Skin in the game

By Debra Vaughn

For hundreds of years tattoos have held special meaning for sailors.

They choose images that symbolize patriotism or to remember their travels. A superstitious seaman might pick a tattoo for luck.

Tattoos are, of course, as individual as the people who want them. Like music, fashion or anything else, sailors’ tastes in tattoos come and go.

Debra Vaughn photo
Mike McKinnis, a former sailor, is inked on nearly every inch of his body. His photo also appears on the cover. Some of his many tattoos include reminders of his service, including an eagle claw wrapped in a piece of the stars and stripes.

Tattoo artist Kyle Gonzales does see some trends. He’s the owner of Thrasher Tattoo, an Oak Harbor tattoo and piercing shop that inks quite a few sailors.

“I see all kinds of things, but traditional tattooing is picking up,” Gonzales said. “They want to get the tattoo their grandfathers had.”

In particular, more sailors are returning to the Sailor Jerry tattoos popular half a century ago.

These images were created by tattoo artist and former Navy man Norman Collins, aka Sailor Jerry. His work was typified by bold colors and iconic images. Some of his most famous images include dice, swallows, bottles of booze, nautical stars, anchors and pin-up girls.

Sailors who want more contemporary images are apt to choose something that holds significance in their lives, said tattoo artist Leo Salazar. A sailor might get a banner with a flower and the date of his mother’s death.

“People are getting tattoos to identify with things they’ve been through,” Salazar said.

And it’s not just young Navy men who want tattoos. About half of the shop’s customers are women, many of them sailors. Plenty of grizzled old salty dogs come in for more ink after they’ve retired.

Mike McKinnis, a former sailor, found tattoos to be addictive. While he was in the Navy, he acquired patriotic tattoos, including an eagle claw wrapped in the flag. On his leg he has a tattoo of a bulldog in honor of his late brother, a Marine. McKinnis’ wife is an active duty sailor, and in honor of her, he has a Sailor Jerry–style cutie pie.

Now that he’s out of the service, he’s inked far more territory than the military would allow.

“It’s going on for life, and you can’t erase it,” he said.

While sailors and tattoos go together like ships and grog, the Navy hasn’t always looked kindly on the practice.

In 1909, the U.S. Navy prohibited indecent tattoos, according  to “The Encyclopedia of Body Adornment” by Margo DeMello. The rule was largely ignored for years, but in the 1940s an indecent tattoo became enough to get a sailor booted. Tattoo artists helped sailors by covering up naked girlies and turning them into clothed nurses, hula dancers or “Indian squaws.”

Today the Navy considers the location, size and the image when determining whether a tattoo is acceptable. Tattoos aren’t allowed on the head, face, neck or scalp. Tattoos on the arms can’t be larger than the wearer’s extended hand.

It’s not acceptable to have tattoos of anything deemed obscene or sexually explicit. Tattoos can’t advocate discrimination or gang affiliation.