Summer 2015: Exploring Salem’s Connected World through tattoo art


This temporary public art installation is a celebration of Salem’s seafaring history and honors the cultures we’ve been connected to by sea.

You are invited to explore this temporary installation of painted tattoo designs on the walkways throughout Derby Square and Artists’ Row.

I chose this medium because tattooing, a sailor’s art form, is used throughout the world to commemorate important ideas and identity; this type of design works will in a large scale environment, and the idea is to attach memorable significant symbols to the city itself. The first such installation was a 1000-foot tattoo titled “Connected By Sea”, stained last summer into the pier at HarborArts in Boston.

In the same way as tattoos often express identity, we are celebrating the seafaring history of Salem and honoring the people and cultures we’ve been connected to by sea, who helped make us what we are today.

1. Mermaid: New England Sailors


Mermaid on anchor scrimshaw, reproduction, artist unknown[Near Essex Street]

Much of Salem’s importance was as a seaport: This classic mermaid tattoo design celebrates the sailors who set out from here or traveled from far away. The anchor signified the Navy, or more broadly those who made their living from seafaring. The mermaid symbolizes the lure of the sea, or the sailor’s wish for companionship. Done in classic 1940’s Sailor Jerry tattoo style.

The mermaid-on-anchor pose is an old classic in tattoo tradition- this was inspired by a reproduction of an old scrimshaw piece on whale’s tooth, but updated for the Sailor Jerry pinup look.

2. Pennacook emblem: Native American



Elizabeth-PerryThis design pays homage to the original inhabitants of New England.

Tattooing was a popular form of body art for many of the tribes in this region, and they favored sharp geometric lines and triangles like at the bottom of this design. The wavy lines and flower shapes were botanical symbols often used on clothing and personal effects.

The seal at the top is a Pennacook family crest.

Original design by Native American artist Elizabeth Perry, a member of the Wampanoag tribe who specializes in traditional wampum jewelry design. Thanks also to Karen Kramer of the Peabody Essex Museum for research assistance.

3. Kraken and Ship: New England Sailors


[In front of Old Town Hall]

Updated version of a sailor tattoo shows the mightiness of the ocean and the risks taken in seafaring. The kraken was a legendary sea-monster said to attack and swallow ships.

The ship in this piece is copied from a painting in the Peabody Essex Museum. [Find]

4. Orca (Killer Whale): Tsimshian, Pacific Northwest Native Americans

Tsimshian Killer Whale design by Benjamin Cantil[Right-hand path, by Old Town Hall]

The killer whale is a clan emblem and a symbol of respect, strength and health, family, and harmony. Transformations feature prominently in Pacific Northwest traditions, and one story about the killer whale is that they could drag kayaks and people under water, and there turn them into whales themselves- so a killer whale spotted swimming near land was thought to possibly be a transformed human trying to contact their family.

This Tsimshian-style orca was designed by Benjamin Cantil of Kenai, Alaska. The style of tribes in this region is to have faces inside faces, and some of the shapes doing double duty as parts of different animals. This one also has what might be a raven face, as a dorsal fin.

5.  Decorative botanical design: China


[Right-hand path, by Old Town Hall]

Adapted from an object in the Chinese House at the PEM. [Find]

6. Honu: Hawaii and Pacific Islands


[Back up on the left side of Old Town Hall]

New England sailors learned the art of tattoo when they visited the South Pacific.

For Hawaiians, the Honu (green sea turtle) is a symbol of good luck in the form of a guardian spirit, or Amakua. A common petroglyph carved into lava rocks by ancient Hawaiians, the Honu is usually shown in a swimming pose, with a line down the center of its shell.  According to legend, sea turtles guided the Polynesians to the Hawaiian islands, so they became a symbol for the seafarer finding his way home. This design also contains spiral forms depicting ferns for growth and life, and the tentacles of the octopus for holding onto knowledge.

7. Cranes and Clouds: Japanese


[Lower left side of Old Town Hall]

Cranes symbolize long life and good fortune in Japanese art.

This pattern was copied from an object in the Japan trade goods collection at the PEM. [Find]

8. Sankofa: West Africa (Ghana)


[Front of Old Town Hall facing Derby Square]

This symbol, also sometimes depicted as a stylized bird looking backward at an egg, is also called “Return and Get It” and has the meaning “Learn from the past” in the Adinkra symbol system.

It is one of many Adinkra symbols which originated with the Akan and Asante people of Ghana, and have been widely used in architectural ornament and textiles, and in modern times as tattoos, for their range of symbolic meanings.

Chosen for this project by Stephen Hamilton, African diaspora artist and art historian living and working in Boston. His current “Itan Project” uses teaching of Yoruba art and culture to combat the effects of institutionalized and internalized racism on youth of African descent.

9. Dragon: China


[Plaza in Derby Square]

Chinese dragons traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck. American sailors who had been to China often got dragon tattoos to commemorate their passage.


This particular dragon was taken from piece in the PEM China collection. [Find]

10. Fish: Japan


[Facing Front Street by the Lobster Shanty]

In Japanese art, the fish means well-being, happiness and freedom. It is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols used in Buddhism imported from China. The fish symbolizes living in a state of fearlessness, without danger of drowning in the ocean of sufferings, and migrating from place to place freely and spontaneously.

This fish appears on an object in the Japanese trade goods collection at the PEM. [Find]

11. Mandala: India


[Artists’ Row just past the Lobster Shanty]

The mandala is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the Universe. The center of this piece contains a wheel, one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols which has represented Buddha’s teaching of the way to enlightenment since early Indian Buddhism. The outer ring is decorated with lotus petals, the lotus meaning purity of thought.

The style of this mandala was inspired by the art of mendhi, a form of temporary tattooing very popular for personal decoration. In India brides receive auspicious mendhi symbols decorating their hands and feet for their wedding day.

12. Pennacook emblem


Inspired by a decorated deerskin hunting bag from the 1600s or 1700s in the PEM collection, this design has been reworked by Wampanoag artist Elizabeth Perry as a large tattoo design.  The cross design is said to resemble a Great Lakes region symbol for communication with the spirits, though a four-quarters shape is also often interpreted as signifying the four directions and a sense of place. The stepped stripe elements in Perry’s interpretation represent porcupine quill embroidery used on clothing and accessories by the tribes of the Northeast. Thanks also to Karen Kramer of the Peabody Essex Museum for invaluable research assistance.

13. Elephant: India


In India elephants were work animals and status symbols, often decorated with accessories, ornate saddles, and paint.

This elephant and mahout (rider) is inspired by an object in the Indian trade goods collection at the PEM. [Find]

14. Sailing Ship: New England


[End of Artists’ Row facing New Derby Street]

Drawn to look like a classical nautical tattoo design; This ship is based on one that can be seen in the New England Maritime collection at the PEM. [Find]

Past this point visitors can turn left down New Derby Street to the waterfront and visit the Friendship, or stay and explore the shops of Artists’ Row…