40k Imperial Navy Tattoo Designs

As I mentioned in my Imperial Navy post the other day, the Ratings I'm converting wouldn't be the same without a few tattoos.

As I'm sure the naval types amongst you will know, tattoos have been popular with sailors since the days of Captain Cook. Ever the superstitious lot, historic tattoos had plenty of meanings and symbolism - they brought luck, whether ensuring a sailor would find his way home or wouldn't drown or ensured good chances in a fight. They also marked certain milestones and achievements of sorts.

Of course there's quite a bit of varitey in the interpretation of tattoos and often there's personal meaning there too, but I wanted to have a go at representing some tattoos that the Voidsmen (and women) or the Imperial Navy might have. The designs above are all hastily drawn by my not-so-fair hand) with the exception of the skulls which were borrowed from the Imperial font. Whilst some of the symbolism is similar to historic tattoos, the imagery generally isn't - and where the historic imagery is requisitioned the meaning I've given it is different (the Navigation/Compass Star for example, that often had the same significance as my "Ship's Wheel").

I tried to keep the designs simple so that even I stood a chance of painting them freehand (albeit in very simplified forms), and tried not to echo any existing imagery already established in-universe. For example, the eye I tried to make sure didn't look too much like those already seen (particularly of the Chaos variety), or looked like they could be associated with another faction or group etc. Although I've now realised a couple look like those associated with Imperial psykers... nevermind. I was also wary of making sure that the Ship's Wheel didn't look too much like the Chaos symbol. And I haven't used a shark as of yet, as it'd look too much like the Carcharadon Chapter badge. You get the idea.

I did consider some "spacey" designs, but they just didn't look right. I might try an interpretation of a void whale...

This is still very much work in progress, and your suggestions would be welcomed. I have a few particular questions:-
  • What could the "Miscellaneous" tattoos represent?
  • How many boarding parties should a Rating be part of before he can have the crossed cutlasses tattooed? 
  • What could the Rope (Line in proper speak) Knot mean? In modern terms it often means the individual is a deckhand. 
  • What is a sufficient distance to have travelled to get a rope band, similarly how long/far in the warp to get the chain band? It needs to be long enough to be noteworthy but not ridiculous
  • Which meaning of the Trident sounds best? Do you have any other suggestions (I just like the design...)
  • For the Fish tattoo, is 5 years long enough to be marked in such a way?
None of this is really that important, and essentially this is just a throwaway feature for a Kill Team / small force - but why not be consistent and do it properly... 


  1. Throw away??? Sod that. I've been trying to come up with ideas for my own two units I plan to run as ship's crew/voidsmen and tattoo's were one aspect I had hoped to attempt, but never really had any good ideas. I'll be half-inching these if you don't mind sir as you have done a fine job indeed.

    Miscellaneous tat's could be for pure "luck", brushes with xenos filth, a pledge of loyalty to someone?

    I think 3 or 5 boarding ventures.

    Deckhands don't want to remain a lowly deckhand forever though. Trusted man, the knot signifying a solid bond?

    The distance one I'm not sure on. Sometimes, fleets don't even leave a system or sector.

    I like the Maelstrom idea best.

    No, 5 years is fine and more believable than say 1 year. Sometimes fleets don't see action for decades.

    The end. :)

    1. Half-inch away, that's what it's here for. Good suggestions sir, there definitely need to be more general "luck" tattoos, I was considering a couple of dice for one of them - seems quite relevant on the tabletop too :P

      I thought 5 years was about right, anything less doesn't seem quite enough, and any more seems a bit much.

      In terms of distance that was the one thing I was concerned about, in that ships can be quite "locally" focused, hence my comments on the compass star. I might just ignore that one... or where there are these band tattoos, make them quite noteworthy.

    2. Another thing I thought to add: my grandfather was a chaplain in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. I remember he would relate to me on an all too regular basis regarding tattoo’s and how they were viewed amongst the ratings and especially within the officer’s mess. Sailors coming to see him for spiritual guidance or whatever would always go to great lengths to pull down shirt sleeves, etc to cover their tattoo’s. He said how it would almost be a mark of shame to be covered in the presence of both a spiritual advisor and also ranking officers.

      Just something else I thought you might find interesting. 

    3. That's really interesting, thanks for sharing that Dai, will definitely have to reflect that somewhere. I definitely imagined the Confessors of 40k preaching against tattooing

    4. Only brought it up cos he'd lecture me senseless after I mentioned as a wee one that I had aspirations of being a tattooed fellow. Good gawds did I regret that!

      (Needles to say, I ignored the rantings regardless and to his dying day he would grumble about the "state of me". :P )

  2. Wow. I think my favourite bit is the way there's a lot of 'unknowns' in the fluff, makes it seem much more part of the world. Gah, I want to do one of these now :(

    I'd say two boarding actions. The only naval thing I know about is (of course) Battle of the Atlantic. Interestingly the Germans used to give the U-Boat War Badge (ostensibly signifying having completed one war patrol) after two missions, and merchant seamen were not considered convoy 'vets' until having survived two torpedo attacks. In both cases you'd think one patrol/attack would be enough, but there seems to be a common 'beginners luck' attitude to the first action.

    1. Ta very much, I think you should paint some as you said before. Ah, very interesting, I like the justification for 2, it does make sense with there being 2 cutlasses as well. I may just nudge it up to a minimum of 3 boarding combats, as my original thought was 5 - and it's a nice compromise between all of the suggestions.

  3. Super stuff, Kieran. I particularly liked the Eye and the Rope or Chain Band. I have visions of grizzled Voidsmen having soils of tattoos down their arms from decades of travelling the Warp.

    For the Chain Band, would one link for each day travelling in the Warp be about right?

    For Miscellaneous, the dagger with the skull could be a combat against chaos forces, or signifying a leading enemy opponent directly (or memorably) killed by the rating.

    For Boarding Cutlasses, I'd opt for two boarding actions - one cutlass for each action, but the rating only gets the tattoo after the second action. The rating could add a swordknot to each cutlass for an extra five boarding actions (five for each knot added).

    1. Thanks very much Sidney, that's definitely how I pictured it too.

      Interesting ideas too, I particularly like the idea of the use of the skull - seems very 40k. Love the idea of the sword knot, definitely going for that one.

    2. Missed off half the reply, I think one link for each day in the warp sounds about right. I originally didn't do it by number of links because of my cack-handed painting, but it's a good idea so it's definitely going on the list.

  4. Great ideas! Very cool!
    Have some ideas and thoughts for you to incorporate into your fluff or leave out entirely, it's totally up to you. I did a stint as an Airborne Tactical Officer (AKA Observer) in the Navy and so I wanted to add some insight into that crazy Navy culture. (I know there are other ex-navy bloggers around too)...

    First off, for me the Reef Knot, Kellick (anchor), and Double Kellick have to be ranks.

    You think that people wouldn't get their ranks and roles tattooed on themselves but when I was in the 'Puss' I knew of several sailors that had their rank tattooed on – and yes that meant that some had several ranks on them! It seemed to be fairly common to see sailors with their role (branch) tattooed on themselves as well. When we were in ports the Bosuns would be at one end of the bar and the Stokers at another, then one group would pull out their respective tattoo and the place would erupt into a brawl until the Coxswains rocked up. It was all about in-groups and out-groups. The Divers were derogatory to the Birdies except if the Cooks or Coxswains were there…. And it went on and on. What can I say? Men get bored at sea.
    And tattoos are not just an old days thing like some people might think. When I joined the Naval College my first Petty Officer was tattooed on every inch of his body, including his earlobes, nose, whole head, and it was ALL nautical.

    In the Fleet Air Arm there is a saying: “Planes and Chains, not Boats and Ropes”
    (Added aggravation was caused by saying ‘ropes’ and not ‘lines’)
    I knew air crew and maintenance sailors that would purposely fail their knots and lashings tests in basic as some sort of defiance that they used chains on the flight deck and not lines like everywhere else on the ship.
    So maybe the rope/chain band tattoos could be
    ‘Ropes’ for the Shipmen
    ‘Chains’ for the Fleet Air Arm and Stokers (mechanical sailors)
    And make them both symbolise warp jumps.
    -This would reinforce division between the different groups on the ship.

    For the ranks I can't get away from the stranded:

    Voidman, Shipmen or Armsman (as the basic rating)
    Able Voidman or Shipmen or Armsman (referred to as ‘Ables’, ‘Reef’, ‘Reefers’, ‘Squares’, or as their role)

    Leading Voidman or Shipmen or Armsman (referred to as ‘Kellicks’ or as their role, ie ‘Bosuns Mate’)

    The 40k fluff states that the Senior NCOs’s are all referred to as Warrant Officers or Petty Officers and all have specific roles: Ship's Master, Gun Captain, Sergeant-At-Arms, Chief Boatswain's Mate (AKA Buffer), Quarter Master, Chief Coxswain, Master at Arms, etc...

    Other Rating positions I'd like to see:
    Masters Mate, Purser, Cooper, Coxswain, Yeoman of the powder room, Gunsmith, Cook, Carpenter, Caulker and Sailmaker (which need some converting to a 40k setting).

    (As a side point our Coxswains were Naval Police even though I know the etymology of the name refers to navigation and steering but yes their category badge is the ships wheel. I have no idea what’s going on with that?)

    Lastly I'm sure many of the imperial sailors would have the Aquila tattooed on them too!

    Enough ideas for now?

    Oh and boarding actions in the Australian Navy happen all the time. Pretty much all the ships ever do is board other boats both in peace and in the Gulf.
    In the 40k world I'd expect it would be very common too. I guess it is a side of the navy that gets overlooked.

  5. oops, sorry for the ridiculously long post!

  6. I didn’t actually say it but an Able Viodman/Shipman is called a ‘Reef’ or ‘Reefer’ because their rank is the Reef Knot, and a Leading Voidman/Shipman is called a ‘Kellick’ because their rank is the Kellick anchor (as you have pictured).

    Also I like the “lance operative” for the Tridant. The eye is a cool idea too.

    In 40k, how about daemonettes taking the place of mermaids?
    ‘A seductive creature that often lured men to their doom by enticing men with the beauty of the warp.’

    1. Thanks Col., I knew you'd have some great insights as an ex-Navy man. I knew there were a few of you out there (pretty sure Buffer is with a name like that...). Most of my family seem to have been in the RN (plus a few in the Merchant Navy...) at some point but never served myself, so my knowledge is pretty amateurish. No need to apologise, I'll attempt an even lengthier response now, in no particular order :P

      Boarding is equally common in the RN as far as I'm aware (got to give the Royal Marines something to do after all), that and having wars on Thursdays...

      I think I mentioned in my other post, but not this one stupidly, that they're still very prevalent today - I used historic to mean "not 40k" in this case. I generally used the older symbolism more than the more modern ones though, and mixed a few up intentionally.

      I knew about the Killick / Killick of the Mess etc (is it Kellick in Australia or is that just a general alternate?) but not about the Reef/Reefer - thanks for enlightening me. I was generally leaning towards those being ranks, but that's definitely sealed it now.

      I like the idea about ropes and chains, I knew in the RN engineering ratings liked to say rope instead of line (and floor rather than deck)... but I didn't know about that. Thanks for the educational reply sir!

      I'm terms of the different groups, one thing I wanted to do with the Armsmen was that they had a tradition of never being tattooed (or only having one) in order to keep their particular distinction from the ship's crew itself - much more like the Royal Marines of old.

      I spent a while trying to get some eye designs that didn't look naff. Quite like the one that's a bit spirally (to look like a warp storm).

      The aquila was one I was going to include but haven't on this yet. I thought a few might have it on their back, so when being flogged they might get a slightly less harsh flogging :P

      Interesting idea on the daemonettes, very cool indeed.

      You're in luck on the other Ratings as I'm already planning a Purser miniature and a Cook, and in the fluff I started writing for the IN before I read Battlefleet Koronus also featured equivalents of Carpenters, Caulkers and Sailmakers. My thought was though that maybe they would be Adeptus Mechanicus roles and so separate from the rest. But I do like the idea of having some "engineering" roles as non-AdMech. Same applies to the engine rooms. I have no idea how the engines are supposed to work in 40k (I'm sure one of the RPG supplements has had a go at some point), but I'd love to have the equivalent of stokers. As for Coopers, perhaps some sort of logistics / hold role - or would that really be taken by somebody else?

      Definitely didn't realise that about the role of the Coxswains in the Australian Navy, as far as I know they're Regulators in the RN and still have the traditional Master-at-Arms

      I wanted to include a Yeoman of the Powder Room too. Mostly because I think the title sounds quite nifty. I think this needs to be turned into a collaborative project. The Navy needs some proper attention methinks.

      Apologies if I've missed anything, but have thoroughly abosrbed your very informative post :P

      Now for some 41st millennium shanties methinks...

    2. Cheers! I'll try and keep this one brief!

      Yes, Killick is the correct spelling (oops)! It is probably just our accent but we always said it as 'kellick' which led me to miss spell it.
      (on Australian accents and inflection http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpBYnL5fAXE )

      I like the idea of Armsmen not being tattooed.

      I agree that that 'spirally' eye looks right and works as a warp storm.

      For the Coopers, that sound cool. Supply and logics roles would be filled by officers but the sailors in their branch could be Coopers.

    3. Haha, had a quick peek on Wikipedia (source of all correct knowledge) and it does list the term Kellick for the Australian Navy, rats they than Killick so the spelling was spot on.

      All sounds good to me

    4. That should of course say "rather than" not "rats they" - stupid phone and its autocorrect

  7. Hello Kieran:
    Coming late to this. I thought this was a great post, creative as all heck. Really looking forward to seeing your figures wearing these tattoos. I could also see these on the crew of Honor Harrington's ships, which won't mean anything to anyone unless they know David Weber's Honorverse books.
    Great stuff.

    1. Thanks very much Mike, hopefully they'll look half-decent on the figures themselves. I'm familar with Honor Harrington but haven't read any of the books yet, I hear they deal with three dimensional naval warfare quite well? I should probably get round to reading them at some point.

  8. Next post: Nautical terms and jargon of the immaterium, please.

    1. Haha funnily enough that's something I've already been thinking about, as well as a few lines from sea shanties... Or would that be void verses (I know, that's awful). Based on the superb artwork in the rulebook there seems to be a lot of hauling on chains and manual work so sea shanties would be entirely appropriate :p

    2. That's my next (of many) side project settled then...

  9. Hi Kieran I was just passing through and wanted to say I think this is really cool. I love the designs and the mock Imperial format, I'm a big fan of that sort of thing. There should be more of it dammit!

    1. Very kind of you sir. I think it's become my life's work to make more crap like this :P


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