Tattoos have been around for as long as human civilization. It has been a huge part of various cultures from east to west. Out of all the tattoo designs, traditional tattoos are probably the oldest. These were used by tribes around the world as a mark of their people.
Until now, traditional tattoos are still a huge part of the tattoo industry. While most traditional tattoo designs linger, especially for descendants of tribes, modern traditional styles have also become the new craze. You can’t get a tattoo without thinking about whether you should have a traditional style one.
But why is this style getting so popular even now? For this article, we will be talking about both traditional tribal and American traditional tattoos.
History of Traditional Tribal Tattoos
- 1 History of Traditional Tribal Tattoos
- 2 Popular Tattoo Designs for Traditional Tribal Tattoos
- 3 History of American Traditional Tattoos
- 4 American Traditional Tattoos from Sailor Jerry
- 5 Ed Hardy Designs
- 6 Popular Design for your Old School Ink
- 7 More Popular Designs
- 8 Tattoos for a Lost Comrade
- 9 Sailor Identification Tattoos
- 10 Famous Girlies for Sailors
- 11 More Old School Designs
Traditional tribal tattoos were a huge part of old civilizations, especially that of Native American, Polynesian, Samoan, and other similar tribes around the world. These tribal tattoos often had deeper meanings.
For example, some tribes see tattoos as a mark of rank. They can only have tattoos of specific designs and placements if they have been deemed worthy. Usually, higher ranked tribe members like elders and chieftains have more elaborate tattoos.
As for some, these kinds of tattoos give them protection for their every day lives. Warriors often have tattoos of certain gods and animals on their bodies. They believe doing so helps them invoke the power of said creatures and deities and helps them survive their hunts.
Most usual traditional tattoos are often for beauty and as the identity of the tribe itself. Some tribes are known for certain types of traditional tattoos. For example, the Maori tribe often have their tattoos on their faces. This means they are proud of their people and their culture.
Popular Tattoo Designs for Traditional Tribal Tattoos
Getting a traditional tribal tattoo takes more commitment than a normal one. You have to think about culture appropriation and make sure you are not insulting anyone with your tattoo. If you want to get one, here are some of the most common designs:
- Polynesian – Polynesian tattoos are more known for their heavy black geometric designs. Tonga warriors are known to wear these tattoos from the knees to the waist. These usually includes a repeated triangle motif. Men often have more of these bold tattoo designs that are usually done for rituals and rites of passages. For women, the designs are more delicate. Although they follow the same geometrical patterns, women tend to get more floral designs.
- Maori – As mentioned, Maori tattoos are usually done on the face. These tattoos are often more delicate and yet complex. Of course, the designs are still more geometrical.
- Native American tribes – Styles can change from one tribe to another. However, they usually have tattoos of their deities and sacred animals. Each of these designs have a specific meaning but they are mostly for protection and strength.
If you want to know more about the traditional tribal tattoo designs you can have, we have a separate and more in-depth article for that.
History of American Traditional Tattoos
Another traditional tattoos we are going to tackle are the America traditional tattoos. These are way different than that of tribal tattoos. These came into the tattoo industry way later, starting from the 19th century. The designs are also a lot different than tribal tattoos.
These tattoos started around the early times of the sailors. However, they got more popular and found their voice during World War II, especially in Hawaii. The famed “Sailor Jerry” began inking soldiers and sailors after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Traditional tribal tattoos are often known for geometric and intricate designs, bold black inks, and deities and animals. American traditional or old school tattoos are more about mermaids, ships, eagles and anchors. These designs are usually connected to sailors and soldiers and are often protective emblems and symbols of hope, brevity, and faith.
American Traditional Tattoos from Sailor Jerry
It is safe to say that Norman Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry, was the father of the American traditional tattoos. He made this new tattoo style by mixing Japanese techniques with his own American vision.
The end result was a colorful, vivid, and bold styles. Old school tattoos might have fallen out of the pedestal when new modern styles emerged. However, they are now coming back with a more modern twist. However, Sailor Jerry’s style is still very much alive within the new methods and techniques.
Ed Hardy Designs
Apart from Sailor Jerry, another old school tattoo innovator was Ed Hardy. People likely know him from his clothing brand. He was an apprentice of Sailor Jerry but he was also an iconic artist for his own right.
Ed Hardy’s style was pretty much the same with that of his master. However, his designs are more on the edgier and hard rock styles. His designs are still very much alive to this day, not only in the tattoo industry but in the fashion world as well.
Popular Design for your Old School Ink
As previously mentioned, a few of the most recurring designs for traditional tattoos were mermaids, anchors, and ships. More designs include pin-up girls, swallows, roses, skulls, and even a combination of these. Their common denominator are probably the cartoon-ish drawing, bold line work and vibrant colors.
Here are some of the most popular designs you can get:
- Anchors – Anchor designs are very popular among the sailors, especially right at the beginning of American traditional tattoos. The anchor is an essential part of the ship and usually the last refuge of sailors in a rough sea. It is no wonder it was meant to mean security.
- Roses – Until now, roses are very popular theme for traditional tattoo designs. It simply means love and passion. Rose designs are usually accompanied with hearts and a little ribbon with a name of person. Sailors and soldiers during the WWII never knew for sure if they were coming home so they just tatted the name of their family or significant others to accompany them to battle.
- Swallows – Swallows are small birds that are very commonly found near the sea. It is a free creature so there is no surprise it means freedom. For sailors, swallows represent their desire to come home.
- Nautical star – Like the swallow, the nautical star could also represent the wearer’s desire to come home safely. It also symbolizes the wearer’s hope to get through their life safely. It was a popular design during the war as well.
More Popular Designs
Apart from the aforementioned themes, more designs emerged and soon became iconic themes for the tattoo industry. Here are more designs and what they mean as tattoos:
Ships have become common themes not only because of its aesthetic value but also because of its dual meaning. For tattoos, the ship usually represent the wearer while the sea represent life. That being said, smooth and calm seas often symbolize a smooth life. Stormy seas are often for hardships and challenges.
The sails of the sea denotes how the wearer is feeling as he courses through his life. It could be torn, slack or full. Torn sails could mean that the wearer had a tough life but had sailed through “stormy waters.” Slack sails could represent being adrift or with no direction in life. Full means that the wearer had an easy sailing life.
Daggers or knife has also become a common theme for soldiers of the WWII. Daggers and knives could represent death but for them it was more than that. It was also a symbol of life, as it was the tool by which they lived. As a tattoo, this could also represent tenacity or quickness.
Skulls are a famous theme for the whole tattoo industry. They have lived through traditional tribal times to modern tattoo era. These kinds of tattoos are often associated with death. However, it had been known to represent life and the cycle of life. Through the years, skull tattoos have also become a symbol for success and rebellion.
Wolf are traditionally a symbol of ruthless determination. However, they are also known for being pack animals. They are loyal to their family and work together to achieve success. As a tattoo, it could mean a hunger for something – be it wealth, success, or happiness.
Tattoos for a Lost Comrade
As said, American traditional tattoos became the rage when Army and Marine members got themselves inked around World War II. While their tattoos usually mean their desires and a dedication to people they hold dear, some designs were for lost comrades.
An anchor is one of these designs. The anchor, as a tattoo, could have varying meanings. One of the least popular could be its meaning of ultimate sacrifice. This design was originally used to help Christians hide the cross in times when showing their faith could mean persecution. It symbolizes the cross, on which Jesus made the Ultimate Sacrifice and died. It was no wonder some used this as a dedication to someone who lost their life in line of duty.
Another popular design to help commemorate the life of a lost comrade was a dagger through a swallow.
Sailor Identification Tattoos
Some old school tattoos were specifically used to identify a sailor. Here are some of the designs:
- Crossed Anchors – This design is placed between the thumb and index fingers or the web of the hand. It was a mark for Boatswain Mate. Sailors could either have it on their left hand which means they have sailed all the oceans. Getting it on the right hand means they have sailed the Seven Seas.
- Crossed Rifles and Cross Cannons – Crossed rifles are often the mark of being an Infantry Army member. Crossed cannons, on the other hand, meant a Naval Gunner’s Mate.
- Harpoons – This tattoo was used to identify a member of the Fishing Fleet.
Famous Girlies for Sailors
Another thing that comes to mind when we talk about American traditional tattoos are mermaids as well as pin-up and hula girls. These are very common designs for sailors and survived even when World War II ended. It often depicted sexy girls with sexy outfits. But these mean more than just some foxy ladies on someone’s biceps.
Pin-up girls were usually a representation of the wives and significant others sailors left behind. As they marched into battle during the war or worked on the sea, they often leave behind loved ones. These pin-up girls were often reminders of who they have left back home and waiting for their safe return.
Hula girls were rather simpler. It could mean that a sailor had been to Hawaii. Nonetheless, it could have the same meaning as the pin-up girls.
Mermaids were mythical creatures – with a woman for its top half and a fish’s tails. They are gorgeous women whose voices could seduce sailors, luring them to the sea. It is generally the metaphor for the sea. No matter how dangerous the waters could be, sailors can’t help but come back.
More Old School Designs
From flowers to horseshoes, there are a whole lot of other designs that you can have. Your imagination is the limit. Just be sure that you can it in the old style school – vibrant and bold.
Flowers are probably the most common design and the easiest one to do. Traditional styles are more simple than realistic and modern ones. They are pretty much like a simple drawing filled with vibrant colors. Flowers have different meanings, depending on the type you got.
Horseshoes are known as symbols of protection and luck. Getting one as a tattoo does not only give you some good luck charm you can forever have. These designs are also rather pretty and perfect for women.
Butterflies are another popular theme all throughout the tattoo industry. And it is indeed hard not to get one. Butterflies are often the metaphor for transformation. Apart from that, they are too beautiful not to be immortalized through body art.