Old School (Oldskool) Tattoo: Discover American Traditional Tattoos

Tattoos have come a long way since the days when the only people who had them were sailors. Not only were they said to have a girl in every port, a lot of them also had a tattoo in every port too.

At one time, people in the Western world had absolutely no idea of tattoos, or ever really saw anyone sporting one. The only people who ever came into contact with inked bodies were the sailors who would sail into strange, exotic, foreign lands and mingle with the locals.

The term ‘tattoo’ comes from the Tahitian word which mimics the sound of a traditional tattooing machine, and it was these people – the Tahitians, the Polynesians and the South West Asians whom the sailors would befriend when they disembarked after a long voyage. Many of these tribes were heavily tattooed, and it wasn’t long before white sailors followed suit, and started coming home with memories of their trips immortalised into their skin forever.

Captain Cook was the trailblazer for travelling Polynesia on HMS Endeavour, and it was his naturalist, Joseph Banks, who mentioned the word ‘tattoo’ in his journal while writing about the locals.

“I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly, each of them is so marked by their humor or disposition”.

The first sighting of tattoos in Europe is said to have come in the form a heavily tattooed Tahitian native, name M’ai, whom Captain Cook brought back to Europe after one of his voyages in the 1700s.

Of course, tattoos were not to everyone’s tastes, and ‘gentlemen’ certainly never had them. No, tattoos were the domain of the adventurous, the rebellious, and the free spirited sailors who sailed the high seas, either looking for adventure or running away from it!

It is small wonder, then, that ‘traditional’ or ‘old school’ tattoo designs are heavily influenced by the sailors who brought them home.

Very often, these sailors would be leaving behind the women they loved for long periods of time and would have their images tattooed onto their bodies to keep them close and to have a constant reminder (especially when faced with the scantily clad Polynesian beauties at the other end of the voyage!)

Others would have nautical symbols such as ships, anchors, mermaids and compasses adorning their skin – exotic markers of their seamanship.

So why, centuries later, are old school tattoos making a comeback? After all, go into any tattoo studio and the walls will be adorned with designs of every kind and every colour. Tattoos designs, like clothes and music, go through periods of popularity before moving on to the next ‘big thing’, leaving behind it a plethora of symbols of the time. The 1930s saw Americans having their social security numbers etched onto their bodies, women in the 40s boldly had Rosie the Riveter tattooed to reflect the role women played in the war. The 70s saw anarchic symbols to celebrate punk, and in the 80s Celtic knots, and designs with thick black lines became popular. Likewise, the 90s saw butterflies, stars and tribal designs.

Most of those trends have come and gone, so what is it about the traditional tattoos that keeps them popular through the ages?

In a word, nostalgia. There has been a huge revival of all things vintage, and old school tattoos, particularly the naval and pin-up images, are making a big comeback. Biomechanical arms, cartoon characters, and Harry Potter’s scar all have their place, but they will never stand the test of time the way Old School designs do.

And that is all thanks to one man…

Sailor Jerry: About the Man

Sailor Jerry was born Norman Keith Collins in 1911 in Reno. He learnt the art of tattooing using the old hand pricking method, from an Alaskan man named Big Mike, when he was still very young. Progressing onto the tattoo machine, he would practice his art on drunks and vagrants. When he was 19, Norman joined the United States Navy, where he earned the nickname ‘Sailor Jerry’ and was introduced to the ink style of Southeast Asia, before eventually settling down in Hawaii.

Sailor Jerry brought more colour to tattooing by developing his own pigments, and those same colours (red, yellow, green and blue) are widely recognised today in Old School tats. Many of his designs were, and still are, nautical in nature as you would expect – rum bottles, swallows, stars, anchors and Hawaiian images, and are drawn with a thick blue or black outline.

Fans of going under the needle have Sailor Jerry to thank for the standards of hygiene in tattooing – he was one of the first artists to use the single needle method, and to sterilise the equipment using an autoclave.

Sailor Jerry died in 1973, but his designs live on, both in the resurgence of Old School tattoos and in Ed Hardy (who was a close friend of his) merchandise.

Old School Tattoo Designs

Traditional tattoo designs are shrouded in meaning. Because of their roots in the seas, many of them held a superstitious or hopeful meaning for the bearer.

Anchor. The anchor is a popular design; it was supposed to help a sailor find his way home and stay true to himself.

Swallows. There are many legends attached to the swallow tattoo. In the early days, sailing was a dangerous occupation, and a single swallow showed that the sailor had safely completed 5000 nautical miles. If he had two swallows he had travelled 10,000 miles. Legend had it that if a sailor drowned at sea, a swallow would carry his soul to Heaven. It was also believed that, because a swallow returns to the same place every year to mate, that having a swallow tattooed would ensure the sailor returned home safely.

Mermaids: Mermaids were mythical creatures who would lure sailors to their death with their beauty. A mermaid tattoo was a reminder of this.

Nautical Star: As a standalone tattoo the nautical star isn’t often used, but is more often part of a bigger design. However, worn on the arm of a sailor it is thought to have symbolised the sailor’s ability to find his way home.

Women: Sailors would be away for months at a time, and a beautiful woman on his skin would be the only female form he would see during the voyage. Sometimes the tattoo would be of the sailor’s wife or girlfriend, but more often than not it was just a symbol to remind him of what he was missing!

Old School Rose

Roses are one of the most popular designs for a tattoo and with good reason! A red rose symbolises love, a white rose depicts peace. Orange roses show enthusiasm and excitement for life, and a black rose is often used in a memorial tattoo to mark the passing of a loved one.

Old School rose tattoos, however, were worn by sailors because their willowy build was suggestive of femininity and reminded them of the woman, or women, they had left behind. The rose brought a symbol of peace to the sailor when times were rough on the seas.

Modern fads may come and go – fashions may change, and tastes will move with the times, but nothing will ever replace the Old School tattoo, and neither should it – it is, after all, Sailor Jerry’s legacy.

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