Tattoo trends come and go, styles develop and go from niche to popular and back to niche again, but one thing remains unchanged: the relentlessly popular anchor tattoo. Once the domain of sailors and seamen of all kinds, nowadays anchor tattoos are a common sight on men and women of all ages and from all walks of life.
For many people, particularly for those not overly familiar with the world of tattoo art, the anchor will be the first thing to come to mind when the word ‘tattoo’ comes up. It could be said that the anchor is something of a stereotypical tattoo – but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring or unoriginal! Anchors fit in great with a whole range of designs and have a range of deeply symbolic meanings.
Early history of the anchor as a symbol
Not many people know that one of the earliest uses of the anchor as a symbol took place in ancient Rome. The anchor was adapted by Christians as a symbol of their faith during a period when the Romans were attempting to eradicate Christianity. It was something like a secret code – a seemingly innocent image used in place of the instantly recognizable (and punishable) Christian cross.
For Christians facing persecution for their faith, the anchor made for the perfect hidden symbol. It’s easily recognizable and includes the shape of a cross, but it wasn’t officially adapted as a symbol of any religion, so could be displayed without fear of being taken to mean Christianity.
Early Christians wore anchor jewelry and anchor tattoos as a way to make themselves recognizable to other members of the faith. Anchors were also used to mark safe houses for those seeking refuge from prosecution on religious grounds.
Anchor tattoo meaning
In sailing, anchors are used to ‘tie’ the ship to the sea bed. This holds the ship in place and prevents it from floating away, keeping the ship and all aboard safe even during the stormiest weather. For this reason, the anchor has always been associated with strength, stability, and safety.
Anchor tattoos can mean just that: stability in your life or in your beliefs, staying true to yourself and your values, staying strong and balanced even through the toughest of times. An anchored ship won’t be carried away by the wind or the current. Just as an anchor holds down the ship to keep it safe, your anchor tattoo can symbolize being grounded and stable.
Another meaning behind anchor tattoos can be that of home. On a ship, the anchor would usually be dropped at the end of a journey, or at least at a safe port. Equally, your anchor tattoo can symbolize a place or a person whom you associate with safety and to whom you always want to come back.
The anchor is carried on the ship at all times and dropped only when the ship stops. For a tattoo, this can introduce the meaning of adaptability: you’re travelling through life and finding safety and comfort in yourself and those around you no matter where you are.
When the anchor is raised, that means the ship is off on a new journey, or continuing a long voyage. For many people, the idea of a ‘new journey’ brings excitement and curiosity for what lies ahead. Your anchor tattoo could symbolize being open to the future and everything it might bring.
Anchors are immensely heavy and once dropped into the sea, they take a tremendous amount of strength and effort to pull back up. Their purpose is to weigh down the ship to prevent it from moving. Hence, a cracked or broken anchor tattoo can be a symbol of moving forward and not letting your past weigh you down.
Anchor tattoos in the military
Anchors feature heavily in the insignia of naval branches of many of the world’s militaries. An anchor with rope is a key element in the U.S. Navy’s designs and insignia, and has been adapted from the symbols used by the (British) Royal Navy.
In the U.S. Navy, in addition to the general use of the anchor as military insignia, sailors get a single anchor tattoo after successfully crossing and returning from the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, sailors who have two crossed anchors on their hand – between the thumb and index finger – are boatswain’s mates. Boatswain’s mates are the crew members who maintain the ship’s deck and take care of smaller boat operations.
Popular anchor tattoo designs
For such a simple shape, the anchor has an astounding amount of symbolic meanings – and makes for a surprisingly versatile tattoo. Popular anchor tattoo design ideas include:
- Anchor with a piece of rope or chain – in sailing and in the military, an anchor with rope wrapped around it is known as a ‘fouled anchor’. This is because once the anchor becomes tangled up in rope, it becomes extremely difficult to raise from the sea. The rope can be added to an anchor tattoo design for a further layer of meaning, or it could just serve an aesthetic purpose – the addition of the rope makes for a more complex design.
- Geometric anchor tattoo – geometric tattoos are all the rage lately, and the anchor isa perfect subject for this style. Already completely symmetrical and composed mostly of straight lines, it fits in great with the overall look of geometric tattoos.
- 3D anchor tattoo – whether on its own or wrapped in rope, an anchor can make a perfect 3D tattoo. It’s not an overly complex object to represent in 3D, but nonetheless looks impressive when done well.
- Watercolor anchor tattoo – watercolor ‘splashes’ can make an awesome background to any symbol, but they suit an anchor particularly well thanks to the obvious connection with water. You don’t have to limit yourself to the standard blues and greens of the sea, either – there are plenty of awesome-looking watercolor anchor tattoos out there with a whole range of vivid colors.
- Matching anchor tattoos – many couples choose anchors for their matching tattoos, and it’s easy to see why. The meaning of stability and strength, as well as that of home and safety, can easily be applied to another person or a relationship.
- Cracked anchor – a cracked anchor, as described above, is often used in tattoo designs to symbolize breaking free, moving forward, and not letting your past hold you down.
Anchors and other symbols
Like many objects with strong or complex symbolic meanings, anchors are often combined in tattoo designs with other symbols. This is often done to add a further layer of meaning to the tattoo or to clarify what the main symbol means to the person in the context of the tattoo. For instance, consider the following combinations:
- Anchor with the infinity symbol tattoo – The infinity symbol, a mathematical sign meaning eternity or endlessness, is often featured together with the anchor. The anchor is usually worked into the line of the symbol – which takes the shape of the number 8 on its side.
- Heart and anchor tattoo – the perfect combination to express the idea of finding strength and stability in love, or in the presence of a loved one. In this combination, the two symbols can either appear separately as part of a unified design, or the shape of the heart can be worked into the shape of the anchor. Another popular choice is to a heart-shaped piece of rope or chain to an anchor design. These kinds of tattoos often feature the name of a loved one, commonly written on a ribbon – as in the traditional tattoo style.
- Anchor with a compass tattoo – since both of these elements have nautical ties, they make for a cohesive and great-looking design. A compass symbolizes the ability to always find your way home, head in the right direction, or simply know where you are.
- Anchor with a star tattoo – like a compass, in nautical symbolism the star means always being able to find your way, even in darkness. This is because traditionally, before the development of appropriate technology, sailors used to navigate at night by looking at the positions of stars. Of particular symbolic importance to sailors is the nautical star – a five-pointed star, with each arm half light, half dark, resembling a compass rose.
- Anchor with a rose tattoo – in addition to looking amazing as tattoos, roses have a whole range of cultural and symbolic meanings. Among other things, roses can symbolize stability (like the anchor), secrecy, balance, wisdom, and friendship. Nowadays, red roses in particular are associated with love and romance and white roses with purity and innocence.
- Anchor with ‘hold fast’ quote tattoo – a popular choice particularly for men’s anchor tattoos, this is a reference to the classic sailor knuckle tattoo. Sailors would get a ‘hold fast’ tattoo on their fingers in hopes that it will bring them luck when gripping rigging. ‘Holding fast’ in this context means having the strength not to let go of the rope used to control the sail. As part of a contemporary anchor tattoo, these words can be understood to symbolically underline the anchor’s meaning of staying true to yourself or to others and/or staying strong and stable no matter what.
These are just some ideas on combining an anchor with other elements to form a more complex tattoo design. Ultimately, your tattoo should express a meaning that is personal and important to you – so don’t be afraid to experiment with your ideas!
Celebrities with anchor tattoos
Although traditionally a masculine choice, in contemporary culture the popularity of anchor tattoos for girls and women has increased to the point where it’s a completely unisex choice. Plenty of celebrities chose anchors for their tattoos, too, and many of them women. Examples include:
- Amy Winehouse – Amy had an all-black outline of an anchor on her stomach, with the words ‘Hello Sailor’
- Margot Robbie – Margot has a tiny anchor tattoo on the inside of her left ankle.
- Hilary Duff – Like Margot Robbie, Hilary Duff has a small anchor tattoo on her ankle.
- Kesha – Kesha’s anchor tattoo, also tiny, is on her right wrist.
- Kate Moss – Kate has a black anchor tattoo on her right forearm.
- Kelly Osbourne – Kelly has a colorful anchor and rope design on her left forearm.
- Zoë Kravitz – Zoë’s anchor tattoo is a minimalistic design composed only of thin lines. It’s located on her left arm.
- Miley Cyrus – Miley’s anchor tattoo takes the form of an all-black outline on her right wrist.
Anchor tattoo placements
As with most designs, the complexity and size of the tattoo will largely determine the suitable placements. Big designs will work best on areas on the body where there is a large enough space, without too much of a curve, where the tattoo will fit without forcing the lines to run too close to each other. Intricate designs done on a small space may look good initially, but most likely won’t age well and will require regular touch-ups.
Areas best suitable for large tattoos include the back, chest, stomach, hip, and thigh. Big tattoos can also work well as sleeves, though in this case careful planning will need to be involved to make sure the curve of the arm doesn’t distort the shapes.
One of the advantages of choosing an anchor symbol for your tattoo is that it can be scaled down to the smallest of sizes. Even small enough to fit on your knuckle or earlobe, the anchor will keep its shape if tattooed in a minimalistic style. Many people choose their ankle or foot for a small anchor tattoo – presumably to underline the meaning of being stable and grounded.
Anchor designs have a rich history, deep symbolism, and a firm place among the classics of tattoo art. Despite being a common choice and a kind of tattoo stereotype, they’re highly versatile and easy to personalize – an anchor tattoo can still be unique, and a great choice for a tattoo of any size.
Whether you’re looking for a classic tattoo or you’re planning on putting a new spin on a traditional design, an anchor tattoo could be perfect for you. On its own or combined with other symbols or lettering, your anchor tattoo can not only look awesome but also express personal meaning.