September 18, 2011
If you have a tattoo, thank a sailor.
The story goes that famed British explorer Capt. James Cook came across elaborately decorated South Pacific Islanders in the late 1760s and his sailors, taking a liking to the body art, took it home with them. They even adopted the islanders’ word tattow – meaning skin puncturing – for this new art form.
It didn’t take long for tattoos to catch on, especially with British and then American sailors.
Among the letters at the Mariners’ Museum as those of George Geer, a first class fireman aboard the ironclad Monitor. As he wrote to his wife, Martha, in early 1862, “I wish you could see the bodys of some of these old saylors. They are regular picture books, (and) have India ink pricked all over their bodys, one has a Snake coiled around his leg (and) some have splendid done pieces of coats of arms of state American flags and most of all have the crucifixion on some part of their body.”
Many traditional tattoos related a sailor’s journeys: an anchor if he had crossed the Atlantic, a clipper ship if he had rounded Cape Horn, a standing turtle for crossing the Equator, a golden dragon for crossing the International Date Line.
Tattooing reflected status: a rope around a sailor’s wrist marked him as a a deckhand. Divers were partial to the old fashioned dive helmets. Some who went aloft had the letters HOLD on the knuckles of one hand and FAST on the other to help keep them safe.
There were and still are dozens of superstitions: crosses on the soles of their feet to ward off sharks; a pig and rooster on the top of their feet to symbolize the animals that were kept below in wooden crates that were known to float when ships went down. Some wore religious tattoos to be sure they’d receive proper burials if they died in foreign lands.
And much more, as the public can learn at a free program this Thursday at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. The 6 p.m. event, “Skin Deep, Sailors Tattoos in Norfolk,” features Tom Moore, photo curator of the Mariners’ Museum who will show examples of some of the many traditions and symbols. And a Virginia Beach couple who own the new and growing Trinity Tattoos will show examples of their work.
Tattooing became a big business in Navy towns like Norfolk, with parlors interspersed with bars during the city’s bad old days in the early 1900s. And legends, like August Bernard “Cap’n” Coleman – who had a thriving business on Main Street – were born.
According to the Mariners’, Coleman worked as a seaman and as a tattooed man for circus side shows before settling in Norfolk. “His slight build contrasted with his salty attitude and his remarkable flesh, which featured flags, daggers, anchors, a battleship, flowers, a naked woman, and a permanent pair of ‘socks.’ ”
Norfolk, hoping to clean up its image, banned tattoo parlors in 1950, but gradually they’ve come back as the art form has moved upscale.
Coleman became a legend among tattoo artists.
“He was my great grandfather, I guess you’d say,” said Dave Lukeson, the owner, with his wife, Melissa, of Trinity Tattoo on Bonney Road. “He moved the trees away for us; he made the forest a lot cleaner.”
Lukeson, whose body is covered with tattoos that mark events of his life, as well as metal piercing and a Jack Sparrow-type mustache, has several sailors for clients. But there are many others, including professionals, many of whom are women.
He said of the markings, “These are things on the outside that symbolize what’s inside. It’s a way to share without speaking.”
We spoke while he was outlining a galaxy of stars for Ashley Wolford next to snowflakes on her arm – all symbolizing works of God, she said. Her inspiration, a biblical verse that goes something like, “God makes the stars and the sky and he calls them each by name.”
Danielle Weier waited in another studio to have the words tattooed on her back: “Nothing is more powerful that beauty in a wicked world.”
Some of the designs, like the ruby crested hummingbird I saw on another woman’s back, are quite artistic. And you’re tempted, you know: something small perhaps….
Photo: “Cap” Coleman next to his shop on Main Street in Norfolk during the 1930s. Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum.