For thousands of years, the art of tattooing has been practised by ancient civilisations around the world. Although it was once widely thought of as a ‘savage’ custom, by the 16th century, sailors returned home with tribal tattoos they acquired from their voyages to the pacific islands and began to apply the traditional tattooing techniques they learnt to Western themes and designs. Often practising the technique on board, sailors developed a nautical style of tattooing and by the early 19th century, some 90% of sailors sported a tattoo to represent milestones achieved at sea, lovers or talismans to ward off bad luck and welcome the good. Alice Smith illustrates 3 designs that remain popular today.

WORDS by Leticia Nguyen

Full-rigged Ship

There is perhaps no tattoo design more associated with seafarers than the tattoo of a full-rigged ship under full sail, featuring crashing waves, clouds and seabirds. These tattoos are usually quite large and often positioned on a sailor\’s back or chest, with upper arms and shoulders reserved for smaller versions. Within the history of sailors, this tattoo not only represents pride in the sailor’s way of life, but also an amulet to ensure that a sailor returns home safely, which is why they often feature a scroll with the words, “Homeward Bound” at either the top or bottom of the piece. A full-rigged ship also displays that a sailor has been around the Cape Horn, one of the most feared and revered stretches of water in the world, known for its dangerous and inhospitable nature, but a necessity for circumnavigating the globe along the trade routes.


While there are varying explanations for the symbolism behind swallows, sailors traditionally get a tattoo of a swallow for every 5,000 nautical miles traveled. Apart from representing logged miles at sea, swallows are also associated with the idea of always returning home. The ‘return’ symbolism reflects the migration pattern of swallows, such as the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, where they famously return each year. A swallow seen while out to sea is a particularly good omen, as they will guide you home because they never venture too far from land and always find their way home. The idea of return is further steeped in the belief that when a sailor dies at sea, swallows have the ability to carry their soul to heaven.


The anchor itself dates back thousands of years and is one of oldest symbols used in tattoos, with the first images being used during the early days of Christianity at a time when Christians were persecuted for their beliefs. Sailors would get an anchor after successfully crossing (and returning from) the Atlantic Ocean. The other representation is that anchors, being the object that secures the ship is an icon of stable, unfaltering faith. A reason why you often see ‘MUM’ (or Mom) or ‘DAD’ or the name of a lover across written on a banner across the anchor, is that they were considered to be reasons for staying grounded and reason for returning home.

To see plenty more illustrations by the talented Alice Smith, head here