Incredible Ship Tattoo Ideas And What They Mean

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In 21st century ship tattoo designs are not just a thing of sailors. Their symbolic meanings can be found in almost all cultures, as they are deeply ingrained in human consciousness.

Ships represent man-made creation in the natural world of oceans, seas and rivers, a vehicle that is set to conquer the unpredictable environment that huge bodies of water offer.

The act of navigating far out with a ship, going on a quest to see what lies beyond the horizon represent the journeys that have either literal (for sailors) or metaphoric (ones who’ve been through a lot) meaning for many people.

When it comes to marine tattoos, the ship is one of the pillar elements amongst them, especially among men’s tattoos.

Ready to learn more about the symbolism of ship tattoo? Let’s sail away!

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Every Tattoo Has A Story – Ship Tattoo Meaning

Ship stories are almost always mythic in structure and this includes stories of shipwrecks.

In mythic stories, a character either goes on a journey (or stays in one place), meets a variety of allies and foes, has some kind of big revelation (Anagnorisis) then returns home (or finds a new one) as a changed person.

The basis for many of these stories has started in the Age of Sail – a period that started in the mid 15th century and lasted for 4 centuries.

But even before that, sailing ships have been around for millennia, of which we’ve learned through the old mythology stories.

The sea is one of humanity’s oldest metaphors for life, and a sea journey has often stood for our journey through life.

Those journeys entail many phases – the smooth sailing, the storms, and sometimes even the shipwrecks.

Part of the journey are the animals, both real as well as the monsters, such as octopus and Kraken, that are aboard or off board like mermaids.

Through all of these, we can see the symbolism of the ships, some as explained on this website:

  • Security: if you imagine how hostile the open waters can be, then the boat can represent a symbol of security – it takes us through life’s shifting currents, sailing with and against the waves. The ship holds us secure above the chaos of life.
  • Riches: ship can represent those things that appear on our horizons, or in our future that are holding a lot of value and are coming to shore,  representing the fruits of our labors (“My ship has come in.”)
  • Journey, a voyage of life: The ship immediately reminds us of a passage, carrying us over the deep waters. That way it can represent a spiritual journey on the sea of life; one cannot get anywhere by remaining on an island.  As such it is an important symbol in Greek Mythology, for example, Homer’s Odyssey is a spiritual journey
  • Symbol of our last journey: The ship embodies the voyage of life, of coming full circle and also the last journey, taking us back to the waters of our beginning. Eric Neumann describes the ship of death “leading us back to the swaying, gliding somnolent rhythms of earliest childhood, of the primordial ocean and the night”
  • Symbol of a love for the sea and for sailing: For sailors and marines there is the simple reason that they love the sea or sailing. The boat or the ship might be a source of great joy and freedom.
  • Troubled past: people who have been through a metaphorical storm in their lives, a very troubled period and have come out stronger, love the metaphor of a ship going through a storm and seeing a better day, and calmer horizon.
  • Home: as much as freedom lies in sailing away, coming home to your family, friends and your base is a sweet ending for any sailor.
  • New beginning: ships starting their new journey are starting anew; they are starting a new journey that can bring them new adventures, lessons, success, and growth.
  • Independence: being able to leave your family and friends behind to go on a journey is a trait of highly independent people, who are self sufficient and flourish when left on their own to face new adventures.
  • Honor and bravery: facing a long and adventurous journey that ships and their crew tackle when going on a long, across the ocean journey, requires a lot of bravery; it also is important the the crew is loyal, protecting each other and doesn’t jeopardize the mission in any way.

We also have sailors to thank for the popularization of the tattoos in the mid 20th century, as the Sailor Jerry tattoo style was put in trend by them.

They’ve used clipper ships often in their tattoos, a type of mid-19th-century merchant sailing vessel, designed for speed.

Biblical Meaning of Ships

In Christianity the ship has been a long standing symbol of safety, faith, journey and the Kingdom of Christ and his followers.

Many times it’s also used to represent the church itself, as the central seating area of the church is called the Nave (Latin for ship).

Also, the ship is the Church tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution but finally reaching safe harbor with its cargo of human souls.

The Noah’s ark during the flood (1 Peter 3:20-21) and the story of Jesus protecting Peter and his apostles on the stormy Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41) are the main stories where ships play the central role as the vehicle for Christians.

It was also a great symbol during times when Christians needed to disguise the cross, since the ship’s mast forms a cross in many of its depictions.

A fishing boat might represent the Kingdom of Christ and his followers, as Jesus told his disciples to “follow me and I will make you fishers of men”.

Best Ship Tattoo Placements

When researching ship tattoos, the most common are medium or large tattoo designs to give the grand look of the ship space for all the details.

Of course, there are many amazing micro realistic examples of small ship tattoo designs, neatly fitting on the forearm, or even tucked away on the chest.

Small ship tattoos are not reserved only for women tattoos, as many men also like a nice fineline ship.

Where ship tattoos shine best is in large tattoo scenes.

That’s why ship tattoo sleeves, or even ship back tattoos are common.

To depict a ship on the sea, with all its details, or a shipwreck tattoo, it requires place to give all the parts space.

Ship Tattoo Ideas

To help you with your research for your next tattoo design, we went on a hunt through Instagram to find the best ship tattoo ideas.

Take a look below to check them out all:

Are you looking for a custom ship tattoo design? We got you.

Our expert tattoo artists will provide a quick initial draft to get you going.
Happy inking ❤

Milena Petrovic

Milena Petrovic

Co-founder of Tattoo Stylist

About the author

Milena has decided to start an organization that will create a safe environment for everybody to get their first, second or third tattoo and to encourage young people to transform their ideas into tattoos safely, with talent and vision.

You can find her writing about tattoos on Quora or updating our Pinterest profile with awesome tattoo ideas!

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