Tattoo Designs & Symbols
Tattoo Symbol Index - A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


Like tattoos with spiritual and religious symbolism, military tattoos often have a strong element of the amulet or talisman connected to them. Protection in battle was often a specific requirement of tattoos acquired in many cultures and the tattoo was accompanied with rituals, incantations, and pigment which was believed to have special or magical properties. Tattooing was carried out by Shamans, medicine men, priests and other individuals who were known to have access to special powers. These properties might render an individual invisible or impervious to the weapons of opponents. A tattoo in this instance was meant to act as a shield and a final line of personal defense. This is still a belief in places like Burma, Thailand and other areas.

In many early cultures members of warrior castes were identified with tattoos and other identifying marks. The tattoo on a soldier was as much an identifying mark as a uniform. Greek and Roman historians specifically mention many tribes whose soldiers were heavily marked with tattoos, including the Picts in Great Britain, Thracians, Scythians and many members of the Gaul and Germanic tribes. Early explorers to North America remarked that the natives were heavily tattooed, and that tattooing and body paint rituals were important preparations for battle.

In cultures where an individual's life history was represented in their body art, tattoos were a way for individual to display their prowess in battle. The Maori marked their personal military histories with tattoos and for an Iban headhunter, every head taken was marked with special tattoos on the hands. For an Iban warrior, tattoos that showed prowess in battle had connotations for the afterlife. For the Iban and other cultures, being heavily tattooed made it a greater likelihood that deceased individuals would successfully navigate their way into the Spirit World or After Life. In many cultures individuals must make their way after death over a river, a barrier of some sort or through a gateway. It is not uncommon for this journey to be a perilous one, or for there to be gatekeepers whose role it is to keep out unworthy individuals. A man who was heavily tattooed would find it easier to make this journey. Tattoos that fulfilled this task were seen to be as important in death as they were in life.

For other soldiers, specific tattoos that represented a religious affiliation would ensure that if they fell in battle, they would receive a proper burial.

An investigation into the modern history of military tattoos leads invariably to the South Pacific in the year 1768. We find the English Sea Captain, James Cook commanding his first expedition in the ship Endeavor. Cook and his crew sailed to Tahiti with a scientific contingent to study an eclipse. Three months later they sailed home to Europe, many of them - both Officers and ordinary Seamen - with tattoos, a tradition among sailors that is still practiced to this day. History cites earlier European merchant mariners landing on Polynesian islands and witnessing with equal astonishment the tattoo culture of the South Seas, but there's no record of those earlier sailors bringing tattoos home as souvenirs of their journey.

Hawaiian tattoosIn Hawaii and the Marquesas Islands, Cook encountered an indigenous tattoo worn only by the warrior class, and which served a truly military purpose. Tattoo as camouflage. The warrior's body was fully tattooed, but on one side only. This half-body tattoo would be presented to the enemy in combat. Presumably, this left him with a clean side to present in civilian, domestic and perhaps even romantic affairs.

By the beginning of the 19th century, as more and more sailors returned from distant lands, the tattooing had become highly popular in the British Navy. It spread even to the British admiralty, which has for a long time included certain royals who obtained rank. Field Marshal Earl Roberts is rumored to have Jerusalem Cross tattoosexpressed the opinion that "every officer in the British army should be tattooed with his regimental crest." It not only boosted morale among the ranks, but it proved useful when identifying casualties. The Prince of Wales was tattooed with a Jerusalem Cross after visiting the Holy Land in 1862. Then, his sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (later King George V) were tattooed by the Japanese master tattooist, Hori Chiyo.

Old Skool nautical tattoosAlthough much of maritime tattooing took place on board ship, sailor to sailor, the craze spawned an industry of tattoo parlors in port cities in Britain and the United States, and indeed, around the world. Many of the proprietors of early tattoo shops were sailors who had come ashore. Famed British tattoo artist George Burchett learned his craft with an early stint in the service. By the end of the 19th century, it was estimated that ninety percent of British and American sailors had tattoos, according to some sources.

If the voyages of Captain Cook are to be credited with re-introducing the tattoo to the Western World, it's thanks in part to a cultural amnesia that left the vast majority of Europeans ignorant of their own tattoo history. The earliest physical evidence of a tattoo on human skin, for instance, was found in the Alps of northern Italy, on a corpse that had been frozen into the glacier for 5,300 years. Ötzi the Ice Man was amazingly well-preserved, as were his fifty-three tattoos. Was he a soldier? Perhaps not, but if any of his many tattoos symbolized his membership in a warrior clan, then we have traced the military tattoo back to the early Bronze Age.

Warrior tattoosJumping ahead 2500 years, we find the Britons heavily engaged in the practice of inking their skin. Roman historians recorded that the Picts used 'woad', a blue dye extracted from the plant, isatis tinctoria, (chemically identical to indigo, the color of our blue jeans) in their body art. It is most probable that the Picts used woad for pigment for external body painting and some form of carbon-based pigment for tattoos. Modern attempts to tattoo with woad have not been successful. The armies of Julius Caesar testified to being 'horrified' at the appearance of the Britons when facing them in battle. Of course, the native warriors in Briton were also likely to have sported lime-washed hair styled in the manner of a horse's mane, and have been nearly or fully naked with all his many scars in full display. The intent was clearly to intimidate the enemy, and the woad dye would certainly have added to that effect.

In the 6th century A.D., the Roman physician, Aetius, provides evidence of the cult of the military tattoo in ancient times. He published Medicae artis principes, in which he defines the term 'stigmates' as "...marks that are made on the face and other parts of the body. We see such marks on the hands of soldiers." We know, too, that tattoos of the Roman era were a punitive measure, to identify convicts. The Roman army applied a similar strategy when its ranks were comprised mainly of mercenaries. According to C.P. Jones (in an article titled, "Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity") the mercenaries were tattooed so that deserters could be identified.

Fighting spirit tattoosWarrior or convict, the tattoo has the effect of transforming the person to some degree. When a person receives a tattoo to signify membership in a group, the shared pain acts as the all-important shared experience that gives rise to esprit de corps. Note that it's not the 'esprit de Mike or Joe or Jane', it's the fighting spirit of the whole unit that wins battles. Strong morale within the ranks breeds a belief in the goal, in your comrades, and in yourself. The rituals that accompanied getting a tattoo would be important lessons for young recruits, the ability to withstand pain with stoicism, the shedding of blood, and a profound sense of belonging to an enterprise larger than yourself. These experiences are universal and nearly all military or warrior cultures around the world have some element of ritual that is as common as boot camp - which is often when military service personnel get their first tattoo.

Military spirit tattoosIn America, soldiers from the Civil War era, through the First and Second World Wars and Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq, have all acquired tattoos as an integral apart of their military experience. Today, millions upon millions of Americans -- from active duty military members, to reservist and war vets -- wear a tattoo as a permanent sign of that military spirit.

Military tattoosYet, it would not be the military without regulations, and until recently the tattoo was under strict orders not to appear on the hands or neck. But that changed recently with a US policy revision that reflects cultural trends -- and also allows recruitment offices to admit more young people to the services. Three times more likely -- that's how much more likely members of the younger generations are to have a tattoo than their baby boomer parents.

Uncle Sam tattoosUncle Sam may want you badly, but he still does not want you 'bad'. A prohibition remains in place against tattoos that are extremist, indecent, racist or sexist -- anywhere on the body. 'As long as tattoos do not distract from good military order and discipline,' the Army has no restriction on how much of the body can be inked. Untill recently the U.S. Coast Guard policy was twenty-five per cent, that was limit for certain body parts, like the space between the wrist and elbow, and knee and ankle (new policy only restricts tattoo coverage above the collar of the dress uniform, and below the wrist is limited to one ring type tattoo per hand). And the Marines have recently banned enlisted personnel from having fully tattooed arms, also known as 'sleeves'. Members who had the full tattoos were grandfathered in under the new regulations.

Military spirit tattoosWhile many military tattoos commemorate a general phase of one's life, others denote a particular military operation, often including the date and code name. These designs are really a historical record of events that might have dark and deadly connotations, and as such will be more edgy. In these tattoos, we see reflected the brutal reality of war, and we are likely to see death imagery, including skulls. If it's true that darker and sadder emotions run deeper and etch our characters more indelibly, then these 'battle' tattoos are true milestones in our development as human beings.

The tattoo tradition differs among the different branches of the American Armed Forces, with the Navy adopting it the most religiously, and the Air Force, the least.

Navy tattoosThe US NAVY is synonymous with sailors and their tattoos, for obvious historical reasons. Their long voyages to exotic lands -- and the stories and souvenirs they brought home -- continued to amaze people worldwide, until in the early 1900's the tattoo craze hit a peak unequalled for almost a hundred years. The anchor was and remains the favorite motif for sailors, and as such is one of the most popular designs, worldwide. It's was usually placed on the upper arm, in the fashion of the Navy tattooscartoon character, Popeye. Roosters tattooed on the foot were a common motif in the early days. They acted as charms to protect against drowning. Christian crosses were popular, think 'Rock of Ages', in addition to a short list of other nautical motifs, like sailors caps, submarines and periscopes. Images of naked women were a major hit with sailors, until the brass issued their 'obscene' warning. After that, naval applicants could have their hopes dashed by showing up with too much 'skin' on their skin. Tattoo artists did a booming business tattoo grass skirts on scantily clad hula girls. For many sailors, tattoo representations of the ship they served on were popular.

Navy tattoos

POW tattoosMembers of the US ARMY frequently choose eagle icons to express their love of freedom. The flag has always been popular, also replicas of unit patches or medals often combined with the stars and stripes, which many soldiers take for a lifetime 'lest they forget'. Indeed, many of these tattoos memorialize buddies who became POWs or MIAs. The 'meat tag' tattoo is a permanent version of the dog tag, and is often inked prior to deployment to wars or overseas missions.

Army tattoos

BulldogThe MARINES have traditionally been the first to hit the beach in times of war, so they take with them all the help they can get, in terms talismans, charms, and anything that will charge their esprit de corps. The bulldog is a favorite symbol of the MARINES, and you won't find many 'jarheads' without that or some other favorite tattoo design, like a camouflage motif, or a unit patch or the Marine Corps seal itself.

Marines tattoos

US Air ForceThe US AIR FORCE was the Aeronautical Division of the US Army Signal Corps before it broke away in 1947. Being the new kids in the barracks, pilots don't have the long tattoo tradition behind them, but that hasn't stopped them from adopting the obvious symbolof power and freedom, the bald eagle. National symbol and bird of prey, US Air Force it represents a pilot's dominion overthe wild blue yonder. Wings are a common motif, and especially the P-51 Mustang, if you flew during World War II. Other planes and jets serve like tattoos of lovers, or just fond reminders, along with squadron insignias and unit patches.

Air Force tattoos

Union Jack tattoosIn Great Britain tattoos that featured the Union Jack, Regimental Badges and Crest and portraits of the Royal Family have all been popular for over a century. Tattoos of the British Bulldog, and even portraits of Winston Churchill were popular in the Second World War.

Many of these tattoos are colorful and often cartoonish, sending the message that one is proud to have been part of the military, and happy to have spent a chapter of one's life in so rewarding a career.

Mom tattoosAnd just when you might be thinking that skulls, death's heads, bombs, knives, daggers and other forms of armaments speak to a culture of overwhelming machismo within the military, one must not forget that two of the most popular tattoos in the military have unmistakable sentimental roots. The heart tattoo with a ribbon inscribed with Mom or Mother Memorial tattooswas and is a powerful reminder to young soldiers of the families they have left behind and the reasons they serve their nations. The other sentimental tattoos are the memorial tattoos dedicated to the friends and comrades who fell in battle and never made it home. These too, are tattoos of the heart.

See also: Memorial Tattoos, Religious Tattoos, Heart Tattoos, Battlefield Cross, Uncle Sam Tattoos

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Tattoo Symbol Index - A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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