Nautical-themed tattoos as popular as ever on Texas Coast
The U.S. Navy sailor remembers his arm bleeding profusely in a Hong Kong apartment. He drank beer, and children dashed about the room as a tattoo artist dug needles — “big, dull and dirty” — into his arm. Tattered design books lay scattered in the apartment. The needles pierced deeply, injecting dark ink. Blood dripped constantly, requiring mopping throughout the surgical craftwork. A ship took shape on Gene Geiger’s arm.
The young sailor joined the Navy a day after high school graduation. He served on a supply ship running routes between Japan and Vietnam, where the war was underway in 1964. Halfway through the trip, vessels moored in Hong Kong for a week, plenty of time for military men to spend their pay on booze and primitive tattoos, which scabbed for days.
“It was painful — if a guy told you it didn’t hurt, they were lying to you,” Geiger said.
Half a century later, the ink remains deep in the body of the 71-year-old San Leon resident.
Traditional sailor tattoo artistry continues in the region, especially among international vessel crew members passing through the Port of Galveston or avid Texas anglers who may sport a Texas slam, the trifecta of speckled trout, flounder and redfish. While at sea, sailors from as far as Sweden contact Chauncey Kochel, co-owner of Aasylum Tattoo in Galveston, with requests for body ink.
“Usually, sailors get something involving their family or to signify family, such as roses, because they’re gone for so long, especially the guys from farther overseas,” Kochel said.
Sailors also still ink a chicken and a pig on their feet, part of a superstitious custom, Kochel said. The images are believed to bring good fortune because crates carrying chickens or pigs floated after shipwrecks, providing stranded swimmers a lifeline.
But the tide has shifted. Images from nautical life have gone mainstream, no longer just the pursuit of sailors. There’s a bevy of pages on Pinterest, the popular social media platform, devoted to the anchor. The symmetrical image is appealing to a broad spectrum of customers, said Brandon Hernandez, an artist at True Love Tattoo Studio in Kemah.
“If you don’t know how to draw an anchor, you shouldn’t be doing tattoos,” Hernandez said.
Other nautical-themed tattoos hark back to Norman Collins, the artist widely known as Sailor Jerry and credited with popularizing the bold, bright styles of American Traditional tattoos while working in Hawaii. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, a steady flow of military personnel passed through the island — soldiers and sailors who desired tattoos. The same images are popular in the region today, even if slightly tweaked, artists say.
“The sailor-style tattoos on the coast have always been here,” Kochel said. “I don’t think it’s ever going to change. Islanders and anybody on the coast — this is what they do.”