Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash. | Apr 24, 2015 | by Ed Friedrich BREMERTON — Sailors didn’t invent tattoos. They just picked them up and went with them, all the way to the mainstream.
Puget Sound Navy Museum’s new exhibit, "Skin Deep: The Nautical Roots of Tattoo Culture," traces the ties between sailors and tattoos, from Capt. Cook’s voyages to Tahiti to the modern Navy.
"It’s really an interesting history that not a lot of people know about," said Megan Churchwell, the exhibit’s curator.
Body art dates back thousands of years, but the voyages of British Royal Navy Capt. James Cook in the late 1760s began the connection between tattoos and sailors, explains one of three exhibit modules. Cook brought Polynesian tattoo methods back to Europe for the first time. The word "tattoo" comes from the Tahitian word "tatau," meaning to mark.
It didn’t take long for the practice to cross the Atlantic and catch on with Americans. During long, boring trips, one sailor would perform a tattoo on another, using the slow, painful hand-poke technique. They’d draw with large needles for sewing ship sails, dipped in India ink and laundry bluing.
In 1891, an electric tattoo machine was invented, making tattooing faster, less painful and more popular. By 1900, every major American city had a tattoo studio.
Tattoos often represented life at sea, the exhibit says.
"It focuses on the symbolism of the tattoos, so it’s not just get a tattoo of a bird because it’s a cute little bird," Churchwell said. "It’s a tattoo you’d get because you’d sailed 5,000 miles, or you’d get a rope around your wrist because you’re a deckhand."
Tanner Scelangoski’s tattoo is symbolic. The USS Nimitz sailor, who visited the museum Wednesday with friend Vanessa Smith, has a compass rose etched on his chest. In 2013, the aircraft carrier was returning from a Middle East deployment when it got turned around because of the Syrian chemical weapons incident."I put it over my heart because home is […]