One of the most well known, and probably the most widely socially acceptable tattoos are on servicemen, and more recently servicewomen. These tattoos, sometimes called travel marks are more than just art. They tell stories about where the wearer has been, what they’ve seen and many times, how they feel about it. The story of freedom, hardship, war and liberty can be traced back for decades or longer on the bodies of generations of those who have served in all branches of the military.
Some got inked as very young boys on their way to war. Excited, scared and away from home for the very first time, their ink made them a man, and at the same time gave them the comfort of belonging to a family, a brotherhood bonded by ink and a common experience.
Others came home with tattoos done in strange and exotic foreign cities, maybe by someone who didn’t even speak the same language. They carry that design through life as a souvenir of the experience. Women are a bigger part of today’s military, and a make up a bigger part of the tattooed community as well. Thy get their tattoos just like the boys do, and for the same reasons.
So pervasive are tattoos in military culture, that tattoo studios almost always situate themselves near bases. Some are satellite locations of bigger shops on the other side of town. Their hours of operation may even revolve around the service people’s pay schedule.
The popularity of “Lady Luck” tattoos escalated right along with World War II. She may be completely clothed or in various stages of undress, but she’s always smiling, beautiful and usually accompanied by other lucky symbols like rabbits’ feet, four leaf clovers, horseshoes, etc. This tat was a stylish choice for men about to ship out because it was thought to bring them luck.
We can’t mention Lady Luck without giving some time to her evil twin, the “Men’s Ruin” tattoo. It also features a woman in various stages of dress, but this time she’s portrayed as the root of all his troubles instead of the object of his affection. She’s surrounded by representations of vices, such as dice, playing cards, booze and drugs, but she’s still pretty, because who wants to wear an ugly woman around for the rest of their life.
There were other variations on the same theme. A lady dress as a hula girl probably means the wearer served in the Pacific Theater. Similar images were often painted on bombs, cannons, guns and other instruments of war.
United States Marines often sport tattoos with slogans like: “Simper Fi,” or Death before Dishonor.” The bulldog mascot is also popular, but perhaps no other branch is known for their body art like the navy. Sailors are famous for their tattoos, which are rich with symbolism. After he’s gone his first 5,000 miles at sea, he has a blue bird inked on to one side of his chest, the next 5,000 earns him one on the other side. A seagull may represent a fellow serviceman lost at sea. A dragon means he’s crossed over an international dateline. The ever popular anchor was though to save him if he fell overboard, and sailors back in the days of actual sails had “hold fast” tattooed on to their knuckles to help them remember to be careful while up in the crow’s nest.
Sailors in the British fleet sometimes had crosses tattooed on their backs to spare them a flogging if they got into trouble, because it would be sacrilegious to strike the image. Other popular designs among the seafaring are Neptune, the god of the sea, nude women and various kinds of ships.
There’s been resurgence in patriotic tattoos in recent years, with the Gulf Wars drawing in a new generation of soldiers, and memorial tattoos honoring the fallen of September 11th. What ever the branch, during peace or times of war, servicemen and women wear their ink like a badge of honor.