to prevent from drowning, as they were meant to ‘propel’ you ashore.
    There is also a golden shellback the difference between the two is that they have crossed the equator at the international date line (00.00 N and 00.00 E)

    • illnevertell says:

      You know, if you had actually READ my post, you would know that I mention non-Navy mariners, so calm your tits, man. I never claimed that this was an all-inclusive list, I even specifically requested that people post about ones I missed. Thanks for the post about propellers, but I’m not sure why you decided to throw Golden Shellbacks in there. That’s not a specific tattoo, it’s just a separate term to denote the 0 latitude. You’re trying awfully hard to be pissy about something I never even claimed.

      • Sumner says:

        I have read your post and my reason for calling you arrogant is this comment, “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.” I admit arrogant is incorrect, hypocrite is more accurate.
        I have this tattoo and anyone who goes forward to sort out a sail in heavy weather should have this phrase foremost in the their mind. I have gone out on a 12 foot bowsprit because the downhaul had not been connected properly, I had one hand on the forestay one eye/hand on handling the sail the other eye on the next swell and my legs wrapped around the bowsprit as the bowsprit would pierce the top of the next wave as the ship fell off into the trough. I have gone up the rigging in a storm to retrieve a halyard for the mainsail. Both of these experiences I was trying to hanging on with any and every part of my body including my eyelashes. So this tattoo has real meaning for me and would also to many others who had done the same things I have.

        So take your own advice to “not form an opinion about someone” especially with a tattoo you deem has particularly significance before you know that person.

        I added the tattoos because of your request not to criticize what you have compiled.
        I believe in tradition and want an anchor tattoo but I would never get a fouled anchor because of the tradition of it representing the rank of a Chief Petty Officer. I am reluctant to get crossed anchors as I don’t consider myself a master of seamanship or “bosun’s mates”
        Also forgot to add shark tattoos as they have been a long tradition among sailors to have as proof you are not afraid of death at sea & for protection from being eaten by one.
        I mentioned the golden shellback because crossing the golden X is significant. And I have met a guy who has a golden turtle tattoo with the date of his crossing. But this is your list and it is up to you

      • illnevertell says:

        Fine, I grant you that as a “sailboat sailor,” “HOLD FAST,” is more applicable, but I have to say, you probably shouldn’t call someone arrogant and then follow it up with an egotistical story like that. Not that I don’t believe you, I’ve sailed in rough weather too, your kind of sailing, even, and I know how hard it is, but come on, man, you’re not impressing anyone.

        Also, if you’re going to insult me and call me names, I don’t see why you would want to try to add to my post, you clearly don’t agree with it, so forgive me if I wasn’t totally excited and eager to add your additions. I recommend that you “sail on,” because this clearly isn’t the post for you.

    • Thomas Kerr says:

      Sumner, why are you being so rude and defensive here? You APPEAR to have a problem with the fact you are a pleasure sailor as opposed to a navy man? Why? Also, as you CLAIM to have military experience, why so beligerant to a fellow countryman and service person?

  9. Jake says:

    Shellback tattoos were originally reserved for sailors who had crossed the equator. Pretty good article minus the assumption that you have to be in the navy. There were then and are now other professions on the water!

    • illnevertell says:

      Okay look, I’m aware there are other professions on the water. The purpose of this post was to educate people on the meaning and source of traditional Navy tattoos. Do other people have them? Yes. Are non-military sailors entitled to have them? Yes. Stop being such a baby and looking for a reason to complain.

      • Bri says:

        These tattoos were around before the U.S. Navy existed. They’re traditional mariner tattoos which were adopted by the navy. There is a specific tattoo for a golden shellback because that’s latitude AND longitude at the same time, and I got the shit beat out of me when I got mine.
        I completely agree with you that only mariners should get certain tattoos (merchant mariners and the navy) I think that the way you worded it offended some people who are merchant mariners. Also, since your friend has never been to sea, she hasn’t earned her sparrows. I’ve earned both of mine without stepping foot in the navy.
        I think if people read your entire post they would see where you referenced “hardcore mariners”
        Thanks for the post!

      • Rogers says:

        Love the article, But you forgot to mention the Jarheads who like to hitch a ride every now and then! I loved my time at sea, and happily took my beating during the crossing the line ceremony.

      • illnevertell says:

        Good call! I was on a small boy, I totally forgot about you guys! (Don’t tell my dad, he was attached to an amphib back in the day…) Glad you were able to get the nasty wog slime off of you 😉

  10. James says:

    Well where to start I’m a marine not a squid yet my dieing father in law was for 24 years I’m getting the pig and chicken on my feet more of a honer to him. Granted we did work on some ships I was a 1833 Aav driver so it was never for a long time. I get the fact of wanting to keep these for veteran personal only. But in truth that not what tattoos are about their about self expression. As for the guy with the Navy gay jokes, the only reason you are allowed to express yourself with tattoos or in writing is due to some of those same people you are talking shit about.

    • Lena Parent says:

      To start, thank you for your service, devil dog! Again, I’ve said this countless times in the comments: yes, the main thing is that tattoos have meaning, but it’s also important to know their history, and not shit on it like that loser who thinks it’s cool to have Navy/nautical tattoos when he’s probably never even been on a damn boat, let alone in the Service. If you want to get a pig and a chicken, go for it; like you said, jarheads go on ships, my dad was on a couple, too. I just think that honoring and knowing the reason your FIL had them is just as important as honoring the man himself.

  11. george says:

    Posers…really? Iwear a couple navy tats,never serverd,There in honor of my father, a ww2 submariner in the pacific

    • Lena Parent says:

      There’s nothing wrong with wanting to honor a loved one with a tattoo, see my reply to the guy asking about his grandfather, if you don’t believe me. My issue is that people get military tattoos without having served. I hope you’ve got his name on them or something, because without it, I see it as false advertising. You’re welcome to your opinion, but since I actually served and you didn’t, I think I’m also welcome to mine.

  12. Josh says:

    My grandfather passed away and I wanted to get a Navy themed tattoo in rememberance of him, but I certainly don’t want to misrepresent as someone who served. He served in ’46 and bounced around the Pacific. Would you have any suggestions? Thank you

    • Lena Parent says:

      Personally, if I was going to commemorate a person, I would probably go deeper than just their profession. There’s nothing wrong with including something referencing his service, but who was he to YOU? Was there something in particular that you wanted to remember about his service? Maybe you could get his name and a medal he got for something he was a part of. Saying “my grandfather was a sailor in the Pacific and I want to commemorate him with something specific and personal” is like saying he was a businessman somewhere in the United States. It’s not enough. Was he an officer or enlisted? What was his rank? If he was enlisted, what was his rate? What type of ship was he on? Was he involved in any kind of specific missions? The reason military members get “misrepresented” is because we all get lumped in together. If you want to honor the Navy, get a vague tattoo. If you want to honor your grandfather, get something that commemorates HIM.

  13. Matt says:

    I don’t necessarily agree that getting these tattoos makes you a poser if you have not served. If this were true then the majority of tattoos that people would get fall into that category. Although I have the utmost respect for every branch of the military and have family that have served, I myself have never served yet I was thinking of getting the pig and chicken tattoos on my feet because I am scared to death of drowning and really like the good luck superstition associated with them. Does that really make me a moron/idiot?

    • Lena Parent says:

      I’m sorry, but unless you’re some kind of mariner, getting a pig and rooster tattoo is pretty dumb. Go ahead, be afraid of drowning, but unless you’re in a profession/have a serious hobby of being out on the water, I don’t think it makes much sense for you to get them. It is my opinion that military tattoos be kept within the military, because they carry meaning, and it bugs the hell out of me when people get tattoos that carry ACTUAL meaning, and then say that they only got them for their own personal meaning. If I got a swastika tattoo, and said that I didn’t get it because of Hitler, but because the symbol carried “special meaning” to me, you’d all think I was a douchebag. I see no difference when traditional military tattoos are cannibalized by civilians who just want to “look salty.” Again, my opinion, it’s a guarantee that not everyone will agree with me.

      • Matt says:

        You make a lot of good points, especially by saying mariner. I just do not agree when you say keep the tattoos within the military because these superstitions have been around long before our military. The majority of tattoos carry actually meaning and seeing one person with one tattoo may actually mean something completely different to someone else in a different part of the world. For example, you see these gansters along with the wannabes proudly sport teardrop tattoos because it may be a reference to how many people they have killed. However, I heard that certain inmates Australia are given that tattoo to show that they are a sex offender. Therefore, the point I am trying to make is that there is no point in getting irritated with all of the people who sport the tattoo designs that have been used throughout the military because the actual meaning could be known to mean something completely different in another culture/ country. Unless rhe person falsely represents themselves as having military experience or they are a total douchebag, then more power to you…..

  14. […] it matter that my number one post is about Navy tattoos?  No, I don’t mind that one bit.  The Navy and Tattoos was my 12th post, and you want to know why I wrote it?  It wasn’t so much to bitch about […]

  15. Joe D says:

    Gramps was a merchant mariner turned USN WWII, and he did take me on one of his merchant mariner ships (pretty cool for a 12 year olds summer vacation, backbreaking work though), can I get a anchor tattoo in his honor?

  16. Edward says:

    I like the article. It has provided much of the information that I needed in order to complete my tattoo collection. I am a retired Commander- Surface Warfare Officer (you probably consider me the enemy) . In my day, officers only got tattoos surreptitiously. I sailed over 36,000 miles in my career and was wondering what combination of swallows (and stars) I am “allowed” to appropriately wear. I read on another site that it’s one swallow for 5,000 nm (as you said), but after 3 swallows, it’s a star for each 5,000. Any information or thoughts. I also crossed the Atlantic 4 times so I am looking to possibly incorporate an anchor (s) into the mix. Thanks for the excellent article and information. Looking forward to hearing more

    • illnevertell says:

      Thank you, Sir! I hadn’t heard of the third swallow or adding stars, but the latter definitely makes sense, considering that’s how we denote we have more than one medal/ribbon. Personally, I think after 10,000, people just lost track. I know I’ve done at least that much, but I have no clue how many miles I’ve actually sailed. Who does?? We go in circles half the time!

      • Edward says:

        “circles hall the time”… So true. I went through the exercise of trying to determine only the “point to point” transits. I can’t imagine calculating the time spent waiting for the carrier or the refueling ship. God what a nightmare. BTW, I realize you’e a woman and my previous comment was intended for the jerk bad-mouthing the “services of the sea”. You’e blog is both interesting and very cool to read.
        “Fair winds”

  17. illnevertell says:

    I know! I feel so bad! I hate the way the comment notifications are set up through WP, I didn’t realize until AFTER I replied that you were responding to BigMike, I do apologize! I deleted it as soon as I could!

  18. TurkeyDriver says:

    Edward said… “In my day, officers only got tattoos surreptitiously.” I second that. I’m a retired O-5/Aviator. My first tat was as an O-3 on liberty in Perth. Me and two air wing buddies got our wings tattooed on our left breast. We were the first three in line at a seedy tat joint in Freemantle waiting for the place to open. As the sailors started to show up they saw us and they all wanted to know why we O’s were there. They had a hard time grasping we were getting a tat. I’ve added a few traditional sailor tats since then. Earned them all . Love them all.
    I plan to spend my 2nd retirement on a 42 foot sailboat circumnavigating. Before I leave I’m getting the Pig and Chicken. Cant be too safe!

  19. Kurent k Garst says:

    Not sure why’d ya laugh at some one with a rope or hold fast tattoo. Some sailors still handle ropes. Especially tugs. Think of the crew the u.s. Navy has on the Constitution. Just because your in the navy doesn’t mean you’ve seen all the walks of sailors. And you didn’t even cover all the traditional tattoos. But other than that, great post. Thanks for your service.
    From a fellow sailor- MM

    • illnevertell says:

      Because handling ropes isn’t nearly the job it was back in the days of sail. Trust me, I know. I’ve done plenty of line handlers and CONREPS to know. I’m also not sure what you mean by “traditional tattoos,” because the tattoos I covered were basically all the traditional tattoos I had heard of/seen/could find on the Internet. Are you mad because I didn’t specifically include your MM propeller? I briefly mentioned the rates and ranks, which are public knowledge, and I wasn’t going to go through and list/show every single one. I do have a life, you know 😉

  20. charlie says:

    Just wanted to add two.
    Palm trees signify cruising the Mediterranean.
    Dagger through a Swallow is a Shipmate that didn’t return.

  21. Sammy says:

    I’ve got sailor tattoos but never served in the navy. I have however traveled the world by boat in a 28 year sport fishing career, and in the past few years running supply boats in the oilfields of the GoM and Trinidad. I hope that you don’t discount my sea time as I have crossed the Atlantic and returned, crossed the equator twice and been to Hawaii and back all in a 65′ boat. That’s a little tougher to do than in a big navy ship I’d guess. I’ve earned the right to wear my sparrows, anchor and shellback with pride, even though I’m just a civilian.

  22. Schmessi says:

    Upon talking with my shipmates, we turned to the internet for a quick reference about the different traditional tattoos for Cape Horn crossings (blue/red stars, etc..), and came across this article. You seem to forget that there are many, many water vessels outside of the Navy, and those of us civillians working on them earn our right to these meaningful tattoos just as any other sailor, regardless of whom exactly you’re employed by.

  23. zerocoolseattle says:

    I already have two nautical stars, and the eagle, globe and anchor. – USMC (2005-2009) would getting sparrows be a bad idea?

  24. Andrew says:

    The navy definitely has steam powered ships by the way. It’s the fundamental principal behind all nuclear powered vessel and I’ve stood enough watch in an SSN engineroom to be sure of that. I know it’s not really relevant to the article but it kind of irked me.

    • illnevertell says:

      If you want to get technical, yes, nuclear ships are steam powered. However, when we refer to “steam-powered ships,” we’re talking about the old boiler-powered ones. Only a damn nuke would be “irked” by this, smh…

      • Seal90 says:

        I am an ex navy seal who spent two tours over seas and would like to start by thanking all of my fellow sailors for your service. Immediately following that, anyone who has not served our beloved country in any branch of the military should not try to state any opinion begrudging our service for your freedom! Honor, courage, and commitment. This is what we stand for and will continue to long after the battle is through.

    • mrwinkel93 says:

      Bro I’m a Coner, and she’s right quit nukin it out.

  25. thrag says:

    Yeah, while I agree that one should have served some serious time on a boat to get these tattoos, they aren’t all purely Navy tattoos.

    But i’m just the daughter of fishermen and descendant of whalers from Alaska, who has been on fishing/crabbing boats and worked on them since she was born (spent the first 3 years of my life living on one instead of in a house). We go out when the coastguard and navy ships stay safe in harbor. Even the special warfare training they’re doing up here this year is happening in summer, when the waters are the calmest.

    As for “Hold Fast”, I believe the coast guard still has a tall sailing ship which they use for training.

  26. mrwinkel93 says:

    @illnevertell Loved your blog shipmate, not just this one but I’ve got a few things for this one. Your swallows right on after 2 you can do north stars (blue nauticals) near their beaks heads to denote each 5knm after. Also a blade through one or a broken anchor & chain is for a shipmate on eternal patrol. Anchors waaay to many to explain. To add to Dragons a golden dragon means crossing the int’l date line the 180th meridian. As for “Hold Fast”, lets not forget the Navy and Sailors in general are about traditions, but just as sails went to coal/gas to nuke, traditions evolve to. In more than one real situation I used those very famous words on some fng-ish mates that were starting to buckle. It was even in the write up for one of my pieces of candy. As far as Shellbacks go, just like you were saying of the E-I-owe-u-ones swallow, it does matter. I whipped off me wog scum and put me golden shell on first, there’s only one higher and if you do any of the 3 it really depends on the saltiness and leadership of those passing these things down.
    One of the biggest things to also remember is that not only you earn your ink but also the placement, like any JR’s or black plain anchors go behind your left arm, O’s should not wear any at all. From experience I was in front of the green table 4 times and the tower once. But most were dismissed. I was also Cap’d 3 times and never busted, so trust me this one I know 🙂
    Again placement, Nautical Stars have changed, in the USN we use 5 pointed stars, other countries and meanings use more but ours is 5 and that is by American traditional inkwork, not saying we own it by any means. Blue is your North star, you know your way home. On the Back red on left, green on right means friendly. On front friendly is same as return to port Red Right Returning. If red on left front, green on right front like mine are its a warning just as at sea. I’m headed right for you and not afraid / been in battle. To the Devil Dog, I’m a squid with fmf so brother, if you left the conus in service, get your stars, you’ve earned em. Remember your crest says Department of the Navy – United States Marines.
    Now a rare and nearly forgoton one I earned in me days at Pearl, A sailor standing with fists raised or a dial set to flank, is worn about the shoulders, front or back. It isn’t legal now, but if you were in the Navy you may know. It’s for steamers or navy or marine boxers. I earned all of my ink and wish others would treat real traditions with a bit more respect. There is a difference between Stolen Valor and honoring a loved one, both deserve to be inked, just do your research and tattoo it in the right way.
    I know many more if you’ve got more Q’s and I may comment on your other posts later. Keep posting if it helps with any thing your dealing with and know you’ve inspired this wounded vet, force retired too early to try an outlet like this meself. Thanks shipmate, and to all our bros and sisters here too, Fair Winds and Following Seas!

    • NorthernMariner says:

      Many thanks for your post, though one must concede that the comments and rebuttals descend quickly into sheer entertainment…

      I, for one, agree on the whole with your post, though reserve perhaps a greater respect for mariners under sail than the majority of your respondents. And yes, nuclear is not steam, and steam is not sail (but both are just gaseous fluid, right?). No.

      It brings from below an overpowering sickness every time I see a hipster boasting ‘hold fast’ or the sparrows. Also, as one who has lived in Siberia, the Rook tattoo or the stars on one’s shoulders and knees is an utterly plagiaristic insult and an oath.

      I continue to reserve for the anchor until this passage is complete.

  27. Janae says:

    Hello, I was just wondering if you think it would be appropriate for me to get a tattoo of the ship my grandfather served on in world war two? He passed away this year and I’ve been looking for a way to pay tribute to him. The navy was a big part of his life and so it seems like the best way to go. I don’t know where this falls in with all the unwritten rules and such. Any feedback is appreciated, thank you!

  28. Hey there! Love the article, lots of good stuff here. As an Atlantic sailor and a boats myself, I’ll say that alot of us in Mayport would get the red fluked anchor specifically for completing a deployment in the Atlantic. Not really sure when the red fluked part started, but it’s pretty common.

  29. Will says:

    I’ve been out for some time now, served aboard the U.S.S. Honolulu SSN 718 out of Pearl and have been wanting to get some tattoos to honor my service. Definitely want to get my dolphins with the hull number but wasn’t sure what else to get. Very informative. Thanks.

  30. Sailor Eric says:

    Actually the swallow tattoo predates the USNavy as it was a tradition in the British Royal Navy and while you are right about sailors getting them for both returning home and time at sea no one knows for sure which one is the right true past. But I digress civilians getting sailor tattoos piss me off too!

    • Earl Theodorsen says:

      I agree with you, civilians should not get “Naval Tattoos”.
      I have an Anchor / Swallow Tattoo, but I served on three navy ships in the 50s…

  31. Nick Goodman says:

    Great article / I earned both my swallows, and I agree, don’t get military tats unless you were/are military -unless- you are honoring a loved one. Only problem is most people don’t know some tats have military origin. If that’s the case, no sweat, just know what it is so you don’t look stupid. Cool tat – I was on an amphib and met a marine with an old Looney Tunes looking bulldog with horns poking out of his hat. It was a damn cool tat.

    • Earl & Barbara says:

      Nick, Best tattoo was a full body tat’ of a Tiger on an “Officer’s Mess Boy’s” back… Great color, head as big as a Dinner Plate.. Tail went down to his ankle, took him three years to get it… Worst one, spiders crawling from ears to nose on a guy in the Brig, while I was a temp prisoner chaser in Brooklyn, NY Transfer Station.

  32. Julia says:

    I have a question, my grandpa recently passed away and he was a retired captain. I do not have any tattoos and this is the first time I’ve even thought about getting one. But I want to know if it would be seen as disrespectful. I was wanting to get the eagle symbol that was on his captains uniform with his initials in it. Would that be ok? I’m not in the military.

    • illnevertell says:

      I’m not here to tell anyone what to do. If you get a military tattoo as a memorial to someone, I don’t really have a problem with it, as long as it’s clear that it’s a memorial and you’re not trying to pose as a servicemember.

  33. Lala Chauhan says:

    What does the spider on the ankle mean, right or left? I have personally seen them as a kid in the 70’s.

    • illnevertell says:

      I don’t know about the placement, but I know spider WEB tattoos are usually associated with prison, and adding spiders means you’ve killed someone? I kind of doubt a lone spider means that, though. I can’t find anything about the significance anywhere!

  34. Luke says:

    Wow, you are extremely arrogant, its not a good look for a sailor. And why are u talking about the “old navy” as if you were in it, you are obviously not 40 by reading your article and i doubt you are mid to late 30s so you never were a part of the “old navy”. How long have you been in? This article reaks of just got out of boot camp hooyah. Tattoos mean different things to different people, this article if just a watered down “im offended” statement.

    • illnevertell says:

      Sure, maybe I am arrogant, but I’m definitely not a booter. It’s been nearly 12 years since I went to Great Lakes, lol. I’m sorry, but your comment reeks of “I also did this, don’t criticize me!” If you think it’s cool for people to get traditional tattoos that actually mean something within the organization you operate in, then we’re just going to have a difference of opinion. I think it’s nearly as bad as Stolen Valor. There are some tattoos you have to earn, and if you don’t have the integrity to do that, then no, I don’t respect you, and im certainly not the only one with that opinion. Military tattoos definitely look cool, but they also carry meaning, and I will never look past that meaning.

  35. Anja Buwert says:

    Hi, I am working for a German TV production company and we are planning something on sailors and traditional nautical tattoos. Therefore we are looking for a crew that can tell us more about there tattoos and the meaning. I thought you might have an idea who I could approach. All the best, Anja

    • Earl Theodorsen says:

      Hi Anja, If I were you I would go to the larger NAVY Ports on the East & West Coasts of the US and visit the Tattoo shops…Newport, RI & Norfolk VA on the East Coast and San Dago, Cal. Most Tattoos today are just “Body Art” and don’t seem to mean a Dam Thing..
      Got mine well over 50 years ago (1957/1964) and they all are special.. I also have the names of the three ships that I served on,had them put on only a short while ago.The Ships are all gone now, two sold for scrap and one sunk. Good Luck with your quest.. Earl

    • illnevertell says:

      Anja, I’ve put the word out, but it seems the consensus among my shipmates is that I’m the one who’s done the most research, lol. If you can find a tattoo artist who specializes in Navy tattoos, it might provide you the expert knowledge you require.

  36. Deew says:

    Hi,good day,i just want to ask if i could get this kind of tattoo specialy the anchor even though i am not a sailor or never been at sea?i really appriciate your answer.thank you. 🙂

    • illnevertell says:

      Hey look, you get whatever tattoo you want. If you want an anchor, get an anchor. I’m sure there’s a specific reason for it, maybe someone or something you’re “anchored” to? My biggest issue with tattoos is people who are attempting to look like something they aren’t. As long as you’re not professing to be a sailor or a Chief with that anchor tattoo, you’re not hurting anyone. The person in this story got a very specific tattoo in a very specific location that means a very specific thing in the Navy. As a Navy Sailor, she should have known better. Civilians get way more leeway.

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