Tattoos have a unique place in American culture. Decades ago, they were almost the exclusive dominion of sailors, soldiers, and roughnecks who found themselves at society’s edges. Today, tattoos are as much a part of mainstream culture as anything—they stand at the center of popular reality TV shows, adorn the bodies of pro athletes and pop stars, and make something as mundane as Ben Affleck frolicking on a beach headline-worthy.
Ben Affleck: The phoenix tattoo is fake for a movie.
Also Ben Affleck: pic.twitter.com/k97oa0ld12
— Sarah (@Cinesnark) March 16, 2018
Much like the winged magical beast that adorns the back of Gotham’s current Batman, the history of traditional tattoos is worthy of further exploration. To glance at the designs offered on the wall of any tattoo shop that specializes in traditional Americana tattoos is to take a journey around the oceans of the world and into the minds and hearts of anyone who has ever gone under the needle of a tattoo artist.
These works of body art offer insight into where our country has been and how society has changed since the first waves of American sailors returned to port with permanent souvenirs of their journeys. From the tattooed forearms of Popeye to the Pinterest-perusing tattoo seekers of today, prepare to get buzzed with some ink insights that may surprise you.
Tattoos on the Open Sea
While tattoos have been a regular practice among many indigenous peoples going all the way back to ancient Egypt, the introduction of tattoos to North American society was courtesy of sailors who returned from journeys around the world. Urbo corresponded with Lee Roller, CEO of Custom Tattoo Design, who reveals that most give credit to intrepid explorer Captain Cook and his exploration of the South Pacific for first introducing tattoos to western sailors.
“They discovered the Maori people and their culture of tattooing,” says Roller, “and decided to get inked as a form of souvenir from their journey.”
Like collecting stickers, patches, or novelty snow globes when traveling, this permanent reminder of places visited caught on for those who sailed the open seas.
“Other sailors were fascinated by this idea and began getting tattoos to commemorate their journeys abroad,” says Roller.
Ian Jones, a tattoo artist at True Tattoo Hollywood, has years of experience giving people traditional or neo-traditional Americana tattoos. He says sailor tattoos acted just the same as stamps in a passport and helped tell a story.
”They would get tattoos in different places to show where they’ve been and what they’ve done,” Jones says.
This tradition has somewhat carried on to this day. Jones will often tattoo visitors to Los Angeles with a Route 66 sign or a palm tree to commemorate their visit to California.
Symbols of Accomplishment
As sailors traversed the world, certain tattoos would signify accomplishments. Because these markings meant something, it was rare for someone to get a certain symbol without doing the deed.
“Anchors symbolize having sailed across the Atlantic,” Roller says. This gives us some insight into the nautical accomplishments of Popeye the Sailor.
“If you traveled over 5,000 miles,” Jones says, “a sailor could get a swallow tattoo.”
Other tattoos of note for sailors included a hardshell turtle for crossing the equator, a dragon for a trip to Asia, and a Hula girl for visiting Hawaii, according to Roller.
“A sailor getting one of these symbols as a tattoo without actually completing the task would be in bad taste,” he explains.
Such markings and signifiers were popular for the seafaring men of the past, but do they still apply?
Filmmaker Zach Guerra, a former Naval flight officer and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is familiar with these signifying tattoos, but he never got traditional tattoos during his time in the service or while ticking off certain nautical accomplishments.
“I think it’s pretty on-the-nose for Navy guys to get tattoos,” Guerra says, recalling a lot of folks getting dramatic displays of flags, eagles, and other overtly patriotic symbols.
Guerra crossed the equator, but in lieu of a shellback tattoo, he has a shellback card, a certificate of the classic naval tradition.
Today, nautical symbols are staples of traditional Americana tattoo art (without the attached traditional meanings), thanks to the signature work of Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins. Collins set up a tattoo shop in Hawaii in the 1930s and 1940s, and nautical symbols in his art style are still fairly popular. Traditional Americana tattoos are now nearly synonymous with Sailor Jerry.
Wearing Your Personality on Your Sleeve
Just as some classic tattoos signified certain achievements, other classic tattoos carried meaning that could tell you about the wearer.
“[These tattoos] helped sailors speak to each other without saying a word,” Roller says. “Dice tended to represent both that a sailor was a risk-taker, and he liked to gamble. So if another sailor was looking to make a wager, they would approach sailors with dice tattoos first.”
Roller goes on to explain that a dagger through a heart tattoo acted as a symbol for bravery or fearlessness, meaning any man with such a tattoo could be counted on in a dangerous situation—or was not to be trifled with at the local tavern.
While these tattoo codes may not be as widely known today, many tattoos are still imbued with strong symbolism. There’s a long tradition of those who have served in the military using tattoos to share a part of their personality or backstory with the world.
“A lot of military guys are still respectful about the [tattoo] tradition,” shares Jones, who served in the army and began his tattoo career near Fort Hood in Texas.
Both Guerra and Jones reveal that a popular tattoo among those who served in the Marine Corps is the EGA—Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. The image is the official emblem of the Marines, and each element signifies something different: The eagle stands for the United States, the globe represents the global protection commitment of the Corps, and the fouled anchor harkens to the Marines’ roots and relationship with the U.S. Navy.
Guerra acknowledges that the Marines are more likely to get Marine-specific tattoos due to the immense pride associated with the selective fighting force. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” Guerra quotes, noting that the Navy’s larger numbers means people aren’t quite as gung-ho to get Navy-specific tattoos.
In fact, Guerra’s ink from his time at the Naval Academy was done more as an act of rebellion than a pledge of allegiance. His tattoo is the shades-wearing baseball from the Major League movie poster sporting a mohawk of blue and gold—the colors of the Naval Academy baseball team for which Guerra once played.
From Fringe to Mainstream
Tattoos have undergone a dramatic perception shift in American society over the course of the 20th century and up to today. Guerra recalls watching an air show with an aunt who remarked that tattoos were only for “prisoners and ne’er-do-wells” before he had to reveal that he had three.
“[Tattoos] used to be seen just on sailors, and then on circus performers, and as time went on, tattoos became a symbol for bikers and people on the ‘outskirts’ of society,” he says.
The song “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” first sung by Groucho Marx and later co-opted by Kermit the Frog, illustrates the old American perception of tattoos. The song recounts a tale of a woman whose myriad tattoos read like an AP History textbook: “On her back is the Battle of Waterloo/Beside it the wreck of the Hesperus too/And proudly above waves the red, white, and blue/You can learn a lot from Lydia!”
The carnival-barker attire and litany of classic scenes and landmarks make for a decent encapsulation of the specific role tattoos once played in American society: that of a sideshow attraction. Jones recalls that tattoos were once only associated with places like Coney Island and other carnival-like environments. However, now that is far from the case.
Roller explains that the ’70s and ’80s saw more musicians and celebrities sporting tattoos, which caused some people to change their opinions: “[Tattoos] started to be seen as cool and edgy and not just reserved for society’s ‘undesirables.’”
Jones credits the proliferation of television and the internet as the way more of the public was exposed to famous people with tattoos.
Today, it’s safe to say tattoos are part of mainstream culture. “A lot of people have tattoos now, so it’s not as taboo of a thing,” Jones says. “You’re almost more of a rebel if you don’t have a tattoo.”
The elevation of tattoos in America can be seen in the idea of “tattoo tourism”—folks traveling just to receive a tattoo from a certain artist.
However, tattoo culture isn’t embraced everywhere. Guerra notes that, in an ironic twist, the Naval Academy has actually enacted a new policy where some applicants can be rejected for having too many tattoos.
“It’s f****** ridiculous if you think about it, considering how so much of tattoos started with the military and the Navy,” he says.
Tattoo Meanings in the Age of Google and Pinterest
Tattoos have come a long way since the days of a limited number of images offered by a handful of artists down by the docks. The reasons why people have gotten tattooed have changed a bit as well.
“In World War II and stuff, people were a lot more proud of military service and stuff like that,” Jones says. “Now, people are more proud of whatever Kanye West is doing.”
Roller says traditional tattoos are still popular, but the number of options has gone way up to offer interested customers pretty much any tattoo they could want. “Neo-traditional, for instance,” explains Roller, “has become very popular and takes tons of inspiration from the major aesthetics of traditional, while expanding on the motifs and color schemes.”
Jones still prefers to deal in traditional or neo-traditional Americana tattoos and says some of the most popular choices include flowers, snakes, skulls, and girls.
“Roses are number one,” he reveals. “Roses are on everything.”
Jones calls Pinterest a “blessing and a curse” for tattoo artists. On one hand, Pinterest and Google can open up a whole world of designs for an artist to check out and admire. But the internet also gives way to individuals coming in with a picture on their phone and demanding the artist copy it. The problem? Some tattoos you see online aren’t even real—they’re too intricate to be done and could be photoshopped images.
Jones will even refuse to give certain tattoos from time to time. He lets his patrons know he doesn’t have to draw any tattoo he doesn’t want to: “This is not Burger King. You’re buying an original painting from me.”
According to Jones, another issue with getting tattoos from an internet search is originality—customers may go on Google to search for a tattoo that perfectly suits them, but they don’t realize that, if it’s on the first page of a Google search, that image is going to be far from original.
Jones argues most would be better off talking to a tattoo artist who can give patrons an original version of a tattoo available in the artist’s shop rather than a facsimile of something online.
It also seems that, like finite catalogs of possible tattoos to choose from, the unspoken language tattoos once offered no longer exists. Jones complains that many people just want words or phrases tattooed rather than an image steeped with meaning.
”It used to be that old saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ but now they want you to understand exactly what it is,” he says.
While the significance of oceans traversed or battles won may not still be immediately associated with tattoos, nearly all who receive tattoos still do so for some kind of special meaning: travels, personal milestones, expressions of their true self, or maybe just the honor of having a noted tattoo artist use their body as a canvas. While the meanings aren’t as immediately recognizable, asking a tattoo-wearer the significance of their tattoo will likely reveal the specific meaning it has to them.