Sunday, January 8, 2017

Art of the Sailor

Human beings have decorated their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years. Their symbols served as amulets or showed status. Other designs declared love or religious beliefs. Some revealed forms of punishment. 

In 1991 scientists discovered the earliest tattoo on the frozen remains of the Copper Age "Iceman" named Ötzi. His lower back, ankles, knees, and a foot revealed lines made by rubbing powdered charcoal into vertical cuts. X-rays showed bone degeneration at the site of each tattoo. Researchers believed that Ötzi's people, ancestors of central and northern Europeans, may have used tattoos to reduce pain, similar to acupuncture treatments.

Egyptian funerary figures of female dancers from around 2000 B.C. reveal similar abstract dot-and-dash tattoos on their bodies as those found on female mummies from that time period. Later images represent Bes, god of fertility and revelry.

Ancient Romans used tattoos as brands for criminals and those condemned. Roman attitudes toward tattoos changed when they fought an army of Britons who wore their tattoos as badges of honor. Roman soldiers decided to sport tattoos. Their doctors performed application and removal.

During the Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries, warriors identified themselves with the mark of the Jerusalem cross so that they could be given a proper Christian burial if they died in battle. 

By the early 18th century, European sailors encountered the inhabitants of the South and Central Pacific islands who used tattoos as a part of their culture. In 1769, Capt. James Cook landed in Tahiti, where the word "tattoo" evolved from tatau, which means to tap the mark into the body. Islanders used a shell edge attached to a stick for pushing their designs into the skin. 

In New Zealand, Maori leaders signed treaties by designing replicas of their moko, or facial tattoo. Designs are still used to identify the wearer as a member of a certain family and to symbolize a person's achievements in life.

Sailors believed symbols would help them when facing challenges and bring good luck. Images of a pig and a hen protected against drowning. Neither animal could swim. Superstition claimed God would look down upon a shipwreck and see the image of an animal incapable of swimming, take the tattooed sailor into his hand and place him on land. The symbol of a north star would help the sailor return home.

A Few of the Symbols:

Anchor—Sailors would get an anchor after successfully crossing (and returning from) the Atlantic Ocean. Mom or Dad was often written across it in a banner.  It meant grounded.

Dragon—Signified that the sailor had served in a China station or sailed to a China port.

Golden Dragon—A golden dragon represented crossing the International Date Line.

Fully rigged ship—The sailor sailed around Cape Horn.

Shellback Turtle Used interchangeable with King Neptune both represented a sailor who crossed the equator.

"Hold Fast"—These words were a reminder to hold onto the lines fast when the ship is aloft in bad weather Pig and Rooster—The animals, usually tattooed on the feet or behind the ankles, symbolized survival from a shipwreck.  

Another explanation (when a pig was tattooed on the left knee and a rooster on the right foot): “Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight."

Nautical star—Represents the North Star, traditionally used for navigations out at sea. It served as a guide and a way back home.
Swallow—Swallows, known for their migration patterns, meant a sailor would always be able to find the way home. "Home" in this sense could mean home with family or called home to God in death. The birds carried souls of the departed to heaven.

Pin-up girls—Life at sea meant leaving behind loved ones, such as wives and girlfriends, on land. They served as a reminder of the ladies waiting for their safe return back home.

Mermaids—These half-woman, half-fish creatures seduced sailors to their death by luring them with their enchanting songs. They served as an analogy for how the sea enticed, even to men who knew the dangers associated.

Hula girls—Hula girls were inked on sailors who'd been to Hawaii.

If you expressed yourself in body art, what would you choose?

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