BY PAT SUMMERS
Even though the word "tattoo" describes indelible body marking and goes back only a few hundred years, the practice is prehistoric and found in most cultures. Sailors, traditionally thought of in connection with tattoos, are believed to have introduced the practice in Europe after encountering it on their voyages to the Pacific islands.
American sailors for centuries followed suit, acquiring tattoos to relieve boredom or tension; to symbolize love, brotherhood, patriotism, victory; to serve as talismans against the dangers of seafaring; and even to identify themselves.
A fascinating exhibition in Philadelphia illustrates what since the well-decorated sailor might wear via his tattoos since the late 18th century. On his fingers one could read either "HOLD FAST" or SHIP MATE," one letter per finger, facing out. The tops of his feet would show images of the two animals known – and envied – for surviving shipwrecks: a rooster on the right foot and a pig on the left. (Neither one swam but both often survived because the crates they were kept in would often stay afloat and make it to land.)Elsewhere on the seaman's body, eagles and flags and images of ships, sometimes with dates, would certify his patriotism and memorialize the engagements in which his ship was victorious. He might wear a necklace of swallows – that is, tattooed swallow silhouettes, each attesting to 5,000 miles of sea travel.
"Skin and Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor," runs through February 7 at the Independence Seaport Museum, Philadelphia. Not only does it tell and show how tattoos figured prominently in the lives of merchant and naval seamen, but it also traces the evolution of tattoo tools over a few centuries and introduces well-known tattoo artists who plied their craft at sea and often later on land -- including Camden, N.J. as well as Philadelphia.
The compact, informative and appealing display includes — for uninitiated "plain skin people" – a simulation of how a "tar" might have gotten his first "tat" at an old-time tattoo parlor. The voice of an artist invites him to look through the "flash," or tattoo design samples, and pick the one he wants. Then the artist's machine begins to hum as the chosen image starts showing under the skin.
But that electric tattoo machine's a far cry from how the earliest tattoos were actually applied -- with sharp sailmakers' needles, early "artists" used materials at hand for their medium: gunpowder and urine. Unsanitary and unhealthy? Definitely. Luckily, the process kept improving.
Decorating their bodies with tattoos was just one way American sailors (including whalers and pirates) could pass the time afloat. Scrimshaw – incising designs on bone – was another, as were decorating clothing and weaving string and rope. The exhibit shows the overlap of some motifs.
In tattooing, sailors bonded with their shipmates and worked through fears about what could befall them at sea. Their superstition was reflected in the symbols and images they adopted for protection till they reached land safely again.
Ironically, seamen's "tats" served another purpose: on the Sailor Protection Certificate (a form of ID early sailors carried), the appearance and location of tattoos were detailed, sometimes later helping to identify men drowned or otherwise killed at sea.
The red star Rowland Macy had tattooed on his arm during service on a whaling ship may have inspired the symbol of the store he later founded. (Good thing he hadn't picked a skull and crossbones.)
"Skin and Bones" traces the evolution of body art among sailors. As the variety of designs grew and inhibitions broke down, some sailors' bodies became over-crowded and over-explicit canvases. By the World War 2 era, tattoo limitations went into effect for those in the service, for the sake of decorum.
Ahoy, all you underage tattoo-bearing wannabes! Wondering how to persuade your protective parents, fearful you'll get an infection, or worse, if you get a tattoo? Treat them to "Skin and Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor" for a reminder of how sailors' "tats" began with gunpowder and urine.
Then mention that (according to the Online Tattoo Museum), tattoos are so mainstream now that over 60 percent of all North Americans aged 18 to 30 years old have at least one. At that point, though they may not escort you to the nearest tattoo parlor, they'll probably resign themselves to ... your (tattooed) fate.
"Skin and Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor" runs through Sunday, February 7, 2010, at the Independence Seaport Museum, Penn's Landing, 211 South Columbus Blvd. and Walnut St., Philadelphia. 215-413-8655; phillyseaport.org.
Parking at the nearby Hyatt Hotel, $25 less museum discount. Exhibition free with general admission: Adults, $12; seniors, $10, children, students and military, $7. Closed New Year's day. With its own permanent exhibitions, a shop and a pleasant staff, the museum is alongside the Delaware River, near ships and other attractions.
One of countless tattoo sites, the Online Tattoo Museum: VanishingTattoo.com.
A freelance writer, Pat Summers also blogs at AnimalBeat.blogspot.com.