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Sailor Tattoos: 12 Iconic Designs And The Real Meanings Behind Them

 While fighting in World War II, millions of servicemen found themselves on shore leave in Honolulu, where a retired Navy man known as Sailor Jerry had set up his tattoo shop.

Ordinarily, the uniformed men of the 1940s would have never sat down to get ink, but with the war changing their perspective thanks to the fear of not knowing whether they’d even survive the next battle, they began wearing the classic sailor tattoo styles below as badges of honor.

Jerry’s iconic designs were inspired by his own time in the military, which took him to Southeast Asia, where he learned from the tattoo masters there. However, he wanted to put his own spin on it and, as his website explains, “beat them at their own game.”

Chances are you’ve seen countless men and women, not just those who served in the Navy, rocking a few of the legendary “flash” images below — but you might be surprised by the real meaning behind each one.

Take a look and let us know if we missed your favorite classic sailor tattoo design.

And be sure to SHARE the beautiful artwork with your friends!

1. Shellback
 These were first given to sailors who had crossed the equator while at sea as a badge of honor for their years of experience.

2. Pig And Rooster
 Some sailors believe having a rooster on their right foot and a pig on their left will bring them good luck. This is based on the old wooden cages roosters and pigs used to be stored in on ships, which helped them float to safety any time there was a wreck.

3. Anchors
 As one of the few secure things on a ship, this represents stability in the sailor’s life. They’ll often include their mom or loved one’s name, or in this case the initials of the U.S. Navy.

4. Snake
 Often shown with their tails coiled up, ready to jump into attack mode, these were meant as a warning to fend off any bad luck (or bar brawls) before it could even start.

5. Death
 Like the permanence of the tattoo itself, death is one of the few sure things a person can count on having to cope with no matter what path they take in life.

6. Panther
 These big cats represent prowess and virility, always shown with their mouth open — ready to pounce on anything that gets in their way.

7. Pin-Up Girl
 Sailors who missed seeing the ideal feminine form while spending months away at sea would ink these pretty ladies on their arms. The hula girl is a particularly fond reference for Sailor Jerry and his beloved adopted home, Hawaii, and can also be found on his brand of rum.

8. Eagle
 As the symbol of American freedom and integrity, Sailor Jerry depicted the birds as fierce and courageous, refusing to back down to anyone.

9. Full-Sail Ship
 Sailor Jerry put extra care into making sure every detail of these old-school ships was historically accurate. It references both the adventures ahead and the path back home.

10. Shark
 Unlike the other animals on the list, this deadly beast doesn’t represent something from within the sailor but instead the dangerous challenges they’re forced to face and overcome, such as actual sharks swimming around their ships.

11. Swallows
 A sailor earns a swallow for every 5,000 miles they travel at sea. They also represent the promise to return home, like the bird’s migration pattern, and the belief that if a crew member dies at sea, their soul will be carried to heaven on those wings.

12. Booze
It’s no secret that sailors had a reputation for enjoying a drink or two while on their travels, which obviously made their sea legs a little rockier and more vulnerable to an unfortunate accident, as the phrase “sailor’s grave” references.

Do you know anyone with a traditional sailor tattoo? Let us know in the comments and be sure to SHARE with your friends!



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