Nautical Star Tattoos The History, Meaning And Symbolism - What A Strange Mix

The history, meaning and symbolism of nautical star tattoos is
a hotly debated topic. Today many different groups have
adopted the Nautical star tattoo as a symbol for their own
movement and they have all ascribed their own meaning and
history to the symbol. Thus has lead to a wide
disagreement as the the meaning of the tattoo.Historically
most everyone agrees that Sailors were the first people to get
nautical star tattoos. In fact the very word nautical
relates back to sailing. So this connection has been
pretty firmly established. Most people would agree the
sailors were a pretty superstitious group historically and
sailor lore abounds with superstitious and fantastical stories
of life and death and being lost at sea. Early on
sailors navigated by the stars at night and the north star
became the symbol for finding ones way home. Once you
know where the north star is you can point your ship in the
right direction to get home. So the star became a symbol
for finding ones way home or more symbolically even finding
ones path in life. Therefore many sailors would tattoo
nautical stars on their forearms as a good luck symbol in
hopes of returning home.

However their modern day meaning is a more debated topic.
Many believe that groups including gay and lesbians, punk
rockers and those in the military have adopted the nautical
star tattoo as a very important symbol. The diversity of
these three groups has lead many to argue the meaning of their

For the military the connection is pretty obviously point
back to the early sailors and the symbolism and meaning is the
same as the early sailors. Many military people get a
nautical star tattoo as a symbol for finding ones path home
safely. Of course this can also include more
symbolically just finding ones way in life.

Here is a quote we found from a member of the armed
services and his interpretation of the tattoo:

"I am in the United States Army, an MP who searched towns
and villages for Al Quida and insurgents. I was in Iraq for 1
year. I have a red and black nautical star on my wrist. The
reason I got it was because when I was out there, I felt it
was a guide to guide me home to my family safely. I got it so
that it would remind me that I am going to make it to see my
son grow up. I am not gay, it doesn't matter what you believe
it represents, it means something different for everyone. Out
in the desert, I would look up at the stars and think about
home. So anyone can think what they want to, that is what it
means to me. "

Punk rockers have also adopted this as a popular symbol to
have tattooed. The punk movement traces its history and
use of the nautical star tattoo back to Sailor Jerry.
Sailor Jerry is historically one one of the most famous tattoo
artists ever. He was well known for his innovative and
"cool" designs. Punks have taken this symbol and it has
very much the same meaning of finding one way in life.
Being the rugged individualists type Punks are drawing to the
symbolism of true north and finding one own unique way in
life. So the Nautical star has become a symbol for this.
You see many punk bands that have full sleeve tattoos
typically incorporate nautical star tattoos either on their
elbows or elsewhere.

The lesbian and gay connection is the one that does not
seem so obvious at first. Historically back in the
1940's and 50's when alternative lifestyles were not the norm
and often women had to hide their alternative choices they
would sport a hidden nautical star. Often they would get
the star tattoo done on the inside of their wrist where it
could easily be hidden by a watch during the day but shown off
in the evening when out on the town. Today many lesbians
where the nautical star tattoo to show their connection with
their early pioneering sisters. Here is a little
evidence to support my points.

"Here's the passage (with some pieces dropped) from "Boots
of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian
Community" by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeilne D. Davis
copyright 1993 p. 189.

(talking about the 1940's and 1950's):

"...During this same time period, the cultural push to be
identified as lesbians- or at least different- all the time
was so powerful that it generated a new form of identification
among the tough bar lesbians: a star tattoo on the top of the
wrist, which was usually covered by a watch. This was the
first symbol of community identity that did not rely on
butch-fem imagery. We can trace this phenomenon back to an
evening of revelry in the late 1950's, when a few butches
trooped over to "Dirty Dick's" tattoo parlor on Chippewa
Street and had the tiny blue five-pointed star put on their
wrists. Later, some of the fems of this group also go the idea
one night and did it...The community views the tattoo as a
definite mark of identification..."the Buffalo police knew
[that] the people that had the stars on their wrist were
lesbians and they had their names and so forth. That it was an
identity thing with the gay community, with the lesbian
community". The fact that the star tattoo was created by those
who were firmly into roles, in fact by the group that was
considered the butchy butches and their fems, suggest that the
force to assert lesbian identity was strong enough to break
through the existing traditions of boldness based in butch-fem
roles. The stars presage the methods of identity created by
gay liberation. In fact, the mark has become something of a
tradition in local circles and has seen a revival since the

This meaning of the symbol has of course created a lot of
problems and arguments among the other two groups of bearers
of nautical stars. Most puck and military people do not
want to have a nautical star that points back to anything from
the lesbian movement so many will say that there is no
connection there and this is false.

Here is a quote from another armed forces member about the
symbolism of the nautical star among the gay community:

"This "gay symbol" is a load of hooey that someone made up
VERY recently. The nautical star tattoo has been around nearly
as long as tattooing itself. The late Celts (or early Irish,
depending on your view of World History) were said to have
been the first to have the tattoos, although evidence of it
being used on ships in Spain has been found pre-dating the
Irish claim.

As a Marine, it's a very commonplace symbol amongst us if
we have been part of a Boat Raid company, red for port, green
for starboard on varying parts of the body. On ship, I saw
about a million different variations on the Sailors I was was
serving with, obviously harking back to the sailor roots."

Here is a quote from a punk rocker and his feelings about
the symbolism of the tattoo:

"what idiots..even the military boys dont know what it
really means....JUST SO YOU ALL KNOW!!!!!it was used by OLD
sailors.. and the symbol represents North on a Map ...and it
is the North Star the sailors would use it as a baring to get can find it on Really really old maps and old navy
vessels... Punk Rock.. well we use it because we can and
because Sailor Jerry made the coolest tattoos who started
putting them on everyone.. my grandfather even had one thus
being used as a traditional icon"

It just goes to show that when the same powerful symbol is
used over and over again over decades of time it can taken on
very different meanings for different groups. So all of
those that you see sporting a nautical star tattoo might not
all have the same interpretation of its symbolism.

So do you have a nautical star tattoo or think about
getting one in the future? Which meaning of the symbol
will you get the nautical star for? As long as you know
what the symbolism behind the star is for and you have gotten
it for the right reason to either support the lesbian movement
or as a symbol to finding your way!