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San Diego has the fourth biggest Naval Base in the United States, which makes it the perfect backdrop for the Tattoos and Scrimshaw: The Art of a Sailor exhibition coming to the Maritime Museum of San Diego on March 21, 2014.
At the height of the ship-faring age, seafarers of the 1700s sailed to the Polynesian islands in the South Pacific where they were introduced to body modification art.
For sailors, the art of self-adornment was an artistic expression, with images and symbols telling stories based in age-old traditions. Aside from images of boats or women, symbols like the North Star and an anchor indicated rank, experience and stability, while a rope tattooed around the wrist indicated the sailor was a deckhand. Today, “Sailor Jerry” style tattoos, are characterized by American tattoo artist Norman Keith Collins, a sailor himself. The Art of a Sailor maritime exhibit features tattoos, the tools used in the art, artist’s designs, or “flash,” a term used for tattoos today.
Over the last century, body art has made an intriguing passage from something that was unthinkable and even offensive, to a fashion statement in Western culture. Visitors to the San Diego Maritime Museum can share in the art of a sailor experience with tattoos and scrimshaw, and discover the link in the timeless images and techniques that have made their mark on Western society.


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Kabul, Afghanistan, has been shut down by protesters over the lack of electricity to Bamian. Tattoos became tantamount with maritime service, and from that, the modern-day Western tattoo evolved. A sailor would ink “hold” on one set of knuckles, and “fast” on his other, meant to help the sailor grip the riggings better. His tattoo style was considered ‘old school’ with pin-ups, cursive fonts, nautical stars and classically styled scroll banners synonymous with maritime service.
Scrimshanders, as they were called, had a creative eye, and to relieve boredom in between whale sightings on long voyages, they made scrimshaw. Also on display are three of Captain James Cook’s journals from his 18th century voyage to the South Pacific.
One flip through a fashion magazine or a stroll on the streets of San Diego, shows that tattoos have gone mainstream, and are visible on anyone who has the courage and cash to afford it.


It was a method of making something permanent in an otherwise unpredictable lifestyle, and it became the traditional, almost customary, art of a sailor. Other symbols, such as a pig and a hen, were intended to protect against bad fortunes at sea. Like tattoo art, scrimshaw is a similar practice, but instead of skin, images are etched on whalebone, whale teeth and ivory.
It was Cook’s trip to the islands that inspired the tattoo culture as we recognize it today. Highly skilled in engraving and the use of pigment, this sailor’s art captured stories about maritime in ink.



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