Skin & Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor

If you have a tattoo, thank a sailor!

For sailors, tattoos are more than skin-deep; they penetrate their bones and anchor their souls. Belief in the power of tattoos has fortified them against dangers at sea for centuries. Tattoos remind them of the fraternity of seafarers and their connection to both land and water.

Sailors are responsible for bringing tattoos to America. With the birth of our country came the creation of the American tattoo. British sailors transferred their tattoo tradition directly to their American colonial brothers. Though landlubbers commonly viewed the tattoo with suspicion, for seafarers it was a sign of belonging and their extended and everlasting family.

Throughout American history, merchant and naval seamen have kept the tradition unbroken and alive. Tattoos, their meanings and functions, have been passed down from father to son and elder to younger. They survive on the bodies of men and women who sail the seas in the tradition of their forbears.



Click the image to read a digital version of the exhibition catalog.