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Traditional Tattoos

Traditional Style Tattoos

Although tattoo machines have been around since 1872, they are already considered the traditional method of tattooing. It’s been over one hundred years, after all, so why wouldn’t that be the case? There are several different traditional tattoos styles that became popular after the tattoo machine revolutionized the industry, but we’ll be looking at American styles in particular today.

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Definition of Traditional Tattoos

When referring to traditional tattoos, most people are talking about the classic designs and styles that filled the display books when demand for tattoos spiked after the invention of the tattoo machine. These designs tend to be simple with a limited color palette, allowing artists to easily mimic them and quickly tattoo them onto customers. At this crucial time, tattoos were in such high demand that moving customers in and out of the door as quickly as possible was crucial for catching business. If your shop wasn’t able to take in all of the customers, another shop would fill in the gap, and you would lose those potential sales.

Around this time, Flash tattoos became crucial to the American tattoo shop. Flash tattoos contained many pre-made tattoo designs that were simple and fast to make. These designs were catered to common customer requests, so displaying them to customers and encouraging them to choose from the portfolio ensured that they would want something simple for their tattoo. Artists would practice these designs and perfect them, making the tattoo process incredibly quick.

There was even a movement towards higher quality tattoo artists during this time. Percy Waters, who maintained a mail-order catalog of designs, warned of artists who would plagiarize designs or sell designs full of mistakes. His pamphlets could prevent that, he proposed. This sentiment is still shared by many tattoo artists today, although the prevailing opinion is that you should only hire reputable and expensive artists in order to ensure the quality of your tattoo. To be honest, it’s not a bad strategy.

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Traditional Tattoo History

So we know how this style spread, and we know why it looks the way it does. But do we know who is responsible for many of the designs? Well, if you’re a frequent reader of InkDoneRight, you already do. But let’s go over him again, anyways. When WWII struck, many sailors were stationed at Honolulu, Hawaii prior to entering international waters. A man named Norman Keith Collins—better known as Sailor Jerry—hosted his tattoo shop there. His tattoos were innovated, unique, and had a patriotic flair. To sailors who wanted a souvenir of their service, it was common sense to get a tattoo from his shop.

While part of his popularity rests with his serendipitous shop location, he used his success to create complex and creative techniques for his tattoos. He created his own pigments, ensuring that his tattoos were colored in dramatic fashion and distinguishable from any other store. He created his own designs based on the requests of sailors—which, as you can imagine, ranged from weaponry to sexy ladies. Anchors, stars, navigational tools for sailing, fish, ladies, ships, eagles, and mermaids were all Sailor Jerry’s specialty, and his illustrations and popularity influenced the style that Americans expected a tattoo shop to have. With thick lines, bold colors, and gradiated shading, his style is still distinguishable today. It has even influenced other mediums, with clothing and shoe design often bearing tattoos inspired by him.


Traditional Tattoo Meanings

The majority of traditional tattoos are patriotic in nature. Many of the old Flash portfolios are filled to the brim with pictures of the statue of liberty and ladies holding up flags. Eagles race across their pages and a shields and emblems bearing the star spangled banner proliferate them. The meanings of these tattoos are hardly ambiguous—they represent patriotism. In a time of war, patriotism was incredibly important to the sailors who served America and sacrificed their lives for the well-being of those in the states and abroad. Support for the troops often came in the form of these traditional patriotic tattoos, since getting one for yourself showed both dedication and solidarity to the soldiers who also had them.

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Along with Sailor Jerry’s nautical-themed tattoos, there are several designs that were popular in this amazing time for tattoos. Hearts, swallows, roses, knives, and flags all are associated with traditional tattoos. They are still incredibly popular in tattoos today, thanks to their broad meaning and applicability to just about anyone. Here are the most common meanings associated with each type of non-nautical traditional tattoo:

  • Hearts: Love, of course. A heart that is bleeding or broken just shows the road that its wearer went down. Of course, hearts can be mended as well, and designs with stitches show the perseverance of love.
  • Swallows: Swallows would often reside in ports and sometimes stow away on ships. They represented both home, freedom, and faith. They represented everything that was left behind and everything that the sailors would eventually meet. In a world where their lives were governed by their superiors constantly, the freedom of swallows and starlings encouraged many sailors.
  • Roses: The traditional symbol of love, this flower managed to find its way onto skin, even in a time filled with overflowing patriotism. Having a soldier or sailor leave for the last time was a real possibility to those who were left behind. These roses represent an undying hope of seeing their loved one again.

As you can see, despite being non-nautical, their popularity and traditional tattoo meanings can still be tied to the war time effort. It was a trying time for nations everywhere, and America wasn’t shy enough to keep that pent up worry and emotion from influencing their tattoo designs. This flurry of patriotism and coincidental location of Sailor Jerry’s tattoo shop combined to create the traditional tattoos that we know and love today. The traditional tattoo style, while not realistic or incredibly detailed, is recognizable and respectable today.

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If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out our other articles on InkDoneRight! We even have an article dedicated to Sailor Jerry tattoos! As always, thanks for reading.


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