At sea, the anchor is the most secure object in a sailor's life, making it the perfect representation of stability. This is why you'll often see them emblazoned with "Mom" or the name of a sailor's sweetheart (the people who keep them grounded). Anchors have become popular within general tattoo culture over the years, but the symbolism is still the same. It's a reminder of what keeps you steady
The Golden Dragon
During Sailor Jerry's day, Asia was a distant exotic place - so sailors who served at an Asian station memorialized it on their skin with the symbol of a dragon. Dragons also the marked the crossing of the International Date Line and other Asiatic crossings. Non-sailors like dragons for their Chinese meaning of strength and luck.
A sailor staring down a long stint at sea- including the possibility of not returning home-often wanted a heart to keep his loved ones close. Sometimes these hearts were just images. Other times, they read "Mom" or featured the name of a special girl. Hearts still remain one of the most popular tattoos for both sailors and civilians.
Representing the North Star (historically used by sailors use for navigation) a nautical star was believed to keep a sailor on course. As such, they were also considered to help guide a sailor home.
Pig and Rooster
The superstition behind this has to do with the wooden cages where roosters and pigs were kept in on ships. When ships wrecked, the lightweight wooden frames became personal flotation devices, giving them a surprising survival rate. A sailor hoping for good luck would get a rooster on top of the right foot and a pig on top of the left.
Like a ship at full mast, a shellback tattoo showed a sailor's experience at sea. Once a sailor crossed the equator, he earned the right to get a turtle inked on his body. The longer someone had spent at sea, the more tattoos they could show off.
In addition to indicating that a sailor had sailed 5000 miles, swallows are also associated with the idea of return. This "return" symbolism is rooted in two ideas. The first was the swallow's famous migration pattern, always returning home to San Juan Capistrano. Second, it was believed that if a sailor dies at sea, birds carry his soul home to heaven.