Drawing on Water

I’m developing my drawings with inks made from plants found near the River Avon, to include drawing on the body. Part of the inspiration for this are sailor tattoos, together with Scrimshaw. (engraved images on bone/ivory, including whale teeth) I was also hoping to link in with canal folk art too, but I’ve not found anything I really connect with as yet.

I’ve been reading a bit about the significance behind different maritime tattoos, here’s a little taste from a site on American Sailor Tattoos:

Swallow: Each rendition originally symbolized 5,000 nautical miles underway

Pig and rooster: This combination—pig on top of the left foot, rooster on top of the right—was thought to prevent drowning. The superstition likely hearkens back to the age of sail, when livestock was carried onboard ship. If a ship was lost, pigs and roosters—in or on their crates—floated free.

Shellback turtle: Indicates that a Sailor has crossed the equator. “Crossing the line” is also indicated by a variety of other themes, such as fancifully rendered geo-coordinates, King Neptune, mermaids, etc.

Full-rigged ship: In commemoration of rounding Cape Horn (antiquated).

‘I love this little tattooing set as well (below left), not too disimilar from my jars of inks and boxes of scratchy dipping pens/pages used on recent Queer River and Ripple Effect walks.

Tattoo kit formerly belonging to Frank Osberry (Asberry) Rogers. Note wooden needles, ink, and “flash art” (motif samples). Rogers was born 22 January 1885, enlisted in Navy on 4 May 1901, and served until 21 January 1906 aboard USS Pensacola (receiving ship), USS Alert (steam launch), USS Independence (receiving ship), and USS Marblehead (Cruiser No. 11). After his service, Rogers worked as a boilermaker and steeplejack in Pueblo, Colorado. He died 16 January 1940. While in the Navy, he ran a side business tattooing fellow sailors, purportedly specializing in dragons and hearts. From the collection of Puget Sound Navy Museum; photo courtesy of Megan Churchwell.’

Naval History and Heritage Command

Here’s a couple of timelapse videos of my experiments on my own arms, the first using paper boat motifs, that have appeared in my Queer River work for some time, and the second with a drawing of a Roach, a freshwater fish which lives in the River Avon.

After walking with Andy Marks for our first (digital) walk, whales found their way into my drawings, alongside the eels of the River Avon. I also started to explore the place of gay men and queer encounters within the Whaling industry, but didn’t get very far, although this article on the queerness of Moby Dick by Philip Hoare popped up when researching this post.

Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, who served in the US Navy in the 1840s, also wrote the following about sailor tattoos and tattooists:

Others [of my shipmates] excelled in tattooing, or pricking, as it is called in a man-of-war. Of these prickers, two had long been celebrated, in their way, as consummate masters of the art. Each had a small box full of tools and coloring matter; and they charged so high for their services, that at the end of the cruise they were supposed to have cleared upward of four hundred dollars. They would prick you to order a palm-tree, an anchor, a crucifix, a lady, a lion, an eagle, or any thing else you might want.

White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War

The homoerotic nature of the image of half-naked sailors tattooing each other (towards the top of the post) isn’t lost on me as a queer man, nor is the place of the Mermaid in nautical tattoos (I’ve written about Mermen and other watery shapeshifters here – Mermen, Otters and Bears).

The sea monsters and half-understood marine animals included in the maps and drawings of early european explorers and naturalists really interest me too, and will all be feeding into my artwork somehow.

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

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