Nautical Tattoos

People today wear nautical tattoos carrying a sense of fantasy and mysticism reminiscent of seventeenth century sailors who travelled the oceans and seas. The most popular of these tattoos is the nautical star, which is believed to guide sailors who are lost at sea. Aside from this, there are many more nautical tattoos that represent various themes related to navigation, aquatics, military service (Navy), and boating. This article will share with you meanings of common nautical tattoos like swallows, anchors and Hula girls.

Nautical Tattoos Meaning


The use of nautical tattoos dates back to the 16th century, when sailors used to bring back to Europe tribal ‘souvenirs’ from people in the Pacific. Written records (diary of Captain John Cook) from the 17th century speak of tattoos (Polynesian, ‘tatus’), which were seen on the bodies of indigenous people.


Nautical tattoos served as mementos that marked the patriotism, triumphs, and voyages of a sailor. Some of these images were also believed to be talismans to fight bad luck or bring good fortune. These maritime men were often superstitious, since their lives usually revolved around unpredictable factors. These symbols include the following:

1. Nautical Star


Nautical star is believed to represent the star, which guides lost sailors home. Below are the possible meanings conveyed by nautical stars in different context:

  • If the nautical star is on the left wrist in line with the thumb, it is believed to guide one’s future, since the left palm in palm readings reveals one's future.
  • For others, the nautical star, when used on the right shoulder with angel wings, symbolizes that someone is watching over him. It shows a sailor's trust on celestial powers.
  • If the tattoo is colored green or red, it may symbolize one’s membership in the starboard or port watch.
  • The nautical star can also have an allegorical meaning, where the wearer desires to obtain more guidance in life.
  • Two nautical stars worn on the chest representing the port (red, on the left) and starboard (green, on the right), serve as a warning for others. These signify that the person has engaged and won in dangerous or epic activities.
  • Today, a nautical star in pink and black colors symbolizes breast cancer. A star with colors green and black symbolizes Irish diversity and strength. A star worn on each shoulder by the Russian mafia is earned in criminal activities. If worn without being “made man” by the mafia, it results in beatings, rape, or death.

Like other tattoo designs, a nautical star may not bear any meaning to the wearer or the viewer. It may simply be appreciated for its simplicity, symmetry, or beauty.

2. Swallows


The origin of the swallow tattoo dates back to a historic mutiny on a ship called The Swallow, where seven mutineers wore a swallow tattoo on their chest for easy identification. Since then, sailors get the tattoo for different reasons, such as seeing a swallow, bluebird, or sparrow at sea, signifying that there is land nearby. Swallows are known for returning home to their mates for life, symbolizing loyalty.

Swallows also symbolize experience and they were traditionally tattooed on a sailor’s chest for every 5 thousand nautical miles travelled. Journeys were usually riddled with many hardships, sickness, starvation, and death, so having more swallows on the chest means more experience and respect earned by the sailor.

3. Dagger through a Heart


A dagger-through-the-heart tattoo usually symbolizes the end of a relationship because of betrayal or unfaithfulness. The words “Death before Dishonor” is part of the design, and is a popular tattoo in the military, as far back as Ancient Rome. However, by the time of Tacitus, a Roman historian and senator, the vow had become outdated among the Romans, and was adopted instead by barbarians.

When incorporated with the bald eagle, the dagger and heart design symbolizes American patriotism.

4. Anchors


Anchors became popular tattoo designs in the 18th century, symbolizing a sailor’s desire for a steady course of travel at sea. Anchors keep sailors stable on the ship, especially in turbulent waters. The anchor tattoo also offers sailors hope of returning home.

The anchor may be part of the ‘sailor grave’ design, which also features an eagle, a sinking ship, and a life preserver, which represent a dangerous life at sea.

5. Hula Girls


Women were considered as bad luck to sailors, so they were forbidden in the ship. Girlfriends, lovers, and wives were left behind at port. Tattoo with women’s names became popular to ease the lovers’ parting and to assure themselves of their return.

Pictures of mermaids, pin-up girls, and hula girls signified a sailing lifestyle. Distant lands and female natives are represented by hula girls while a dangerous life at sea was symbolized by mermaids and sirens. Recently, pin-up girls symbolized women the sailors left behind, who will be waiting for their safe return.

6. Symbols for Milestone




The sailor has served in China or sailed to China.

Ship fully rigged

The sailor has travelled to Cape Horn.

Golden dragon

The sailor has crossed the International Date Line.

7. Symbols for Luck



Hold fast

Reminds the sailor to hold on fast to the lines during bad weather, so as not be thrown off.

Pig and rooster

Pig and roosters are often kept in wooden crates which would float in cases of storm. Tattooed on the foot or behind the ankle to symbolize survival from shipwreck. Also, a pig on the (left) knee, means safety at sea and a cock on the (right) ankle, means never to lose in a fight.

Twin propellers on the butt cheeks

Believed to prevent one from drowning, since they ‘propelled’ you ashore.

8. Symbols for Identification




Merchant Marine

Guns / Cross cannons

Military Naval Service

Rope (around wrist)



Fishing Fleet member

Notes: After learning about all these symbolisms, you can choose which design best conveys your sentiments in getting a tattoo. Tell your tattoo artist which icon you want and ask him to plan a suitable image composition.

Watch a video for nautical tattoo designs:

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