Old School Tattoos

A Comprehensive Old School Tattoo History

What is the American Traditional Tattoo?

Also called Old School tattoos, the American Traditional is a style of tattoos that originated in the United States (hence the name).

When I think about this style, as an American, a few things come to mind: war heroes, military men, and those with extreme nationalistic pride, to name a few.

Though in the past this style may have been used exclusively for these groups of people, today, the American traditional style has surpassed its association with war.

American Traditional Tattoo

It has even moved past belonging to only the United States as a tattoo style– this style has traveled around the world.

But what defines an American traditional tattoo style?

This style may seem simple at first, but there’s a lot of work put in to make it look so saturated with color with such clean lines.

Simple in nature, these tattoos are only for a highly professional artist to perform because one mistake with the line surrounding an object, and the entire tattoo could be ruined.

This is not to scare you from getting an Old School tattoo, but to explain that just because they are known for being simple doesn’t mean they are easy.

The lines on these tattoos are bold and outline shapes in thick black ink– there’s no hiding the linework in this style.

Lines in an American traditional tattoo do not only serve to outline but form the entire shape of the tattoo inside and out.

Equally as important as the lines is the use of color in traditional tattoos.

Solid colors are incorporated into the image along with black and white, but as we’ve mentioned, when the colors are used they are always highly saturated.

That’s not all– there’s a specific color palette used in this tattoo style that dare not be altered.

Reds, yellows, and blues are used with minimal use of other colors.

This creates a unique tattoo that will most definitely stand out as being an Old School tattoo.

As for the designs covered by an Old School tattoo style, the sky’s the limit.

Although many early tattoos in the style were pin-up girls, anchors, flags, and eagles, there are no longer any boundaries to where an American traditional tattoo design can go.

They can represent anything from a horse to a geisha.

What’s unique about American traditional is not only its stylistic rules but its special history.

The History of the Old School Tattoo Style

The history of the United States of America is not a long one– and neither is the story of its tattoos.

However, the story of the American traditional tattoo style is an interesting one filled with war, circus performers, new inventions, and world-changing tattoo artists that not only affected the tattoo style but also the way tattoos are viewed in society.

Let’s take a closer look at just how fascinating and in-depth the story of the Old School tattoo style can be:

Early Old School Tattoo History

So how did the American traditional style start, anyway?

America’s unique way of tattooing started as early as the American Civil War and has come forward all the way to the present day.

This is according to Martin Hildebrant, who opened New York City’s first tattoo shop in 1846.

Tattooed Circus Family
Tattooed Circus Family (1930’s)

He is reported to have tattooed soldiers from both sides of the American revolution.

These soldiers were said to have received tattoos of loved ones, as well as getting tattoos for identification if they to be lost at the battle.

In the 1880’s, traveling circuses were popular in America and the performers often had tattoos.

The interesting lifestyle of the artists and clients surrounding this environment had a potentially huge influence on the style of the Traditional tattoo.

For most of the 19th century in the United States, tattoos were for those who were on the fringes of society, that is, maybe, until Captain Cook.

This British explorer and his gang are famous for popularizing tattoos with Westerners.

He and his crew showed off tattoos they received as tokens of long voyages across the world.

He was part of the reason why tattoos began to come out of the shadows.

In 1891, Samuel O’Reilly invented the electric tattoo machine, revolutionizing the industry and rocking it to its core.

O'Reilly Tattoo Machine Patent

This caused the tattoo business in the United States to grow very quickly, and artists from all over the states were searching frantically for new ideas to meet the influx of new customers.

This is said to have been how the original ideas built off of Hildebrant’s days were eventually spread across the country.

The World Wars Expand the American Tattoo World

It wasn’t until the next war, actually during both of the World Wars, that the Traditional look started to evolve into its unique style.

During WWI, instead of professional artists, soldiers themselves would tattoo patriotic symbols onto each other.

WWI Soldier Shows Off His Tattoos
WWI Soldier Shows Off His Tattoos

No matter how bad the stigma was at that time, it didn’t matter if they thought they could die any day.

In fact, it became more than just a doom and gloom endeavor.

The fact that they made up slang for getting tattoos while in the service such as getting ‘screwed, stewed, and tattooed’ means that getting tattoos actually became the cool thing to do.

Traditional tattoos at this time were especially popular with American sailors, who like Captain Cook, received tattoos along their voyages to remember the places that they visited.

US Navy Sailors Tattooed
US Navy Sailors (circa 1930’s)

Another very important reason these men got tattoos is that they wanted to be identified as Americans clear as day so that allies would know not to mess with them.

Fast forward in time, when WWI veterans showed up back to their homes with glaring pin-up tattoos and eagle tattoos, their moms may have been taken aback but their friends certainly were impressed.

This is due to the fact that there was a great rise in the popularity of American tattoos during the 1920’s.

This isn’t to say all the sigma was gone and America was embracing the art of tattooing– but its safe to say that tattoo culture was slowly rising from the fringes.

When WWII started, every man and for that matter, everyone in the world, was inconceivably nervous.

This was especially true of men who were about to be shipped out to the war.

The solution to their troubles was bars, women, and tattoos.

WWII Soldier Tattooed
WWII Soldier

Working out of Honolulu, this is where Sailor Jerry came into play.

This was a ‘first wave,’ of what we now think of as a New School tattoo style, which was brought on by artists Sailor Jerry (considered the ‘father of Old School’) and Bert Grimm.

These artists, among others, transformed the rambunctious yet fearful emotions of young military men by offering them priceless tattoos that could show them excitement in a world full of uncertainty.

WWII Soldier Tattooed by Bert Grimm
WWII Soldier Tattooed by Bert Grimm

For those who were lucky enough to survive the 1940’s, the decade saw many American men leave home without any tattoos and come home with tattoos representing their rank in the military, as well as of pin-up girls, the U.S. flag, and eagles.

These tattoos showed the veterans’ masculinity and patriotism and were done in the only way they knew how– the Traditional way.

Therefore, this time, even more veterans showed up back home after the war with tattoos in the American traditional style.

One Small Step Back and One Huge Step Forward

The 1950’s proved a step backward in American tattoo history.

In this highly conservative decade in United States history, the sense of rebellion that came with tattoos was felt but not acted on nearly as often.

Charlie Wagner's Tattoo Shop in New York
Charlie Wagner’s Tattoo Shop in New York

It wasn’t until the 1970’s in the United States that tattoo stigma started to explode into obliteration.

The punk rock scene and many different counter-cultural movements pushed tattoos into the mainstream more than ever before in the country.

Woodstock attendee showing off his old school tattoo
Woodstock (1969)

By this time, tattoo culture was moving rapidly and new styles had already been developed.

However, Traditional style tattoos were very common.

Old School Tattoos in the 21st Century and Beyond

As far as stigma goes in the United States today, in 2005 it was estimated that 40% of Americans had at least one tattoo.

And seeing that the American traditional is one of the more popular styles in it country of origin, that’s a lot of people who have Traditional body art!

Today, Neo-traditional tattoos (which I think should be called ‘new school’, but that’s just me) are highly popular because they take the Old School ideas and add new techniques– they bend the old rules a bit.

American traditional tattoos are not just popular today with military men or people who are patriotic– anyone including non-Americans can use the style to show just about any design, as long as it is simple enough to fit the constraints enough for it to be a Traditional tattoo.

Why is the American Traditional Tattoo Style Important?

The Traditional art of tattooing is an essential part of United States History.

Too often, this part of its history is not told and it is somewhat difficult to find a lot of information out about it.

This is why it is so important to share this history.

The stigmas against tattoos in the United States may not be as prevalent as they were decades ago, however, the country is certainly not at the point that its tattoo history is common knowledge.

Another reason why this style’s history is important is that it informs the current Traditional style.

Learning about how the style has evolved over the course of over a century of history allows us to better understand the style.

This may allow artists aspiring to use the style in their work to do a better job.

Last, it’s important for anyone receiving an American traditional tattoo to be knowledgeable about its history.

No one wants to get a tattoo and know nothing about its roots (certainly no one who would reach the end of this page).

If you are going to wear it forever, at least know the basic concepts behind its meaning and where it came from in tattoo history.

But don’t just study your American traditional tattoo– learn a little, as we hope you did in this article, and take pride in the Old School style!