History and style of Old School Tattoos
Tattoos have been around thousands of years but the western society was late to the game. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that American sailors began using old school tattoos to avoid impressment by the British Navy as well as help identify their bodies if they were to be lost at sea.
However they remained largely unpopular with the rest of the country. While Norman Keith Collins, aka Sailor Jerry is one of the most popular American traditional tattoo artists, Martin Hidebrandt was actually one of the first professional tattoo artist in the USA tattooing soldiers during the civil war.
Sailor Jerry was a pioneer of his time who learned from Japanese masters but created his own pigments and tattoo equipment. His style is now matched in the Ed Hardy clothing line. Some of the symbols he made popular were:
Hearts – heart tattoos kept sailors loved ones close to them while they were out at sea
Snakes – powerful snake tattoos were often portrayed ready to strike to heed warning to evil or budding scuffles.
Panthers – panther tattoos show off a sailor’s expertise and manliness.
Ships – It is in name! Ships are where sailors went to work and had a great spirit of adventure.
Eagles, falcons and other birds of prey – eagle tattoos stand for America. They represent honor, courage and intelligence.
Swallows – these were used initially by sailors to show off their experience. One swallow meant they had sailed at least 5,000 nautical miles. They were also a good luck charm since swallows always returned home after their migration. Some even believed if they died at sea the birds would carry their souls to heaven.
Death – Tattoos are forever! This also became popular as a symbol of warriors and adventurers.
Nautical stars – these represent the north star
Classically styled scroll banners
Shellback– these turtle tattoos showed a sailor’s experience of having crossed the equator
Anchors – anchors represent stability in the sailor’s life.
Hawaii themes – this is where Sailor Jerry made his home after WWII
Pin-up girls – sailors needed something to look at while they were gone for months at a time!
Sharks – symbolizes courage and will. Sailor Jerry had a healthy respect for sharks as everyone should!
Dragons – these came from his fascination with the Japanese tattoo masters and work he had done with them.
Some other early influencers of old school tattooing include Herbert Hoffmann, Amund Dietzel, Bert Grimm and Bob Shaw.
This style relied heavily on bold outlines and a limited color palate. The designs were intentionally kept simple so that artists could see more clients.