Ink to the past

By Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andre T. Richard on April 14, 2016

Tattoos have long been a part of culture and tradition around the world.

According to Tattoo History Source Book by Steve Gilbert, Ancient Egyptians used them as therapeutic or medicinal remedies. Japanese Samurai, who were forced to disband and burn their armor, used full body tattoos to replace the armor stripped from them, according to Margaret Lock in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures "Japanese" volume. Maori leaders of New Zealand used their personal family facial tattoo, or "moko," to symbolize achievements and sign treaties according to National Geographic article "Tattoo Pigments of Imagination" by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa.

Tattoos are an evolving art form and sailors aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) have a variety of tattoos ranging from traditional to modern.

"I am Hawaiian, Samoan, Filipino and Japanese and all those art forms are on my body," said Hospitalman Tre Kobota, from Hauula, Hawaii.

In Samoan culture, full body tattoos are considered a rite of passage. They take multiple sessions and can be extremely painful.

"It's the pain that shows not only physical but emotional strength," said Kobota. "Tattoos, positive or negative, are a form of expression, and that pain is a reminder."

Sailors around the globe are responsible for tattoos' migration and popularity in Western society. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word "tatau," which Capt. James Cook introduced into the English language from his expeditions to Polynesia in the late 1700s (Franklin-Barbajosa).

Tattoos became popular among American sailors following the Revolutionary War. They would get tattoos to distinguish themselves from British sailors and avoid being forced into public service for British Royal navy ships (Gilbert). As tattoos moved around the globe, their symbolism evolved over time.

Tattoos of swallows represented a safe journey home; they also represented every 5,000 nautical miles a sailor traveled. A dagger through the heart symbolized the end of a relationship due to unfaithfulness, and was commonly adorned with a ribbon saying "Death Before Dishonour." Some of the more common Navy tattoos are simply sailors' rating badges.

"I have a tattoo of the helm wheel because it deals with my rate as a quartermaster, which is one of the oldest (rates)," said Senior Chief Quartermaster Henry Nicol, from Hemet, California. "I have tattoos that represent who I am as a sailor and as a chief."

Tattoo artists like Norman Keith Collins, aka "Sailor Jerry," created a standard for traditional Naval tattoos in the late 1960s. With technological advances, like evolving from boar's tusks to needles, artists are able to create tattoos with more details and color.

"Some people like the old style of tattoos with solid black lines (and) little color or shading," said Legalman 1st Class Christopher Ash, from Bartlett, Illinois. "Then there are those of us who like the modern day art with more detail and shading."

Tattoos can mean a lot to an individual, so figuring out what to get can take some thought.

"Each one of my tattoos symbolizes something significant in my life," said Ash. "I take what I observe and what I do and put it into my artwork to be reflected onto my body." Attitudes and Navy policy about tattoos have changed over time as well.

On March 31, the Navy updated its tattoo policy with the release of NAVADMIN 082/16. The instruction, which goes into effect April 30, allows sailors to have one tattoo on their neck that does not exceed one inch in any direction and have visible tattoos below the elbow or knee, with no restriction on size or amount. The policy update will also allow sailors with arm length tattoos, or sleeves, to be assigned to Recruit Training Command and Recruiting Command positions, which was previously not allowed.

"The instruction clearly states it was changed to allow more people to join the military," said Nicol. "Before, having a tattoo was kind of taboo, and now almost everybody has a tattoo."

The tattoo policy will not only allow more people the opportunity to serve but will also open up more opportunities for those already serving.

"More and more people are coming in with not only tattoos, but tattoos that are visible [in uniform]," said Ash. "The Navy allowing us to have these visible tattoos means that they are not only starting to embrace the cultural shift but also recognize that people can come in and still do a job despite what ink they have on their skin."

Tattoo art has been engrained in sailor culture since the first days of the Navy. The art has changed over time with trends, culture and advances in technology. With the update to the Navy's tattoo policy, sailors will be able to put links to their past on themselves and carry a permanent reminder with them to the future.