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Skin Deep: The Nautical Roots of Tattoo Culture Exhibit Opens at Puget Sound Navy Museum

AASLH Member Since 2015

The Puget Sound Navy Museum in Bremerton, Washington is excited to announce the opening of “Skin Deep: The Nautical Roots of Tattoo Culture,” our new exhibit exploring the naval heritage of tattooing.

Modern tattoo culture is rooted in the nautical world. The connection between tattoos and sailors was cemented by the Tahitian voyages of Royal Navy Captain James Cook beginning in 1768. British sailors accompanying Captain Cook marveled at the tattoos they spotted on native Tahitians. Many returned home with body art of their own.

“A sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog: not seaworthy” noted one nineteenth-century tattoo artist. By then, getting tattooed was very much part of maritime life. Some sailors doubled as amateur tattooists, staving off boredom by using India ink and sewing needles to ink designs on fellow sailors’ arms.

Sailors’ chosen designs often reflected life on the sea. For instance, a pig on one foot and a chicken on the other is said to protect a sailor from drowning. Animals were often carried on deck in wooden pens. In a shipwreck, the floating crates washed ashore with their cargo intact, and sailors came to view the animals as a good luck charm. In “Skin Deep,” visitors are invited to take a seat in an old-school tattoo parlor and try on one of these classic maritime tattoos.

When people think of tattoos, they might picture a famous rock musician, a pro athlete, or a leather-clad biker. But none of them would have tattoos if not for sailors. Today’s tattoo culture and designs have their roots in strong maritime traditions dating back centuries.

In the modern Navy, tattoo policy has evolved to balance personal preference with good order and discipline. Today’s tattoo policy can be found in Chapter Two of the U.S. Navy Uniform regulations.

“Skin Deep: The Nautical Roots of Tattoo Culture” opens April 3, 2015 and will remain on view for two years.

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