Tattoos have existed for thousands of centuries, originally practiced among tribal cultures. Today, this body art has become a common theme among Hollywood pirates, much like the peg leg and tricorn. However, Hollywood tends to over-embellish characters for ratings, so one must ask whether heavily tattooed pirates come from fact or fiction.
Pirates didn’t have tattoos, contrary to what some think. European pirates were less likely than Mediterranean and East Asian pirates (who recorded their raids with body art) to don tattoos. Though some pirates had tattoos, most didn’t use them as a form of tradition, particularly Europeans.
This article examines the history of maritime culture, tattoos, and their assumed association with pirates. It delves into different cultures that pirates encountered and their tattooing traditions to decipher whether tattoos were common among the feared sea dogs. Read on to learn more.
Tattoos, Maritime Culture, and Pirates
Most researchers agree that tattoos have long been associated with maritime culture. Though pirates are, too, part of maritime culture, there is no concrete evidence suggesting the prevalence of tattoos among European sea dogs.
With that said, gunpowder spots were well-known at the time among Europeans. This practice involved poking holes in the skin with a sharp instrument and rubbing black gunpowder into the wound, creating a lifelong mark. While this was a known practice for quite some time, there is not enough evidence to claim that gunpowder spots were a regular marking among European pirates.
In fact, records indicate that the modern art of tattooing designs onto the skin didn’t reach Europe until the late eighteenth century, long after the Golden Age of Piracy had ended. Interestingly, that means that most European pirates likely didn’t even know of the word “tattoo” until 1771.
Pirate Tattoos and Polynesian Influence
When Captain Cook sailed to Polynesia in the late eighteenth century, tribes in the area explained to him the body art process and called the practice “tattaw” (which is precisely where the modern word comes from). When he went back to Europe, he brought him the knowledge of this ancient, taboo body art.
Based on this information, it wasn’t until after Cook’s voyage that the majority of Europeans became familiar with decorative tattoos. And, even though the practice caught on among some, tattoos weren’t popular among all seafarers. In fact, it was mainly sailors traveling home from the South Pacific who sported the body art — not the Caribbean sea dogs that we often associate with pirates. This is most likely because the sailors traveling to the South Pacific came into contact with tribes that practiced this ancient art.
Pirates and Tattoo Culture
Though the popularity of most tattoos among pirates came long after the Golden Age of Piracy, it’s safe to assume that some buccaneers during the era — particularly those who lived among tribal cultures — knew of the practice, and may have even donned the permanent markings on their skin.
For example, research shows that though tattoos were relatively rare among European pirates, pirates from the Mediterranean and the East were likely tattooed. In fact, it was a common practice among many sailors within these cultures.
Pirates in Southeast Asia, in particular, regularly recorded their sea voyages and raids with tattoos, especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
European Pirates and Tattoos
Though most pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy probably didn’t have tattoos, there is evidence suggesting that the idea was brought to Europe during this time. There is also at least one account of a European sailor having a tattoo himself.
During the late 1600s, William Dampier, naval captain and privateer, described tattooing after a sea voyage to what we know today as Indonesia. While there, Dampier was introduced to the process of tattooing. The people poked holes in the skin and, in these holes, they rubbed a fine gum tree powder.
Fascinated with the process and the intricate designs, Dampier took a heavily tattooed man, Prince Jeoly, as a slave back to Europe. Two years after transporting Jeoly across seas, he died of smallpox. His skin was surgically removed and put on display.
Based on this information, one can surmise that tattoos weren’t commonly practiced in Europe, primarily based on their fascination with the practice.
Another story mentions a European shipmate who had a tattoo. During the 1680s, Welsh explorer and buccaneer Lionel Wafer wrote an account of a crewmate with a “gunpowder spot” on his cheek after encountering a dark-skinned tribe.
The man requested that Wafer remove the marking, and he attempted to do so. Unfortunately, he failed miserably, scarring the man’s cheek and removing a rather large layer of skin.
Both of these accounts show at least some evidence that some sailors were aware of the practice and some even had their own tattoos.
With that said, if it was a common practice, there would be far more records suggesting such. As such, we can assume that tattooing among pirates wasn’t a common practice in Europe unless we come across evidence to the contrary.
So, Did Pirates Actually Have Tattoos?
Most European pirates probably didn’t have tattoos. Though some may have had gunpowder marks due to unburned gunpowder marking its way into the skin, the majority of these marks weren’t purposeful.
However, Mediterranean and East Asian pirates probably did sport some form of intricate body art detailing their voyages and plundering. In these cases, they may have used the marks as a form of tradition, identity, or symbolism, whereas there is no evidence suggesting this was the case with European sailors.
With that said, it’s unlikely that European pirates — who used blending in as a survival mechanism — wanted a permanent marking associating them with illegal trade. Therefore, we can surmise that the famed “skull and bones” tattoos are just a myth. For the majority of pirates during this era, tattoos were taboo and uncommon, with the exception of the Mediterranean region and East Asia.
Regarding Europe, all available records suggest that only a handful of English seafarers donned body art after the Golden Age of Piracy, particularly during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. For example, in the book, “The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers,” tattoos are mentioned, though it particularly references the years 1796 to 1818.
Despite this, people still associate tattoos with pirates, even gunpowder marks. For example, in his 1951 fictional novel, “The Devil in Velvet,” John Dickson Carr writes, “…as much the mark of the seaman as the gunpowder spot on his hand…”