The Origins of the Nautical Star
The nautical star refers to Polaris – the North Star. A unique and fortuitous alignment of the earth’s tilt and Polaris has resulted in it being perpetually located (during the course of human history) in a northerly direction, at least when in the northern hemisphere of the Earth.
As humanity took to the seas, ascertaining location in the largely barren, landmark-less ocean became a priority for sailors across the globe. The realization that Polaris’s location remains fixed and always indicates north allowed ships to keep track of their direction (at least on clear nights). The nautical star became an indispensable navigational aid and a culturally significant object to anyone whose safety relied upon navigation.
Nautical Star Meaning
While the exact time frame for when sailors began etching designs into their skin is unknown, the North Star was likely one of the earliest, and for good reason. As the only reliable naval navigational aid, this bright star was the lone indicator of safety and control in the otherwise chaotic and unforgiving environment of the ocean. Under these circumstances, the nautical star as a tattoo almost certainly began as a totem of protection and safety, a reminder that no matter where they sailed, there was hope of finding their way to shore and to port because they would always know which way north was.
The North Star became an endemic part of naval culture. A tattoo of a nautical star could serve two purposes. First, it served as a good luck charm or at least a reminder that there was something in a capricious world that could be counted upon. Second, the star held significant meaning for sailors who saw it etched on another of their community – it signified membership in that clique of those who risked their lives at sea.
The Nautical Star Today
The nature of any symbol will change over time, and the North Star is no exception. Tattoo designs that had been around for some time, have been adopted by a myriad of individuals who may or may not share the same interpretation of its meaning.
Thus the meaning behind a navigational star tattoo has became muddied. Many accounts indicate that in the 1940’s and 1950’s the star was used by members of the homosexual community to clandestinely proclaim their orientation in a world where it was not accepted and was even persecuted. Military personnel adopted the star as a good luck charm meant to bring them protection and to symbolically guide them home again. And many others adopted it as a symbol of guidance and independence.
Colors mean different things to different people, and in general the color choices on a nautical star tattoo are unique to the individual. Many do follow general color meanings, such as red for passion or anger and green for creativity and nature. Blue typically indicates the sea or sky, and is considered one of the more traditional colors for the symbol. And in line with the tattoo’s use as a communication of community membership, some accounts hold that nautical stars on modern day sailors are colored based on watch membership or jobs on the ship.
For a more unique tattoo idea, check out our article on QR code tattoos!
Richard R. Hobbs, Marine Navigation, Second Edition, 1981 Naval Institute Press
Nautical Star Tattoos by Torim
Nautical Star Tattoo by Julie William Jones
Images courtesy Grendelkahn, Wiki Commons