Soldier, Sailor

Some people pour out their colorful stories to juries. Others relieve the tension by writing for the confession magazines. The sailor enlists the tattooers needle upon his own body in dull blues, vivid reds, greens and yellows to record the story of his loves and hates, his triumphs, his religion, and his patriotism.

Miss Eleanor Barnes of the Seaman’s Institute


When Captain Cook and his crew first sailed to Tahiti on board HM Bark Endeavour in 1769, they discovered there a sophisticated people with ornate decoration on their skin called tataow. This lead some of Cook’s crew to have tattoos of their own made as souvenirs of their visit, including Darlington-born Robert Stainsby, who was one of the first British sailors recorded as having these markings.

Tattoos can be both figurative illustrations and symbolic signs of individual identity: overt or covert expressions of love, courage, rebellion, achievement, remembrance, faith… They can enhance visual appeal, signify binding allegiances, act as protective talismans, or provide an indelible map of transitional phases in people’s lives.

For this project I made portraits of people with tattoos who have links to seafaring and military services – floating populations of professionals with vocations that may on the surface appear to be uniformed conformity, but who conventionally assert their independence and individualism with tattoos.

Soldier, Sailor was originally commissioned by the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum for the exhibition ‘Tataow!’ in 2009, which was designed to trace the legacy of Cook’s tattooed crew in 21st century Teesside. In 2010 the show also toured to the Maritime Museum in Hartlepool and The Head of Steam Railway Museum in Darlington, and is now in the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum’s permanent collection.