Flash Meanings

Old-school tattoos are rooted in the American serviceman’s interpretation of traditions and symbols that go back thousands of years. Obviously, every tattoo is a personal statement, but there are certain common meanings and associations. Here are a few of the most prevalent.

SWALLOWS

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.

ANCHORS

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.

SHARKS

Watch Quint in Jaws and you can get some idea of Sailor Jerry's attitude toward sharks — inhuman with a relentless ferocity that's impossible not to be awed by. Unlike Jerry's panthers, snakes, and other animals, his sharks seem less about embodying traits possessed by the person tattooed and more about forces that must be withstood and overcome. In this way, they become a special symbol of courage and will. 

DRAGONS

Jerry deeply admired the work of Japanese tattoo masters and was the first Westerner to enter into regular correspondence with them. Yet he was also determined to beat them at their own game. Jerry's dragons, clearly Asian in nature, embody these conflicting attitudes. They’re more like exotic ghosts than living beings — like totems of an earlier, fascinating era.

DEATH

A tattoo is one of the few indelible decisions we make in life, representing a commitment to your dying day — this is one reason death themes are big. The other is that tattoos, in the ancient world and in Jerry's day, were often the marks of warriors, mercenaries and adventurers – people whose life choices represented coming to terms with death (“Death Or Dishonor”) or perversely inoculating one's self against it (“Rats Get Fat While Brave Men Die”).

HAWAII

After WWII, Jerry remained on his beloved Hawaiian Islands the rest of his life. He loved its beauty and exoticism and that it was as far away as he could get from a world he increasingly viewed as a screwed-up place, devoid of honor and conviction.  From his legendary hula girl to more scenic pieces, his Hawaii tattoos reflected his sense of the islands as a kind of paradise on earth.

MILITARY

Being in the service isn't just a job, it's an epic chapter of life. One where buddies can save your life and one decision can determine your fate.  This intensity breeds an appetite for ink, for tattoos that commemorate a fallen comrade, that link a man to his platoon, flight crew, or ship...and that declare a particular credo, such as the marines “Semper Fi”.

SNAKES

The snake represents potency and power. Unlike panthers, which are usually depicted in mid-action, snakes are typically shown coiled and ready to strike, representing a don't-tread-on-me sensibility, thus warding off evil, misfortune and potential brawls. Sailor Jerry's favorite snake to ink was a King Cobra.

PANTHERS

Panthers are usually inked as totems of prowess and virility, sometimes also symbolizing a connectedness to nature. Sailor Jerry's panthers are particularly ferocious and masculine – drawn with red, often bloody claws, open jaws and occasionally in the company of a naked woman (who, for some reason, Jerry always made a redhead). 

LUCKY 13

There's a long-standing tradition in tattoo culture of celebrating that which others fear (hence the thematic prevalence of things like skulls and knives). Sailor Jerry's Lucky 13 motif is probably the most famous set of tattoo designs that flip a bad luck symbol on its head. The series showcases Jerry's iconic design sense along with his sense of humor. 

EAGLES

Eagles are symbols for America, representing honor, prowess and intelligence. Sailor Jerry, as a patriot who was acutely aware of (and vocal about) the shortcomings of his country, the Eagle was a symbol of his idealized America. A country that stands with the courage of its convictions and backs down for no one. Jerry's eagles are fierce and iconic, often depicted in association with the flag.

Pin-ups

Pin-ups represent the ideal and extremes of femininity — from maidenly perfection to vixen-ish temptation. The woman inked on a sailor's arm would be the only feminine form he would see for months. Applying his bold, refined style to the pin-up, Sailor Jerry created what could be argued as the world's most iconic pin-ups. 

Ships

For a sailor, ships are both practical and metaphorical. It's where you go for work – but also for meaning and adventure. Sailor Jerry loved ships and held master papers on every major type of vessel. His legendary clippers represent both the call to adventure and the determination to be "Homeward Bound". And they're eminently seaworthy – Jerry always inked his riggings to be nautically accurate.

Hearts

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.

Nautical Star

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.

Shellback

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.

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