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Nautical Tattoos Tell The Stories Of Our Working Waterfront

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A festival this weekend in the Massachusetts port town of New Bedford showcased the working waterfront, on the piers and in the harbor. From a scallop...

A festival this weekend in the Massachusetts port town of New Bedford showcased the working waterfront, on the piers and in the harbor. From a scallop-shucking contest to whaleboat races, festival goers got to see Southern New England’s maritime heritage come alive. Here's an audio postcard from a new event at the 12-year-old festival, the nautical tattoo contest.

The Nautical Tattoo Contest - An Audio Postcard from New Bedford, MA's Working Waterfront Festival

By the last round of the scallop shucking contest, the stage on Steamship Wharf was a gloppy mess. Hundreds of scallop shells littered a blue plastic tarp on the ground. It took longer to spray the whole place down than it did for the winners to shuck hundreds of bivalves.

But soon a panel of judges took their seats and an emcee explained the next event: the nautical tattoo contest.

“So each contestant will walk on stage. They’re going to show their tattoo to the judges," with points for artistry, stage presence, and a good story.

And there were some good ones. Like the tale from this Louisiana-born shrimper who resented everyone with a bigger boat than his custom-built skiff. Until one day, he made enough money to buy a bigger one.

“And I called it Godzilla and brought some vengeance on those people," he said, turning around to bear his back to the audience.                                                      

“And the tattoo is Godzilla walking in the water and shrimp nets, spitting fire, burning the guys who pissed him off.”

Then there was Tanner from Boston, who's currently working on the schooner Venture as the engineer. He peeled off his shirt to reveal a giant squid sucking at his shoulder.

“There’s kind of a long story that involves a crazy night in St. Croix," said Tanner, to a chorus of laughs, the crowd supposing this crazy night involved alcohol. Yes, he said, it did. "But the short version is squid, they’re mysterious denizens of the sea, and kind of proof that sometimes the sailors’ tales are real.”

Sailors’ tales may sometimes be real, but sometimes the stories on their skin mix fiction and reality, like the tattoo on scalloper Levi’s arm.

“My captain Jimmy passed away two years ago, and he used to call me Popeye all the time because of how strong I was," Jimmy said, clutching a scallop in the palm of his tattooed arm. "He couldn’t believe it because I looked so skinny.”                                   

While the judges tallied scores, contestant Terry Bungay from Newfoundland, Canada, showed off his sleeves of underwater splendor. Both arms were covered in a vivid language of the sea.

“I’ve got a full underwater sleeve, goes right from the bottom with a treasure chest and anemones, a squid, a diver, sharks, jelly fish," said Bungay, twisting his arms to afford a better view. "I’ve got a message in a bottle, I’ve got an anchor, I’ve got some old swallows sailors used to get, I’ve got a fisherman’s knot."

On stage, Bungay told the story of several generations in his family being lost at sea. Now he works for the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University. In the end, his bright, evocative tattoos won the day.

“You are first place winner!" The emcee announced, to a big round of applause.

Sailors have been inking stories on their skin for millennia. But oddly, tattooing only became legal in Massachusetts 15 years ago. That's why plenty of sailors have been coming to Rhode Island to get inked for years.

A giant squid covers Tanner's shoulder.
Levi shows off his
Jim's tattoo shows the fishing vessel Settler; the image memorializes his dory mate, who passed away.
A portrait of the vessel Ernestina, on a woman's calf.
An anchor covers this fisherman's upper arm.
Contestant Amy on her way to give the audience a close-up of the tattoo on her back: a mother humpback whale and her offspring, springing from the pages of a book.
Terry Bungay accepts his first place prize: a gift certificate to a tattoo parlor in New Bedford, MA.
Fishing vessels tied up at Steamship Wharf, in the port of New Bedford, MA
Scallop shells litter the area in front of the stage, right after the shucking contest.
The final round of the scallop shucking contest
Scallop shells litter the area in front of the stage, right after the shucking contest.
Scallop shells litter the area in front of the stage, right after the shucking contest.
Fishing vessels tied up at Steamship Wharf, in the port of New Bedford, MA
Fishing vessels tied up at Steamship Wharf, in the port of New Bedford, MA
Levi shows off his
Levi shows off his "Popeye the scalloper" tattoo.
Contestant Amy on her way to give the audience a close-up of the tattoo on her back: a mother humpback whale and her offspring, springing from the pages of a book.
Contestant Amy on her way to give the audience a close-up of the tattoo on her back: a mother humpback whale and her offspring, springing from the pages of a book.
A giant squid covers Tanner's shoulder.
A giant squid covers Tanner's shoulder.
A portrait of the vessel Ernestina, on a woman's calf.
A portrait of the vessel Ernestina, on a woman's calf.
An anchor covers this fisherman's upper arm.
An anchor covers this fisherman's upper arm.
The final round of the scallop shucking contest
The final round of the scallop shucking contest
Terry Bungay accepts his first place prize: a gift certificate to a tattoo parlor in New Bedford, MA.
Terry Bungay accepts his first place prize: a gift certificate to a tattoo parlor in New Bedford, MA.
Jim's tattoo shows the fishing vessel Settler; the image memorializes his dory mate, who passed away.
Jim's tattoo shows the fishing vessel Settler; the image memorializes his dory mate, who passed away.