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Throughout the history of American tattooing, any design that represents patriotism has been made incredibly popular, especially with those in the military. The popularity of ship imagery has been maintained since the art of tattooing came back to America.

Before going any further, I must make one thing clear: tattooing was not invented by the white man, and especially not a white American man. Indigenous cultures across many parts of the world (several in Africa and North America, notably) tattooed each other for thousands of years before Christopher Columbus ever even thought about boarding those ships to “discover” America. Tattooing in the European, Christian world just didn’t exist; it had been banned by Pope Hadrian I in the mid-700s on account of its “sacrilegious” nature (it was believed to be blasphemous to alter God’s likeness—the body). Other nearby cultures, like Asia, considered tattoos to be the mark of criminals, and did not really tattoo either. Captain James Cook, explorer and Captain of the British Royal Navy, after his first voyage to the Tahitian islands (1768-1771) where he recorded his experiences with Polynesian tattooed people, brought word back to Europe. From there, the practice of tattooing started its journey slowly but surely in Europe, and it later made its way to America. Funny enough, it was ships that brought tattooing to the “modern” world.

The earliest, clearest, accurately dated photo of a ship tattoo I could find was taken in 1902. It features Gus Wagner and another man, Victor Lundblad (though the last name is unclear; the writing is hard to decipher and none of my internet searches could provide a solid name), standing in underwear to display their many tattoos. Mysterious Victor has a tattoo of a ship across his chest. Gus himself has a small ship tattooed on the right side of his stomach. Similarly to eagle tattoos which I discussed in a past blog, I believe that ships were tattooed even before the timestamp written on the photo; there are several photos which appear older than the one I mentioned before but they lacked sufficient proof of dates, so I cannot credit them. In my opinion, the hubs of tattooing during the 1800s —New York and Chicago — and their sailor artists like Samuel F. O’Reilly, Charles Wagner, “Lew the Jew” Alberts, and Brooklyn Joe Lieber collectively tattooed hundreds of ships predating 1902 that photographical evidence can’t back quite yet.

Nevertheless, ships have always been popular among sailors. Often worn as chest or back pieces, ships symbolize a journey, adventure, determination, patriotism, and adversity or serve as a talisman. There are endless ways to tattoo ships, but some of the more traditional designs feature a clipper cutting through waves surrounded by eagles, flags, and flowers with script reading things like “Homeward Bound” or “Sailor’s Grave”. Each of these phrases holds their own connotations—“Homeward Bound” has a bit of a lighter tone, often worn by navy men who hope for a safe return home. “Sailor’s Grave” was originally worn to symbolize a recognition by the wearer of the dangers that come with the sea and sometimes doubled as a tribute to fallen sailors before their time. This phrase’s ship was sometimes designed to be wrecked or half sunk. As time progressed, the seas became a bit safer, and the tattoo became popular more for its classic design than its rather morose connotations.

In essence, ships have been used often as tattoo designs since tattooing became popularized in America. Sailors have typically been the type to get them, but nowadays, they’re popular among a wide variety of people. If you ever find yourself in the market for a ship tattoo, feel free to stop by our shop where we can set you up with an artist to match your taste!