The practice of tattooing has evolved over thousands of years and has strong roots in maritime culture; marking the body with tattoos was thought to offer protection against drowning and dangers that lurked in the sea. This rare tattoo pattern book, small enough to fit into a pocket or ditty bag, consists of thirty-five waterproof pages and is typical of logbooks used by seamen to record ballast or tank readings and measurements; there is even a page of penciled measurements at the back. The artist signed the first page, but the name following the inscription “Designed by” has faded—it seems to read “J.S. Bombay.”
There are a few surviving books like this one. A sailor most certainly drew the images, for tattoo artists were often sailors, and the portability of the sample book lent itself to the itinerant nature of a seaman’s life. Designs on several pages have nautical themes, and others were inspired by religion, patriotism, and popular culture. One page has several anchor designs with dates ranging from 1873 to 1899, probably the artist’s years of service. There is also a faint inscription dated 1910. One drawing, entitled “Sailor’s Dream,” depicts a sailor asleep in a hammock dreaming of embracing the beautiful girl pictured in the sail of his ship. A third drawing features a young seaman positioned in front of an American flag and leaning against a tombstone inscribed “Remember the Maine”; in the background the American battleship Maine is pictured before and after its destruction in the harbor off Havana, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. The Spanish were blamed for the sinking the ship and the consequent deaths of 260 American seamen, even though no one knew for certain who was responsible. “Remember the Maine” became a national rallying cry that helped to incite President William McKinley to declare war against Spain on April 25 of that year.
Lee Kogan, "Tattoo Pattern Book," in Stacy C. Hollander, American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2001), 357.