A Long Way from Anchors and Skulls

Many sailors’ tattoos were done by, well, sailors. Like prison tattoos, the sailors would use their idle time to tattoo each other.

Tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey, 1944

Many sailors’ dövme marked events in a sailor’s life. Crossing the equator, going around the Cape of Good Hope, crossing the Pacific, and many other nautical events were marked by specific tattoos. A sailor’s nautical life is worn right on his skin for the world to see.

Another subculture that has always embraced tattoos is the biker culture. Motorcycle gangs have always had their own code of tattoos that can range from declaring their allegiance to the gang to a record of the crimes they’ve committed.

Today’s motorcycle riders are often not in a “gang” although they might be in a riding club. Tattoos are part of this more gentrified motorcycle culture, sharing a rider’s love for the machines and freedom they symbolize.

Prison is another place where tattoos are popular. In most cases, the tattoos are a record of the activities of the wearer. Often, these tattoos are made with ink from a ballpoint pen and a sewing needle.

These traditional subcultures have informed today’s tattoo culture, but today it’s much broader and crosses gender, economic, and cultural lines around the world.