Sailors initially got tattoos as souvenirs of their voyages to exotic lands. The first exposure to tattoos occurred through exposure to Polynesian cultures, but sailors eventually developed their own iconography with different tattoos symbolizing different locations visited by the sailors.
Sailors who had been to China often had dragon tattoos, while those who crossed the equator had turtle tattoos.
A tattoo of an anchor symbolized a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. The art eventually became widespread, often practiced for aesthetic or personal reasons, whether among sailors or the general public.
Sailors played a crucial role in popularizing the art form in Europe; they established the first European tattoo parlors.