The cartoonist Lucy Bellwood has spent a deal of time in craft-beer and coffee-swilling Portland in the American state of Oregon—a place, she says, where everyone bar her has a tattoo. Her poster ‘Homeward Bound’ decodes the visual language of sailors, which has been around for a while. ‘A sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog: not seaworthy,’ said the New York tattooist Samuel O’Reilly, who patented the first electric tattoo machine in 1891.

By Frances Walsh | 16 June 2023

While Bugs Bunny on a bicep qualifies as signifier-light, other tattoos of Western seafarers are steeped in symbolism and lore. Some are job-specific; a whaler might have sported a harpoon. Some are merit badges; a full-rigged ship on a chest, for example, meant the wearer had rounded Cape Horn at the southern tip of Chile, which Charles Darwin on HMS Beagle almost didn’t manage in 1832, writing, ‘One sight of such a coast is enough to make a landsman dream for a week about shipwrecks, peril and death.’ Other tattoos were talismanic and summoned otherworldly assistance as Darwin and the crew of Beagle might have done; a tattoo of a pig on one foot and a rooster on the other wards off drowning for reasons Bellwood details in ‘Homeward Bound’. The animals were often shipped in crates—which floated if a ship wrecked.

Tattoo has been associated with seafarers at all levels of a ship’s hierarchy ever since Britain’s fleet began to encounter, and sometimes pillage, non-European cultures; the Yorkshire-born privateer Martin Frobisher in 1577, during his voyage on Gabriel searching for a north-west passage to China, took a tattooed Inuit woman hostage and back to England, where for the month before her death she was viewed at the court of Elizabeth I. By the eighteenth century, the sight of indelible body marking was not then novel in Europe, but the art practised since Neolithic times received a boost as Pacific exploration accelerated in the later part of that century.

Lieutenant James Cook and his crew observed and recorded Polynesian tattooing on their first Pacific voyage in HMS Endeavour (1768–1771): the naturalist Joseph Banks wrote an account of a girl being tattooed in Tahiti, and the artist Sydney Parkinson drew tattoos he came across in Tōtaiete mā the Society Islands as well as in Aotearoa. Both the scientific gentlemen were taken enough with the practice to have themselves modified, as did many ordinary Endeavour seamen. ‘Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible,’ Cook wrote while at anchor in Tahiti in 1769. The term tattoo soon entered the European lexicon, and the entwining of tattoos with nautical culture only increased when Mai (called Omai by the English) from Ra‘iātea in Tōtaiete mā, travelled to England in 1774 on HMS Adventure and briefly achieved stardom: paraded by Banks, presented to George III, and painted—tattooed hands and all—by Joshua Reynolds, living evidence of Cook’s second South Seas expedition.

Bellwood is a tall-ship sailor as well as a cartoonist. Her first book, Baggywrinkles: A Lubber’s Guide to Life at Sea, was based on time spent as a deck hand on the replica eighteenth-century brig Lady Washington as it sailed the west coast of North America. She then wrote and drew Mappin’ the Floor: A Scientific High-Seas Adventure as the artist-in-residence on the oceanographic research vessel Falkor in 2016 as it bounced sound waves off the bed of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa.

Excerpted from Endless Sea, Stories told through the taonga of the New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui te Ananui a Tangaroa. Written by Frances Walsh. Photographed by Jane Ussher. Massey University Press, 2020


Aitken-Smith, Trent. The Tattoo Dictionary. Mitchell Beazley, 2016

“Homeward Bound: the Art of the Sailor” by Lucy Bellwood; typographic layout by Skipp Design, 2013. NZMM 2019.31.1

Mallon, S. & Galliot, S. A History of Sāmoan Tattooing. Te Papa Press, 2018

Pickthall, Barry. A History of Sailing in 100 Objects. Bloomsbury, 2016

For more stories about the ways of seafarers hurry to the museum’s exhibition Captains, Collectors, Friends & Adventurers, closing end of June 2023.

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