“The universality of tattooing is a curious subject for speculation….” Captain James Cook recorded in his journal during his third Pacific journey from 1776 to 1780. While the practice of tattooing had been ongoing in indigenous cultures for thousands of years, Cook and Royal Navy sailors who observed the Polynesian body art were among the first to bring the practice of tattooing back to Europe and America.
Bored sailors turned amateur tattoo artists began to dabble in putting ink to flesh, the most common being military insignias and the names of sweethearts back home — naturally the mark of a great, lasting relationship.
The practice quickly spread across the fleets.
According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, “by the late 18th century, around a third of British and a fifth of American sailors had at least one tattoo.”
Since Cook’s journeys, shellback turtles, swallows, ships, anchors, daggers piercing a heart, and more continue to “memorialize special memories or career milestones at sea, such as crossing the equator or eclipsing 5,000 nautical miles for the first time,” writes J.D. Simkins of Military Times.
Despite tattoos being a well-established Navy tradition, sailors adorned with tattoos were still considered fringe or “unsavory” members of society until the mid-20th century.
During World War I sailors were highly encouraged to cover up any risqué body art since any perceived “moral” failings might disqualify them from service, states the NHHC.
The onset of World War II, however, and the vast expansion of Naval personnel ushered in a new era of the tatted tradition, thanks in large part to artist Norman Keith Collins — also known as Sailor Jerry.
Since then, the Navy has been the most lenient among the other military branches in regard to its tattoo policy.
In a bid to recruit more sailors, the Navy eased its policy even further in 2016, allowing men and women to “have neck tattoos, sleeves and even markings behind their ears,” writes Mark Faram of Navy Times.
So, while the Post Malone look is out for sailors, most body art is fair game.