The Art of the Sailor: Scrimshaw, Tattoos, and the Romance of the Sea

Billy Rough 20 May 2021

From carvings on whale bones, to etchings on skin, sailors have a long artistic tradition. The sea is an enduring artistic muse, so let’s take a look at the art of the seafarer and why it still inspires artists today

The Art of Scrimshaw

“It’s a bit of a cliché, but I'd like to have been a sailor,” says artist Jonny Hannah. In truth, artists have always been drawn to the sea. An early example of this fascination is scrimshaw, an unusual name for a practice that emerged in the 1800s. The folk-art of the whaler, it was especially popular on US ships, as Robin Diaper, Curator of Maritime & Social History at Hull Culture and Leisure Limited explains; “A lot of scrimshaw is from the US, especially pieces made from the teeth of sperm whales, but British whalers also produced scrimshaw, especially items from whale bone and walrus tusk”.

For many this was simply a way to spend quiet time at sea, but skill still went into its making. First you needed a polished bone or tooth, plentiful on a whaling ship. The surface was sanded down, often by rough shark skin, then an image could be engraved on its surface. Ink, sometimes soot, sometimes tobacco juice, was then rubbed onto the surface to fill in the carved lines, before the bone was wiped again leaving the black lines of the etching remaining.

"A lot of scrimshaw is from the US, especially pieces made from the teeth of sperm whales"

Sperm whale jaw bone

Part of the lower jaw bone of a sperm whale with its teeth removed

Hull Museum’s “Phoenix Tooth” is a good example. Most scrimshaw artists are unknown, but this sperm whale tooth was decorated by Edward Burdett; “One of the first known US scrimshaw artists and one of the best”, says Robin. Whaling was a hard life. Burdett himself died at the age of 28 in 1833, having become caught in a harpoon line and dragged overboard.

But why “scrimshaw”? The origin of the term isn’t entirely clear, but likely linked to an old English word. “When a captain ordered his crew to be ‘scrimshandering’,” notes Robin, “he wanted them to be pre-occupied with a creative past-time; mainly to kill time, to keep men occupied and out of trouble.”

“It’s the whaler in an idle moment”, says Jonny, who explores maritime artistic traditions in his work. “We call it naive art, or folk art, but some is sophisticated, some is quite basic, but I find it all fascinating.”

The Tattooed Sailor

close up of a man's wrist with a sailor tattoo while holding a cigar

Perhaps the most recognisable seafarer’s art is the tattoo. The stereotype of the tattooed sailor is a real image, with their arms decorated with pictures of anchors and hearts. It’s an image linked to the 19th century, but has actually been around for much longer, as Dr Matt Lodder, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Essex and a specialist in the history of tattoos, explains: “The standard story is that sailors went to the Pacific, saw what was happening in Tahiti or New Zealand, and copied it, but tattooing’s happening before they even go. So, it has a longer history than we imagined”.

So why has the tattoo become so associated with maritime history? The simple answer is that sailor’s tattoos were recorded. “There’s a huge record of it in the Napoleonic Wars,” notes Matt, “because that's when the British Navy started recording people's bodies.”

"Perhaps the most recognisable seafarer's art is the tattoo"

So, what can the tattoo tell us? Is there a story to be told through the choice of imagery etched on the human body? “Tattooing is a folk-art practice, symbols have a cultural, circumstantial and contextual resonance” notes Matt, “Potentially, there may have been initiation marks, or the ship’s name, or the ship’s mascot, but there's no X means Y decoder. But it is the case that, if you'd stopped for a night in Hong Kong, you'd end up with perhaps, a Chinese dragon, or the word Hong Kong, tattooed on you. It’s a mark that says, ‘I've been there’ or ‘we’ve been through this’”.

There is more to the practice than simply recording places visited though. The practice tells us much about life at sea and the social lives of the sailor. “It's a very intimate process”, says Matt, “if you're not tattooing yourself, you have to be touched by a stranger. It’s much more about community and tells us a lot about the culture”.

The romance of the sea

Evidently the art of the seafarer continues to inspire. As Matt notes, “I have lots of sailor tattoos, and it’s that stuff I fell in love with. The romance, ruggedness, and mystery, that’s what so many of us fall in love with. It’s such a romantic image.”

"The art of the seafarer continues to inspire"

“I'm obsessed with tattoos,” says Jonny. “It’s a mark of your existence which is quite exciting. It tells the story of who that person is.”

Clearly, maritime art continues to inspire and encourage artists to explore artworks and practices once considered subculture. “It’s good that it's being preserved”, says Jonny, “that constant rediscovery and revival, that will never go”.

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