With a collection of tattoo motifs from the early 1900s as a starting point we tell the stories of why sailors got tattooed and about the symbolism of the motifs. These motifs are experiencing a revival today, often called ‘Old School’. But do they carry the same meanings? Who chooses the butterfly, who the pin-up and who the tall ship? And where is the naked man?

Sailor identity

A hundred years ago it was not a given thing that you got a tattoo, says Heidi Viktorsson, curator at the Åland Maritime Museum. For sailors it was an identity that was inked into the skin but also a class marker. The exhibition reveals the stories and influences behind the motifs and their development. Tattoos are beautiful and although simple they contain big feelings. In the harsh environment on board one seldom spoke of love, homesickness and the fear of death. Instead, one’s own skin became a kind of free space where romantic motifs could mix with expressions of power and danger.

Where are the men?

Faith, Hope and Love is produced by the Maritime Museum in Stockholm and displays a selection of tattoo motifs from their rich collection. The exhibition brings current questions regarding tattoos and the symbolism of the motifs to the fore. It also asks questions about masculinity and femininity, says Viktorsson. Many sailors, past and present, have had tattoos made depicting both dressed and undressed women, but why are there almost no men among the motifs? The exhibition also explores how tattoos can separate various kinds of masculinities from each other. Still in the 1950s, tattoos were for example much more common among crew than among officers.

The exhibition Faith, Hope and Love is on display in the Åland Maritime Museum 7 March 2018-28 February 2019.