The American tattoo tradition is believed to have began during the American war of independence, primarily with sailors. United States sailors wanted to make sure they had defining, distinguishable marks on their bodies. The British navy would take unclaimed soldiers, and the best way to avoid this was by having defining marks of who they claimed to be. Thus a culture of tattooing was cultivated among sailors. In addition, they would travel to lands with rich tattoo culture and get tattoos to remind them of their travels, or to remind them of their homes and families. Sailor tattoos surged forth with cherished meanings. These days, the meaning behind these images isn’t as concrete. Most people get traditional images because something about them speaks people. There’s a timelessness to the designs, made to last. Whatever they mean to you, we still hold true to these images and symbols that make up American traditional tattooing.

Popular Nautical Tattoo Designs and Their Original Meanings:

Ships and Pirate Ships

An image of a fully rigged ship sometimes signified that the sailor has sailed around Cape Horn. Cape Horn is at the southernmost tip of South America where the waters are rough and stormy. Sometimes the ships were replicas of vessels the sailors sailed. A pirate ship could be symbolic for determination and adventure.


The anchor symbolizes stability and steadfast strength. With the representation of steadiness and endurance, it is common for an anchor to have a loved one’s name draped around it. The image of a compass or nautical star is a representation of the North Star guiding the ship home.

Hula and Pin-Up Girls

A Pin-Up girl tattoo was often the only female a sailor may see while away. The old school pin up girls could imply the memory of a loved one back home. Tattoos of Hula girls usually represent that a sailor has been to the islands of Hawaii.


A mermaid often personified the love that a sailor has for the sea. The mermaid beckons the sailor to return to ‘his true mistress’, the sea.


A swallow is a bird that is known for its long migrations and its safe return to home. It is common for a swallow to travel the long distance between the Americas, hence the symbolism in nautical tattoos of a ship that sails to a far away destinations and returns safely home. If a sailor were to die at sea, the swallows would carry his soul home to heaven.


A black panther exemplifies prowess, bravery and courage.


The American bald eagle is a true patriotic symbol representing honor, strength, intelligence and focus. All the characteristics a sailor would encompass.


A snake is often tattooed in a coiled position, ready to strike. The snake is a symbol of power and potency, a warning to enemies.

Pigs and Roosters

Pigs and roosters were often transported in wooden crates. Often it is these passengers that survived a fallen vessel, protected by the cages they resided in the pigs and roosters had alarming survival rates. A pig on the right foot and a rooster on the left signified the ability to survive. This is symbolic for keeping the sailor from drowning.


A shell-back turtle signifies that a sailor has crossing the equator while out to sea.


Death fascinates, and ultimately comes for, us all. For this reason, skulls and other death related motifs are popular tattoo choices. Often this is a form of “memento mori”, or a reminder that everyone dies. For other who’s occupation bring them close to death at times, such as soldiers and sailors, it serves to represent a coming to terms with, or even warding off, the inevitable.


A heart is symbolic of keeping loved ones close. Adding a name to your heart is a personalized way to honor your loves.


A dagger represents a broken heart or a lost love.

Whether your tattoo reflects your patriotism, your accomplishments at sea, is a symbol to guard oneself from bad luck, or you just like the way it looks, tattoos are as unique as the person wearing them. For old school tattoo designs and inspiration look to the flash art created by American Traditional Tattoo artist and legends Cap Coleman, Sailor Jerry or Paul Rogers.

We love these tattoos, not only do they represent the beginnings of our tattoo culture, but they hold fast, and hold strong forever. These tattoos look simple because they are applied with so much skill. Bold lines, solid coloring, beautiful whip shading, these tattoos have what it takes to look good up close, far away, and stand the true test of time.

Whether you have detailed sketch or the beginnings of an idea, our artists thrive at unique and custom tattoo creations and will make sure you end up with the exact tattoo you want, exactly where you want it. Want something specifically traditional? We also have a wall of flash ready to go!

Looking to get a traditional tattoo? Anatomy has some phenomenal artists to work with.

Schedule your consultation or stop by the shop and talk to us about your tattoo ideas. We’d love to meet you!