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It’s all about the tatts

28 Aug 2012

It’s all about the tatts Image

By Bethany Williams

You can tell a lot about a seafarer just by looking at him. At least you can if he has a tattoo.

The Mission to Seafarers Victoria (MtSV), on Flinders St in Docklands, is currently cataloguing the tattoos of seafarers who visit the mission.

“In a historical context, tattoos are the ultimate, outward sign of belonging and personal adornment,” MtSV historian Monica Cronin said.

The process of recording seafarer tattoos is currently informal. Staff at the mission ensure they take a quick photograph and ask about the story behind a seafarer’s tattoo whenever an opportunity presents itself.

Monica said the mission’s interest in seafarers’ tattoos developed after a discussion about tattoos, rites of passage, tradition and cultural mores.

The conversation eventually turned to the tradition and culture of tattooing amongst seafarers.

Historically, tattooing was very much a part of seafarer culture. Seafarer tattoos served as symbols of initiation, experiences and superstition.

The mission was curious to learn about modern tattoo culture amongst seafarers.

According to Monica, the very next day an American crew visited the mission and crew-members were more than happy to discuss their tattoos and have them photographed.

Amongst the crew was a young seafarer who had got his first tattoo of an anchor in New Zealand the week before.

The anchor, a traditional seafaring image, generally indicates a seafarer who has sailed the Atlantic or is part of the Merchant Marines.

The seafarer told staff at the mission that his tattoo was symbolic of his first voyage at sea and of becoming part of the ship’s crew.

“It appears from their stories that tattooing as a rite of passage still exists,” Monica said.

So far the mission has spoken to a handful of seafarers about their tattoos. Staff hope to continue to record and discuss the tattoos of seafarers who visit the mission.

“It’s an obscure piece of research and I’m not sure yet what it means for the mission except perhaps learning a bit more about the people that come through our door – learning what’s important to them and the symbols they associate with those important things,” Monica said.

“Ultimately we would love to be in a position, a little way down the track, where we can put together an exhibition featuring seafarers’ tattoos and, more importantly, the meanings behind them.

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