Sailor Ink: The History of Sailors and Their Tattoos

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As can be imagined, horrific storms, slick decks, hungry sharks, and left behind lovers were all on the minds of the early European sailors (Vanishing Tattoo, 2009). Their endless journeys took them far from the comforts of home and deep into unknown foreign worlds and their unforgiving seas, but the sailors’ hard work would not go unpaid. Their travels to such exotic places allowed the sailors to witness numerous things that have long gone unseen or forgotten by many; among these, the ancient art of tattoos (Vanishing Tattoo, 2009). “The word tattoo in the English language comes from the Tahitian word ‘ta-taw’, which was thought to mimic the sound made by the traditional Polynesian tattooing implements as they made a tattoo (Vanishing Tattoo, 2009). Tahitian natives passed on their primitive and ritualistic art, which was very tribal in nature, to the sailors after their arrival to the island (Vanishing Tattoo, 2009). Later, the sailors created their own legend of symbols and meanings from what was originally taught to them on the islands (Vanishing Tattoo, 2009). This updated form of the art is now known as “traditional” style tattoos. Despite this term, the history of sailors and their tattoos only goes back to the late 1700’s (Tattoo Archive, 2003). From their first introduction to present day, the sailors’ own updated designs have been decorating their bodies as tribute to their lives, loves, hopes, and fears with birds, ship parts, and symbols of love and religion (Vanishing Tattoo, 2003). Renowned tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly has said before, “A sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog; not seaworthy” (Tattoo Archive, 2003). This idea was derived from the shear popularity of tattoos among the sailors. Evolved from the perfect Tahitian souvenir, maritime tattoos were a sailor’s creative display of protection from superstitious fears and journeys

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