Hot! Sailor Girl Ink—Tattoo History with Matty Jankowski

By Matty Jankowski

Dear Matty:

I grew up on the water in P Town and the Vineyard.  I have sailed for fun and profit, read lots of tat mags and seen lots of Sailor Bobs and Jims and whomever. I wonder how many of those guys are just banking on the sailor connection. I don’t know that I have ever heard of a sailor Jane or Betty. What it all boils down to is that I want to get a sailor tattoo, but something with a feminine twist. What’s a sailor girl to do?

―Paulette P.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Terry Marks orchestrated the sailor girls quartet for the 100th birthday of RMS Macritania, performing Irving Berlin’s “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor Till a Sailor’s Been Tattooed.”

Sailor images run the gamut, and pinups of pistol-packin’ pirate mamas abound, as do red cross-emblazoned Florence Nightingale military nurses (especially in old-time sets of tattoo flash, but those featuring sailor girls are few and far between.

Tattooing owes a big debt to sailors. Thanks to “sailers” (as they were called way back then), modern, Western tattooing was born around the end of the sixteenth century. Since then it has continued to develop and spread to all corners of the world, thanks to sailor souvenirs from exotic ports. The first-ever tattoo museum and hall of fame was the vision and labor of love of the legendary tattooist Lyle Tuttle. He is often quoted as saying, “ If it weren’t for sailors and fallen women keeping tattooing alive, it would have died off long ago.”

Sailor Girl flash from Spider Webb (“Military Flash,” Schiffer)

The Victorian era tattooists were inking naïve designs at circuses, carnivals, in tattoo parlors and aboard ships. They decorated the meek, the mighty, male and female alike. One of the itinerant practitioners of that period was master tattooist C.H. Fellows. In a sketchbook of his found in 1966 is a plethora of maritime designs of sweethearts, wicked women and the pure Americana female icons of Lady Liberty.

By Denise, Lucky 7 Tattoo, Ilbertyville, Illinois

The mentor of Bowery’s preeminent tattooist Professor Charlie Wagner was Samuel O’Reilly, a famed nineteenth century New York City tattooist and inventor who was the first to patent the electric tattoo machine. O’Reilly once bellowed, “A sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog: not seaworthy.” This quote was possibly the inspiration for composer Irving Berlin’s song “A Sailor’s Not A Sailor (’Til A Sailor’s Been Tattooed)”. The lyrics chronicle sailors in the port of New York, or more exactly in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and their trek across the Brooklyn Bridge to get tattooed on the Bowery. The Broadway show, “There’s no Business Like Show Business,” featured Donald O’Connor dancing with Mitzi Gaynor and Ethel Merman masquerading as sailors, belting out an over-the-top, stylized tattoo song-and-dance skit. The first person to bring this song to my attention was Brooklyn College Anthropology professor John Beaty who included it in his curriculum on body decoration.

Sailor Jerry Swallow flash


That should get your blood pumping. Now for a few more fun filled facts to answer your sailor girl questions.

Legend has it that women are the weaker sex and sailing was men’s work, yet women sailors irrepressible spirit has produced master mariners who teach men to navigate the seen seas. Women have succeeded in the masculine world of skippering everything from racing yachts to ocean liners. As a result of their maritime accomplishments, women sailors have become role models for those who are exploring careers and leisure activities using male-stereotyped skills and technologies.

Sailor Jerry Swallow

Women now comprise fifteen percent of the Royal Australian Navy. Nearly thirteen percent of sailors and twenty-two percent of officers are female. At sea, up to ten percent of the crew on naval vessels are women. Despite press accounts of deplorable sexual harassment, a good working relationship prevails. The most senior women, a mine warfare specialist, is serving in the Royal Australian Navy as a captain.

The anchor has prevailed as a tattoo icon for spiritual hope and trust as well as a symbol of stability and security. There are a large collection of iconographic sailor tattoo symbols and motifs from which to choose. These marks of identity clearly communicate their accomplishments and represent superstitions and folklore still being inked today. Sailors opened the earliest tattoo shops in major European and U.S. ports and Chuck Eldridge has archived the maritime history of tattoo symbolism on display at his new Tattoo Archive location in Winston Salem, North Carolina and on line at

Tattoo by Sailor Tim, Blue Tiki, Hanalei, Hawaii

It wasn’t too long ago that a woman choosing any of the typical sailor designs were refused and told to get a little skunk or other novelty tattoo. Relegated to other than battlefield tasks left many females in the service wanting a real sailor tattoo. Things have changed in the past decade and during Fleet Week in the port of New York I often saw women in uniform being inked across the room from male shipmates.

Recently I saw a young woman with a colorful tattoo conspicuously displayed on her upper arm. It was a meld of an old-school nautical anchor with a Mexican day of the dead influence and a text banner that read Que Sailors. My curiosity got the best of me, so here is her story: Coming from a catholic family with strong Latino roots, there were heated arguments that would erupt out of daily conversations. Her grandmother and grandfather would often battle in English and Spanish and inevitably grandpa would be angered to the point that he would bring up the past and how his wife would always stay out late hanging out with those sailors. And grandma would always end the argument by asking, “Que sailors? (What sailors?)” Tattooist Miguel memorialized her grandparent’s remark, capturing the excitement of that family banter on Amber’s arm.

Tattoo by Sailor Jerry Swallow

The granddaddy of sailor tattooists and the man responsible for the most requested designs by military personnel in all branches with an emphasis on nautical themes was Norman Keith Collins better known as Sailor Jerry. In the 1930s, Jerry began working with Valentine Galang a well-known Filipino/Hawaiian tattooist. He later held court in his own little piece of paradise at 1033 Smith Street in Honolulu Hawaii. Jerry’s artfully rendered tattoo designs have been the inspiration for modified variations of now classic old-school tattoos. His exotic tropical mermaids, hula girls and geishas became souvenirs that graced the biceps and forearms of countless merchant marines, enlisted men and civilian tourists alike. As his tattoo flash design sheets circulated, so too did the title of “sailor” that gave credibility to other ex military tattooists, from Sailor Jerry Swallow, Canada’s oldest ( to Sailor Mosko in Israel.

Book by Sailor Mosko, Israel 1995

As for the skilled artistry of women in the ranks of sailor tattooists, there have been a few notables like the motherly Asian Mrs. Martina Yagyagan who had the sailors lined up, out the door and down the street in Honolulu’s Chinatown during the 1940s. The old adage of the apple not falling too far from the tree has proven true for Kate Hellenbrand (K8), better know as “Shanghai Kate,” who cut her teeth on tattooing with none other than Jerry Collins in Hawaii and is still slinging ink at shops, conventions and bike rallies worldwide (

Location, location, location has resulted in sailors lining up to get inked at Lucky Seven Tattoo Studio in Libertyville, Illinois ( Just a stone’s throw from the Great Lakes region’s Midwest Naval Service Training Command, it is the Navy’s largest training facility located in North Chicago on Lake Michigan. Great Lakes has been transforming civilians into well-trained, highly motivated sailors since it’s founding in 1911. Their mission is to deliver highly skilled, technically proficient, disciplined and motivated sailors to the fleet. And what better way to celebrate graduation from boot camp than to mark the occasion with a tattoo from Danise and the crew at Lucky 7. Danise got her start in a shop filled with Bert Grimm flash and designs by Mr. Flash. The crisp, bold lines and solid fill was what the customer was looking for. After apprenticing and working in Chicago with Bob Olsen for more than eight years, Danise went out on her own in 1996 and is still pushin’ ink. Danise keeps those nimble fingers moving with fine stitched felt appliqués of traditional tattoo designs while waiting for the next human canvas to decorate.

Tattoo by Sunday Dawne Marie

New York tattooist Sunday Dawne Marie ( was asked to draw a half-sleeve design for Lauren, a.k.a. Captain Morgan of the Long Island Roller Rebels (roller derby team). The resulting sessions were a fun filled collaboration. As Sunday recalls, “In keeping with the theme of the sailing ship, we named the piece ‘the ship sails at dawn.’ There is the woman pointing the way, breast bared in a show of strength and confidence. There is the compass representing the many directions available to set out in and the wheel which we called ‘the ghost wheel’ because it’s a mystery just who is steering. And the message in the bottle, driving home the theme of venturing forth into the unknown.”

And now for a sailor tattooist’s sentimental trip down memory lane with a special privileged peek back through the matter of fact recollections of a living legend, Sailor Jerry Swallow.

 “The first tattoo I got was when I joined the merchant navy. I got it in the carnival for fifty cents, an anchor. It was about fourteen. I think it was 1959. When l first started tattooing with old Charlie Snow, he called me Sailor Jerry, but I had been called Sailor as a nickname since I was a little kid, ’cause l used to wear a sailor hat all the time. I got in with Charlie in May 1960, started tattooing, and had to go to work on a ship. But the ship I was on was a two-week-on, two-week-off thing, so I’d do my time there and tattoo at Charlie’s, till my time was up in ’62. Even though sailors, were pretty rowdy and loud, they were always the best people, very kind and courteous, proud and easy to please, as were the sailor girls. Not like the civilians, which ninety percent needed a kick in the ass.

Sailor Jerry Swallow

“Back in the ’60s we were not supposed to tattoo women, but we would get a few navy girls in once in awhile. The first I did was about 1962. There were three of them. They all got a swallow on their hip. There were very few till up in the ’70. Then ya tattooed a lot of navy girls. By then, they were getting anchors, flags and the regular girly tattoos. By the ’80s, the navy girls were getting lots of stuff, pinups and tribal and few military designs as well. The sailor girls were always pleasant and funny, never shy. When they asked to get a tattoo on their breast and asked to go first, you tell them, ‘There’s a lot of guys in here and ya gotta remove some clothes.’ They’d say, ‘Hell, who cares? They’ve seen titties before.’ It was all pretty cool for the navy gals to get that stuff, and the other sailors loved it.”


Matty J

For more information on this topic or other body ART related questions, comments, research, reference or referrals contact Matty at Also… tattoo art, artifacts, ephemera and collectibles from the New York Body Archive collection are now available for sale (phone Matty at: 850-832-9853).


Tattoo book by C.H. Fellows


Bachner, Evan. Making Waves: Navy Women of World War II. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2008.

Cordingly, David. Women Sailors and Sailors Women―An Untold History. New York: Random House, 2001.

Egorchev J. Kaptian. Anna: Lady-Captain Anna, Svetlana, 2005.

Fellows, C.H. The Tattoo Book. Princeton: The Pyne Press, 1971.

Green, Trisa. The Tattoo Encyclopedia. New York, Simon &Schuster, 2003.

Hardy D.E. Sailor Jerry Collins: American Tattoo Master. Hong Kong, Hardy Marks Publications, 1994.

Swallow Sailor Jerry. Sailor Jerry’s Old Tattoo Flash Sketch Book Vol 1-2-3. Victoria B C, .

Mosko, Tattoos. Tel Avive Israel, 1995.

South, Mary The Cure for Anything is Salt Water: How I Threw My Life Overboard and Found Happiness at Sea. New York, Harpercollins, 2007.

Stonehouse, Fredrick. Women and The Lakes II: More Untold Maritime Tales. Avery Color Studios, 2005.

Webb, Spider. Military Flash. Atglen, Pennsylvania. Schiffer Books, 2002.


  1. Paulette, swing by and check out the artists at Coastline Tattoo in P-Town, they can draw you up something!!

  2. I am really amazed by seeing the tattoo culture that are in trend!!! Really fantastic and artistic work!!!

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