Ocean Tattoo Designs & Their Meaning

If you’ve ever stared out over the blue expanse of the sea with a sense of wonder, you’re not alone. The ocean has long captivated our imaginations since ancient times. Today, much of its mystery has disappeared as we explore its depths, but the allure remains.

Ocean tattoos play a vital role in the history of tattooing. They have evolved a lot since then, but are even more popular now. The sea and water are rife with symbolic meaning, so your ink can show your love for the nautical world along with deeper meaning.

Popular Designs and Meanings for Ocean Tattoos

Oceans and seas cover over 70 percent of the globe, and even today, scientists discover thousands of new creatures when they dive down deep enough. The possibilities for nautical body art are as endless as the blue expanse itself.

Our look into ocean tattoos will cover some of the most iconic and popular designs along with their potential symbolism and history.

Boats and Nautical

Modern tattooing first became popular in the western world, thanks to sailors. Even the word “tattoo” came from James Cook’s exploration of Tahiti. The native Tahitians decorated their bodies with intricate geometric designs, and the sailors of the Royal Navy adopted the practice and made it their own.

This practice continued and expanded to the US navy. The tattoos themselves gained additional meanings. An anchor commemorated a sailor’s first crossing of the Atlantic. Sailors who crossed the international date line or served in Asian seas might have a golden dragon.

You don’t have to serve in the Navy to choose a classic nautical tattoo. If you love to sail yourself, mimicking the classical style for your ocean ink can show homage to the old days of wooden sailing ships. 

The ships themselves, especially the old sailing ships with their mammoth sails, are another common ocean tattoo. They can display your love of sailing. 

Metaphorically, a ship on a voyage can represent the journey of life itself. Sometimes the seas are angry and dangerous, but you’ll steer the ship through.


Waves showcase the awesome and destructive power of the ocean. Every culture that lived on the water had legends of floods and waves that ravaged their ancestors. The Ancient Greeks blamed the sea god Poseidon’s anger on destructive flooding. Tattoos of waves can display the sea’s awesome power.

Another interpretation of waves views them as a feminine force. The moon controls the tides and it has long been seen symbolically as a feminine symbol. Combining waves and the moon in a tattoo can display powerful feminist symbolism.

Underwater Scenes

People can’t live underwater, at least not without a steady supply of breathable oxygen. That hasn’t stopped us from fantasizing about lost civilizations that disappeared into the sea. 

A tattoo of an underwater scene featuring your favorite fish and other aquatic creatures is a striking piece of art. Adding a hint of a sunken city can show your own fascination with Atlantis or Mu.


Just as ancient civilizations stared out on the blue expanse with wonder, they viewed many of the unique and beautiful ocean creatures in the same way. Whales and dolphins are well-loved animals and common subjects for tattoos. Their usage in mythology as escorts to Aphrodite, the ancient greek love goddess, gives them a romantic symbolism. 

They are not alone. Sharks feature in the myths and legends of many seafaring peoples. A giant squid attacked the Nautilus in Jules Verne’s classic 20,000 Leagues under the sea. The possibilities for sea creature tattoos are as endless as the ocean itself.

Fantasy Creatures

Your tattoo is a personal statement and a work of art you will take with you for all your days. There’s no reason you have to limit yourself to real creatures. Ancient sailors thought the seas were full of legendary creatures like mermaids and sea monsters. Ink featuring some of these mythical creatures can show your whimsey.

Popular Ocean Tattoo Art Style

With such diversity in the oceans themselves, there are almost no limits to the style of your nautical tattoos. Again, we will touch on some of the most common and striking styles to give your tattoo a little something extra.

Traditional Sailor Tattoos 

You can’t go wrong mimicking the simple yet classic style of the old navy tattoos. Often given on the ship itself after milestones like crossing the line, what they lack in visual complexity, they make up for in metaphorical meaning.

The simplicity makes them a great option for very small tattoos. A tiny anchor in a meaningful place is a great option. Some sailors had the words “HOLD” and “FAST” inked on their knuckles, symbolizing the need to keep a grip on the rigging. Today, this can refer to your perseverance.


If you want to go back even further, look to the body art that inspired the naval style itself. The intricate geometric designs with stark black bands of tribal style tattoos are always a great choice for stylized sea creatures, especially if you already have ink in that style.


Scenes of ocean life have been the subject of works of art since people first took sight of the sea. The dynamic brushstrokes and soft colors used in watercolor work amazingly well in nautical tattoos, both for water scenes and depictions of sea life. 


Photorealistic art requires a deft hand, especially with a tattoo needle, but the end results can be spectacular. Realistic style art is suited for underwater scenes, wildlife or majestic sailing ships sailing across your back, chest or arm.

Colors Used in Ocean Tattoos

Sea creatures come in a kaleidoscope of colors, both bright and subdued. Your body art can include all of them and more, but the most common colors for ocean tattoos are blue and black.


From the deep, almost purple shades of the ocean’s depths to the turquoise hues of the waters on the beaches of the Caribbean, blue is the endemic color of the ocean. Any tattoos featuring scenes of the sea will likely contain at least one shade of blue.

A blue tint for tattoos of sea creatures can give the illusion that they’re swimming underwater. Many fish and ocean mammals have blue coloration in nature, so it’s a vital color for the ink of those animals. 


Black is the most common color for tribal tattoos and works wonderfully for some ocean-related art. Orcas are almost as popular as dolphins and their distinctive black and white coloring can be shown in monochrome.

Many tattoos of the sailing ships of old use a black and white art style reminiscent of woodcut prints of the time. The antiquated style adds another layer of meaning along with a distinctive look.

Body Placement

The place you choose for an ocean tattoo is as personal as your choice of design and style, but there are a few very common locations.


The tattoos common in the navy of the 19th and early 20th century tended to be placed on the arms. An anchor or other small art on the biceps is cliche at this point, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Popeye the Sailor is usually drawn with anchors on his abnormally large forearms. 

The arms are great locations for all ocean tattoos, not just traditional naval designs. Underwater scents can wrap around them and even extend to the shoulder, back or chest. Your favorite creature swimming across your arm is always fun.


For tattoos that need a larger canvas to unfurl on, putting them front and center lets you show them off to all in front of you. Ships gliding across the chest, their sails unfurled, can be an unforgettable sight. A compass over your heart shows that you’ll always find your way, even in the largest storms.


When you want to make a statement or create a nautical tableau, you need the body’s biggest canvas. Perfect for striking scenes of underwater life or old sailing ships, you can’t go wrong with a large and colorful back tattoo.

Best Ocean Tattoos