Joe Plaice’s tattooed hands in the film, Master and
Commander The Far Side of the World
The practice of tattooing can be traced back as far as 2,000 BC in Egypt where tattoos were found on female mummies from that era. The famed Iceman of the Alps, who may have died about 5,000 years ago, sported 57 tattooed dot marks that may have been scars left after early acupuncture. If so, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine someone else with similar marks connecting the dots of the scars in a fanciful pattern.
No one knows when the first sailor got a tattoo, but the consensus is that the practice among seamen is very ancient. Being both practical and supersitious persons, sailors have long favored tattoos as an aid to identification and as talismans.
As a form of identification, tattoos set sailors apart from landsmen and in the case of slave ship crews, it set them apart from slaves and their brands. Sailors apparently believed that certain tattoos acted a talismans and averted disaster. Here are a few examples of these superstitions from the 18th and 19th centuries published in 1989 by researcher Ira Dye, no pun intended - honest!
Tattoos of a pig on one instep and a rooster on the other will save a sailor from drowning. There are a number of explanations for these tattoos. One theory stated that pigs and chickens often survived shipwrecks, so having them on a sailor's feet would ensure he would safely reach land.
The tattoos H-O-L-D F-A-S-T with one letter on the back of each finger next to the hand knuckle will save a sailor whose life depends on holding on to a rope. This tattoo design was popularized in the movie Master and Commander The Far Side of the World.
A crucifix tattooed on the back will either save a sailor from being flogged, as no boatswain's mate would flog the cross, or if he did the cross would alleviate the victim's pain.
A seaman who could stand the pain of getting a full-rigged ship tattooed on his chest would automatically become a good topman, that is a sailor who climbs the masts to tend the sails and rigging.
And finally, a sailor with a crucifix tatooed on each arm and leg "could fall overboard among 775,000 white sharks, all dinnerless, and not one of them would so much as dare to smell his little finger."
In Black Flag, Black Ship, a pair of tattoos on a sailor alerts young Nathan Cohagan to an ominous plot aboard the slave ship Vanity. To find out what these tattoos signify and what happens, you'll have to read Black Flag, Black Ship to find out.