It’s true that Europeans, and especially sailors, have been getting tattoos for many years. But just not quite enough years. The heart of piracy’s Golden Age lies almost exactly 300 years ago. Tattooing has only been popular for about 240 years.
The precipitating action… the event that brought tattooing into the minds of European sailors, was Captain Cook's voyage to New Zealand and Polynesia in 1771. Even the word “tattoo” dates from this time. Cook recorded it as “tattaw” and it was also spelled “tattau” before today’s spelling was settled upon.
Why didn’t this happen before? Europeans had developed their own traditions of body art before the Roman Empire, and they had certainly met Native Americans who practiced the art. In fact, Pocahontas, a real historical figure, was marked in this way. But until Cook’s voyage to the South Seas, it just didn’t catch on.
Perhaps Cook just had some art-loving sailors on his ship. Maybe the body art they encountered was unusually beautiful or impressive. Or perhaps the sailors were desperate for a lasting souvenir of their trip to the far side of the world. The Pacific Islands may have sponsored especially fond memories due to a culture that encourage young women of all classes to gain wide sexual experience before marriage, even to the point of having one or two children, just to prove to prospective husbands that they were fertile.
In any case, tattoos became a traditional memento that sailors brought back from their journeys. Very soon, a traditional set of symbols sprang up to mark special occasions in a sailor’s life. Many of these survive today.
Swallow – Originally this was a mark of having committed to become a sailor or have “gone to sea” since anyone becoming a member of the crew would expect to serve a year of more. Today it is reserved for someone who has sailed more than 5,000 nautical miles. In addition, if a sailor was drowned, it was said that a swallow would carry his soul up to heaven.
Dragon – Signified someone who had sailed to Asia.
Golden Dragon – A sailor who has crossed the International Dateline.
Anchor – Had crossed the Atlantic.
Crossed anchors, or an anchor on the hand between the thumb and forefinger – One who had reached the rank of bosun.
A fully rigged ship – Noted that the wearer had sailed around Cape Horn.
A rope around the wrist, or the word “Hold Fast” across the knuckles – Mark of a deck hand.
A pig on one foot, and a rooster on the other – Two animals often found on sailing ships as part of the food supplies. As neither could swim, it was believed that God would use a miracle to save the innocent animals in a storm. Supposedly, this magical luck would transfer to a human who wore the marks.
An anchor – Link to home and family (often with the word “Mom” of “Dad”
A nautical star – talisman to guide the wanderer home.
But wait a minute! What about Captain Jack Sparrow’s tattoo? What about the “P” branded on his forearm? Maybe pirates had other ways to mark themselves?
Sorry to disappoint you. But Jack may have been the one exception. (There are tattoos, after all, even in a nunnery.) And Jack had been to Singapore.
And in a world where slaves were common, and where people of all nations could become slaves through simple bad luck, Captain Jack’s "P" is probably a sign that he’d been caught, and was in danger of being sold as a slave by someone who wanted to recoup a little of what Jack had stolen.
Besides, no pirate wanted a permanent mark which associated him with the Sweet Trade. It’s called “plausible deniability.” The chance to look up from your beer and say to the authorities, “Pirates? There ain’t no pirates round here, mate. You must have been thinking of some other tavern.”
Which gave the pirates a chance to get back to their drinks and their women. That was the point of the thing, after all.