Throughout American history, sailors have branded themselves and one another with permanent "markings" commemorating battles or comrades or the names of women waiting back at home.
Marking that history, the Independence Seaport Museum has opened "Skin & Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor," with the tagline: "If you have a tattoo, thank a sailor."
"The whole idea behind the show is these guys are getting tattooed not because they are pretty, but because they felt strongly" about what they were honoring, said Craig Bruns, the show's curator. "You are marking your body and showing your intentions."
Citing Charles Darwin, the show points out that every culture on Earth has developed a method of tattooing itself. However, the Western style of tattoos that led to modern American tattooing came primarily from Europe. Early American sailors learned to tattoo from their British counterparts.
At the exhibition premiere Thursday night, women in elegant cocktail dresses and men in suits mingled with sailors in uniform and young artists in ripped jeans and sneakers. They wandered through the exhibition gallery, which starts pre-1700s and goes on to feature a lifesize rendering of an actual 18th-century American sailor complete with tattoos, and marveled at pieces of "flash," or the drawings of possible tattoo designs from hundreds of years ago.
Many of the guests prominently displayed intricate tattoos on their arms, neck, calves, or through the open backs of their cocktail dresses. One guest made a point of wearing flip-flops to display the tattoos on the tops of his feet.
The two tattoos on the feet of U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Richard Sambenedetto Jr. - of a pig and a rooster - have become the symbol of the "Skin & Bones" exhibit. They are part of an old sailor superstition that those two tattoos on the feet will prevent a sailor from drowning.
According to Sambenedetto, there are two different explanations for how this superstition took root. The first is that, because the animals were transported across water in wooden crates, if something should happen to the ship the crates would always float. The second is that because neither pigs nor roosters can swim, they will take the most direct route to land.
"At sea you only have each other," Sambenedetto said. "Superstition is just something to have in your back pocket. Everybody has a religion at sea. This is just part of it."
Sambenedetto, who is covered on most of his body with tattoos, says that he now counsels younger sailors who are considering getting tattoos. He himself will probably not get any more until after he retires because of restrictions the Coast Guard imposed several years ago on where its sailors can have visible tattoos and how much of their bodies can be covered.
When Sambenedetto does retire, he says he will need to add four units to his tattoo showing the units he served with over the years - a symbol of where he has been and what he has accomplished.
Like many of the people at the "Skin & Bones" opening, Anabelle Rodriguez, a Philadelphia-based artist and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, can trace her own love of tattoos back to a sailor.
"My nana's husband was a sailor and he had tattoos. I have loved tattoos since I was little. This is a very impressive show. I'm very happy," said Rodriguez, whose tattooed armband features cherry blossoms, clouds, water, and wind, which, she said, in the Japanese tradition signifies the shortness of life. In her case, though, it means carpe diem: "live it up."
Some guests stopped by a video-simulation tattoo station that "draws" an image on the skin. They could choose among a sailor's knotted rope, an anchor, and a tattoo that said "Mom," drawn while the electronic voice of a tattoo artist made conversation and a humming sound created the atmosphere of an authentic tattoo parlor.
Melissa Hough, a retired museum curator, chose the anchor because, as the automated voice explained, it is one of the most popular first tattoos sailors get. Hough said she had formerly been put off by tattoos, but after going through the exhibition, she had a different perspective.
"It's a lot of fun. Who would guess? It's kind of an unusual subject," said Hough. And while it may not have made her want to run out and get a tattoo, she had gained a new appreciation of tattoos. "I definitely see it as an art form now."