Old-school … Rockabilly … Tattoos …Pin-ups … Vintage style … Bearded men … Many words, worlds and trends which got entangled nowadays such as needles and petticoats.
I myself got entangled in all this but my instinct as an art historian pushed me to make research to satisfy my thirst for accuracy when it comes to history and words.
This is why I reached out to many people that are specialized in those different fields to help me clear all this.
I’m starting this series with thINK tattoo, a young man passionate about tattoos that I discovered on YouTube.
There’s a lot of different styles of tattoo around the world, with a certain imagery, history and various influences. In this article I’d like to talk about a particular style of tattoo, which for several decades, has known many changes. It has often been the symbol of rebellion and marginalization, although today it is well anchored to our modern society. In short let’s take a look together at the old school tattoo style by exploring his origins, particularities and how it is linked to the rockabilly world.
How was it born :
It could be really difficult to date exactly the first appearance of the so-called old school tattoo style, but in general when talking about it, we are referring to the american tattoos that occured in the 1900’s til the 60’s, where this style has developed, improved and spread.
This style, even though it didn’t mainly get his artistics characteristics in the population that I’m going to talk about, stays even so intimately linked to sailors and soldiers, as the USA have participated in many wars, many of those soldiers and sailors had tattoos back then.
This could take huge proportions such as for example during post WW2 period, we estimated that 90% of sailors were tattooed, as well as the veterans. When the latest turns out to be out of jobs at the end of conflicts, they were back in civil society and their inked pieces of art nicely and slowly started to get noticed, influencing their entourage : first the middle class workers, then circus artists, marginals and finally tattoo artists.
One can locate the main places of appearances and influences of traditional tattoo in the USA (what a surprise) in cities such as San Francisco, Honolulu, New York but also in Great Britain in the city of Bristol where you can find the “Bristol tattooing club”.
The old school tattoo style is recognizable among thousand! With its dark bold lines, its heavy but not much present shadows, its vivid and audacious colors as well as its simple but stylized patterns that we called “flash”.
Among the very high number of flashes tattoos that exist, I’d like to talk about 2 really particular patterns : first the cherries, which is still considered as a pattern evoking sexuality, fertility and desire. But they can also evoke joyfull naivety, as well as stronger sensual desire, a dual meaning that cultivates a certain ambiguity.
The second one is swallows, the most emblematic nautical symbol! Traditionally for sailors, the swallow means that they sailed for 5000 miles, and 2 swallows for 10000 miles. Usually they will have the first one tattooed on the outbound trip and the second one on the return trip, the swallow symbolizing the experience of the sailor and his trip. But because the swallow is a bird that always finds his way back to his nest, they were also a sort of lucky-charm talisman so sailors will always find their way back home.
One can notice that in this style, there are also standardized patterns such as imagery from the naval world, american patriotism, animals, bikers universe, rockers, or even prisoners.
Back then the patterns were simple and this simplicity was actually due to technical constraints of the time, because the stencils took lots of time to prepare they will reuse them again and again, and also only primary colors were available for the tattoos (red, blue and yellow).
Many people today appreciate the modern tattoos style, but there’s also a sizable amount of people that still pick the simple, clear beauty of old school patterns.
When talking about old school tattoos, it’s hard not to evoke Sailor Jerry, an artist who spent his life traveling. Passionate about tattoos, sailing and music, he’s made the old school style evolve by adding asian imagery but also by using Japanese tattoo method to create his own. He has contributed to the democratization by the general public of the art of tattooing, and he also was the most copied tattoo artist in the 50’s.
Lyle Turttle who’s known for making the art of tattoo more professional and also his great involvement in the evolution of sanitary rules, contributed to the inking of many celebrities, and therefore the inking of the mass.
And finally let’s talk about Don Ed Hardy, who was Sailor Jerry Apprentice, and who will bring a new generation of old school tattoos by adding Japanese traditional tattoos elements from the 70’s and 80’s.
Association with Rockabilly, Pin-up and Biker universe :
The rockabilly style coming directly from the 50’s, it’s natural that the old school tattoo goes well with this retro style.
Moreover this style of tattoo being in the collective awareness associated with bikers, thugs and fringes, it still has a rebellious connotation. As the rebel rockers of the 50’s openly inspired the rockabilly lifestyle, it’s not a surprise to see rockabilly enthusiasts adopting this tattoo style, which correspond to their beliefs, imagination and influences.
Speaking of bikers, these ones have strongly contributed to bring this contentious aspect to tattoos. Back then it was to defy the traditional society. Since many bikers would get their very first ink in prison using insecure tools, their tattoo style was assimilated in public opinion to gang tattoos. Even though they mostly celebrated life on the road and freedom, more than being part of a gang. Among the regular patterns in their style your could find lots of antisocial patterns such as skulls, daggers or even “FTW” which meant “Fuck The World”, but also a sizeable amount of patterns borrowed from the old school style such as roses, snakes, eagles or even hearts.
What about those ladies we call “Pin-ups”? At what point did the old school tattoo (and just tattoo in general) become inseparable from the pin-ups?
It all started with the very first tattoo patterns that many sailors and soldiers would get tattooed as a lucky charm. But also as a reminder of what they were fighting for. It’s important to start with this as the 50’s were the golden age of pin-ups that contributed to make them popular all around the world, particularly through tattoo, which was I think the start of the association of the pin-up and tattoo universe.
During the first part of the 20th century, there were tattooed women that exposed themselves in circus, they were not pin-ups per say, but more of circus artists or even Picture models as they were performing a show and at the end of it, they would sell pictures or drawings of their tattooed bodies.
I also think that many pin-ups started to be more close to the tattoo universe from the 80’s, from the imagery, the strength and the independence that these tattoos symbolizes for them, but this really took it to a new level when the suicide girls arrived in the 2000, which wildly helped popularized tattoos in this circle.
Indeed the major idea of this movement being non-conformism with a certain taste for provocation and independence, we discovered models adopting an underground dress code and body modifications such as piercings but mostly tattoos, which are still the strongest non-conformism form.
Today the old school tattoo style is very popular, thanks to its idealized and rebell vision of the United States of America, it is without a doubt the most popular occidental tattoo style that went through times, fashion trends and the most unexpected inspirations.
I would like to say many thanks to thINK tattoo for his commitment and to have kindly helped me writing this article.
I also warmly thank Eve Pain and Eddie Czaiki to have answered my requests and for their contribution to the construction of this article.
And finally thanks to Scarlet Ruby Storm for the translation.
Cover pic : Eve Pain