There is much debate over the idea that pirates were tattooed. Pirates in this case existing in the Golden Age of Piracy which was 1650-1730, though piracy existed before and after, and still exists today in a more modern form.
Thanks to popular culture many people assume that pirates during this time period would have had tattoos due to their lives of crime. In the popular films Pirates of The Caribbean, Jack and other pirates do have tattoos and body modifications, as do a number of the pirates seen on the show Black Sails.
Captain Jack has a ‘P’ branded on his arm, meaning that he is a pirate, as well as a tribal piece from his sailing travels, and a sparrow design on his arm, hence the name. On his back is also the poem the Desiderata, meaning that the world has both joys and troubles. This poem also speaks to Jack’s tendency towards non-violent methods of resolving problems (for a pirate anyway). Johnny Depp (the actor) also has many of his own tattoos, and they were not covered for his role as Jack Sparrow.
Black Sails features pirates with tattoos such as the character Mr. Gates, who has the iconic naval tattoo “Hold Fast” tattooed across his knuckles, as well as an all seeing eye in a pyramid on the back of his head, which nods towards the esoteric linkage of pirates to secret masonic groups such as the Knights Templar. These ideas were all researched by the actor playing Mr. Gates, Mark Ryan. Other tattooed or bodily marked characters from the show are Albinus (portrayed by Garth Collins), as well as Joshua (portrayed by Richard Lukunku) who features large scarification pieces that would have been done in Africa where his character is from. There are other minor characters from Africa who also have scarification.
Realistically it is unknown if pirates had tattoos or not. They were criminals who frequently visited places such as Africa and the Polynesian Islands, both of which had rich body modification taking place at this time, which makes it plausible.Historically, Captain James Cook and his crew brought tattoos to the forefront of European culture after their voyages to New Zealand and Polynesia in 1771.
We know that pirates also visited these and other islands before that, so it is plausible that they would have been tattooed on the islands, or at the very least seen tattoos being done, and copied them. If not tattooed, at the very least some pirates would have had some marks on themselves in the form of brands and, or, scarification. Many pirates were either African , Irish, or other European slaves, and all groups were quite often marked cruelly by their captives as proof of their enslavement. Many people brought from Africa would have had art made by scarification which has been done for centuries. These designs made by pricking the skin so it protrudes outwards in magnificent designs were for social rankings, age, gender, and certain rituals throughout life. It is estimated that approximately 90% of pirate crews were made up of former slaves (these were men either freed from slavery who became pirates, escaped slaves, or freed by pirate raids and joined them).
The argument against pirates having tattoos is more one of plausible deniability on the part of pirates. Pirates would often be caught, and if one was to try to deny being a pirate, why would they have marked their bodies permanently showing that they were in fact a pirate, as tattoos were still seen as quite criminal at this time. As well as the fact that historical descriptions and paintings of real pirates such as Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Charles Vane, (Calico) Jack Rackham, Mary Read, Anne Bonny, William Kidd, and other famous pirates were usually seen wearing clothing that covered their whole bodies (hiding potential tattoos). Though pirates may not have been the tattooed miscreants we often think of, they certainly did have piercings through their ears and noses, though they would often be removed for battle so they would not be caught on a sword. Piercings were part of the pirate look, but also a superstition. It was believed that a golden ring would save one from drowning, as believe it or not, many sailors at this time couldn’t swim.
Whether or not pirates were tattooed, they were fearsome fighters not to be trifled with. If you would like more information on pirates check out the books The Republic of Pirates, Under the Black Flag, and Pieces of Eight: More Archaeology of Piracy.