Maritime tattooing and the full-rigged sailing ship have been found together since tattooing first entered modern western culture with early sailors in the South Pacific. While many maritime tattoo designs will use a ship for various reasons, there was also a very specific reason for a tattoo of a full-rigged ship — the singular and dangerous accomplishment of sailing around Cape Horn (the rocky headland of Chile, south of Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom tip of South America). Alternatively, it has also been noted that a sailor who sails around the Cape is entitled to a small, blue five-pointed star tattoo on the left ear. Five times around the Horn earned one on the right ear as well. Two red marks on the forehead meant that the sailor was a mighty voyager, having rounded the Cape ten or more times.In the age of modern ships, however, the great peril of rounding the Horn is likely not the motivation for most maritime tattoos that use the clipper ship. Instead, these modern tattoos are a nod to the fascination of sailing, the traditional tattoos of a bygone era, maritime tradition, and also the classic Americana or Old School style of tattoos.
Ship lights are another of the older maritime tattoos that are rarely seen today. The port (left) ship light is red and the starboard (right) is green. By seeing the orientation of the colors of the lights at night, a sailor can tell if the vessel is sailing away from them or toward them (on a possible collision course).