Tattoos have been around for longer than some of us may realize. Frozen bodies have been found displaying tattoos over 5000 years old. 3000-year-old mummies have tattooed skin. The tattoos depict religious markings and symbols. While tattoos have played an active role in our world’s history for thousands of years, it took the Western world much longer to catch up. Tattoos carried a negative stigma. Anyone with tattoos was considered improper and not classy. While some people still hold this prejudice, Western society, in general, has shifted towards a place of acceptance. Tattoos have significantly grown in popularity. One style of tattoo that’s been incredibly popular over the years is American Traditional. 

The History of American Traditional Tattoos

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, one of the places you’d be most likely to find a tattooed person is in the circus. For women especially, the circus was a place for people to show off their tattoos as an act of rebellion in moving forward from the Victorian Era. 

Sailors had many tattoos. They collected them while traveling. Images like swallows, anchors, skulls, roses, and pin-up girls, represented specific military feats accomplished by the individual. By the 1900s, most port towns had tattoo parlors, and sailors would collect tattoos during their travels. While this may have been the time that tattoos began to grow in popularity in America, the sanitation and hygiene practices at these shops were not so great. There were government laws put in place that anyone with obscene or extremist tattoos could be discharged from the military. Tattoos still definitely had their limitations at this time in history.

Effects of the War

During World War 2, American Traditional style tattoos really took off. After a long day, sailors would often go out to the bar, have a few drinks, and get tattooed with their friends afterward. The selection of images also grew at this time. It went from a handful of common drawings to thousands of unique designs. Tattoo artists would draw up five or six images on a piece of paper called a flash sheet. These hung in the shop for the customers to choose from.

The designs often had a patriotic or military theme, with eagles, flags, and clipper ships being popular choices. During the American Revolution, sailors’ American citizenship papers were often unrecognized by the British Navy. Sailors would use tattoos as a form of identification so they wouldn’t be accidentally drafted into the British Navy. Some tattoos held certain military meanings. A swallow was for every 5,000 miles sailed. A pig and a rooster on the feet would prevent you from drowning. A hula girl symbolized Hawaii and a dragon for Asia.

Pioneers in the Industry

Two prominent tattoo artists during the World War 2 era were Tom Riley and Sutherland Macdonald. Both of them had served in the British army in the 1880s and opened a tattoo parlor in England, where they mentored British sailor George Burchett in the art of tattooing. George went on to allegedly tattoo some of the royal upper class of Britain at the time, earning him the name of “King of Tattooists”. 

Martin Hildebrand opened the first tattoo shop in New York City. He spent his time traveling the country and tattooing soldiers with patriotic images like flags, guns, cannons, and snakes. Military men got tattoos to show loyalty or commemoration to their profession. By 1930, 90% of people in the military had at least one tattoo.  

Norman Collins, more commonly known as Sailor Jerry, was one of the pioneers of American Traditional tattooing, along with Ed Hardy, August Coleman, Amund Dietzel, and others. Sailor Jerry tattoos had exceptionally bold lines and used green and red inks. These were the only color pigments available at the time for tattooing. He has become one of the most famous tattooers of all time and has made history in the way that he facilitated the increasing popularity of American Traditional tattooing. This style has bold lines and saturated colors. It is tough enough to withstand the test of time.

The Stigma

By the mid-20th century, seeing a tattoo on someone typically brought about polarizing reactions. Some thought that tattoos represented toughness, masculinity, and even a well-traveled sailor, while for others they represented all things trashy, the absolute opposite of sophisticated. Many associated tattoos with gangs, prisoners, and violence. Tattoos are just recently in history becoming common. It is no longer for circus freaks and other subcultures. Over time, tattooing become an art medium as well as a craft, breaking into the mainstream of society.

The Future is Now

Nowadays, tattoos aren’t just for certain types of people. The Army has changed its regulations multiple times to be less limiting to the number of tattoos soldiers can have. US Navy now allows sailors to even have one neck tattoo and full sleeves. As of 2009, 90% of combat soldiers have at least one tattoo. Only 20% of the general population have tattoos.  The practice has also grown in popularity among war veterans. They use it as a form of therapy for PTSD or chronic pain. Programs like Service Ink and Operation Tattooing Freedom exist to provide therapeutic services to veterans suffering from their post-service ailments. Some veterans who suffer from PTSD have found a form of freedom and catharsis in tattoos. They find this helps them to be in the moment and forget about the worries of the world.

At Wolf and Shadow Tattoo Collective [fka Diego Tattoo Gallery], we want to celebrate and honor our veterans and those serving in the military. Our artists create custom tattoos. If you’re searching for an artist to create a commemorative tattoo for you, you’ll definitely find someone here.

Ask about our military discounts, we’d be happy to extend you one as a small form of gratitude for your service.