How a sailor's tattoo saved his soul

How a sailor's tattoo saved his soul

Tattoos and sea have a long and intimate history. More than just body art they served as lucky charms, talismans against evil and held the religious devotion that could save a man's soul. Yayo sent out Matt Haddon-Reichardt to explore the superstitious power of fishermen's tattoos.

swallow tattoo

The crowd jostled me as I moved away from the bar to our table by the window. It wasn’t even midday, yet the summer sun was high and hot and the holidays makers in the Newcastle Packet were possessed with the kind of thirst only beer can quench. I handed Garry his lager while outside the tourists paraded up and down the Scarborough seafront. The beach was packed, the arcades buzzing and the fish and chip shops were doing a roaring trade. The only quiet to be found was at the harbour where a handful of fishing boats sat silently bobbing up and down.

“Scarborough was the first seaside holiday town in the world but before that it was a fishing town,” explains Garry as he lifts the dewy glass to his lips to takes a big long drink.

His arms, like the rest of his body, are littered with old school tattoos blurred and faded through sun and time.

“We still get the tourists but the fishing industry is on its arse; has been for years,” he declares before draining half his drink in one giant gulp.

“Back when I was a kid this pub would have been full of fishermen fresh off the trawlers wanting to unwind after a long hard fishing trip. A chance to spend their pay packets before the wife would get hold of it,” laughs Garry his gravelly voices laced with nostalgia.

"Fishing has always been a dangerous game; men lived and died on the boats."

Garry is in his mid fifties with a well worn face and youthful eyes. Like many who have worked at sea his life of graft and sacrifice is etched into the lines on his face and the tattoos on his body.

“There is a long tradition of tattoos and sailors. For some it was a superstitious or religious reason; protection from the dark forces of the sea. Fishing has always been a dangerous game; men lived and died on the boats. You go in the North Sea on a calm day and you’ll be lucky to come out alive. Throw in a storm and it makes every trip out from the harbour a potential death sentence.” Garry finishes his drink and stares out at the boats.

“It might sound dramatic but when I used to wave goodbye to my dad my mum would say be prepared he may not come back. But wasn’t that the same for all the old working class industries? Steel, mining, fishing, ship building; all of them hard back breaking work, all risky ways for a man to make a living.”

"It might sound dramatic but when I used to wave goodbye to my dad my mum would say be prepared he may not come back."


As Garry heads to the bar to refill our glasses I glance over at the myriad of pictures hung on the wall depicting life at sea. He quickly returns his status as a local ensuring prompt service. “My wife’s uncle Tom is over there on a photograph,” he says gesturing at the far wall across the crowded pub. “He had the biggest ship in the fishing fleet. You should have seen the size of the catch he would pull in and the money it would make.”

I take my pint and ask Gary the meaning of his tattoos

“Nothing really; I just got them to look good,” he smiles. “Us younger guys would copy the older blokes and get the same style tattoo but not for the same reason. The design would stay the same but the meaning would be dropped.”

“My dad was in the bomb squad and he got all sorts of military tattoos done when in the forces and he got even more when he left the army and went onto the boats to make a living. He got swallows on his chest because the older fishermen believed it was good luck; that the birds would get you home from the trip to sea and back to dry land. Another bloke had swallows on his back as that way if he died at sea the birds would take his soul to heaven. I copied them and have swallows on my front and back but just because I was young and thought it was grown up.”

"Another bloke had swallows on his back as that way if he died at sea the birds would take his soul to heaven."

swallow tattoo

“One bloke who used to come in here had an anchor on his chest for good luck. He said it was to make sure he was stuck to the deck. I used to joke that if he went in the water with that thing he’d sink to the bottom. Another had the Lord’s Prayer on his back. He said when leaning over the side of the boat pulling in the nets God would see the prayer and know he was a believer and spare his life.”

Garry left the fishing boats a long time ago and now works as a caretaker at a local school. Not the type of job that has a deep affinity with tattooing but the type of job a guy heading to retirement can do without being judged too harshly for his aged ink. I asked how he feels tattooing has changed since the decline of the fishing industry.


“I’ll tell you a story that sums it up for me. There’s this skinhead bloke, Mickey, who lives in Bridlington. He was from that first generation of skinheads from the sixties. He got two big fish tattooed right on top of his head when he was a teenager using the money from his first pay packet as a fisherman. He’s all hunched over now cus he’s in his seventies and from a hard life on the fishing boats. All you can see when he’s walking towards you are these great big, greasy fish. People pull his leg by asking him did he not think how the tattoo would look when he became an old man and he just tells them he never even thought about being an old man. He thought the sea would take him long before old age did.”


A final thought from the Gary: "Back in the day we didn't really understand about tattoo aftercare. We just used to slap antiseptic cream on and hope for the best. If I'd have had Yayo back in the 80's I'd certainly been using it to help heal and protect my tattoos. They'd have lasted the test of time much better with a little help from Yayo."

Yayo... its a family thing.


 Words and images by Matt Haddon-Reichardt