Time in Ink: Tattoo Trends over the Years

Trends come in and go, in about every aspect of our daily lives. The rounded body of the ’90s Mustang was traded in for the boxier model of the 2000s; the high-waist, acid wash jeans of the 1980s were tossed aside to make room for the low-cut, skinny jeans of today. Everything is subject to passing trends: hair, clothes, cars, music, movies. . . so, of course, tattoos are no exception.

Over the years, the Western tattoo practice has passed through several trends. While tattooing is an expression of individuality, allowing each trend to remain in use despite popularity, it is subject to certain ebbs and flows in stylistic choices. Thanks to new social media programs, like Instagram and Pinterest, tracking these trend waves has become easier than ever.

While tattoos have been around since 3200 BC, in various formats, I want to take a moment to focus on the Western art; the modern art, created during the time of the electric tattoo machine: 1890 to the present.

The electric tattoo machine, invented by Thomas Edison, but improved upon by Samuel O’Reilly, gave birth to a new world of possibilities for artists. Tattoos were steadier, more detailed. Shading became controllable, and smaller, intricate designs became possible. Sessions were cut in half, along with the pain, opening up new avenues for artwork that were just not possible with the previous hand-tapping method of before.

Prior to the 1800s, the Western world had ceased to utilize the practice of tattooing. Thanks to the Roman and Greek empires, and the banning of tattoos by the Catholic Church, tattooing was pretty much wiped from society–unheard of by the average person. When cross-ocean travels became possible, sailors and explorers became exposed to new cultures on the islands and lands they sailed to. These islanders and natives were unaffected by the Church’s ruling and so tattooing was alive and flourishing upon their soils.

These travels began in the late 1700s and as these sailors began to return to their homelands, they brought souvenirs with them: often in the form of tattoos replicating that of the land they had been exploring. It was because of this reason that tattoos became associated with Sailors.

During the early 1900s, this trend continued; bleeding into the other branches of service. Sailors and soldiers alike began tattooing their bodies with images representative of where they had traveled to. Several images became repetitive in these service-based tattoos, allowing soldiers and sailors to read one another’s tattoos like a storybook. If a man had a swallow inked upon his skin, he had traveled over five thousand miles; if they had sailed across the equator during their service, they were marked with a shellback turtle. Of course, there were the obvious tattoos of servicemen: anchors, flags, and the like. These service-themed tattoos took on an entirely new format in the mid-late 1900s when Norman Collins–aka Sailor Jerry–began tattooing those stationed in the South Pacific with a unique pin-up style, coining the traditional American style, now referred to as the Sailor Jerry. These tattoos were rich in color, detail, and symbolism; and generally represented certain ideas, such as a pin-up girl in a martini glass holding a deck of cards with the words “Man’s Ruin” depicted above her dangling leg. This was also the start of commonplace tattooing; the general public began to jump on the bandwagon, hankering for a Sailor Jerry inspired piece themselves. During the same period, and rising up again in the ’90s, the Japanese style became go-to for many tattoo seekers.

While more civilians began utilizing tattooing after WWII, as Sailor Jerry’s traditional American style swept the nation, it seemed to be reserved for the groups left on the outskirts of society. During the period of roughly the 1960s to the 1970s, tattoos became the image of rebellion–mostly worn by bikers, hippies, and other less-accepted cultures in the Western world. These became nicknamed the ‘outlaw’ style and generally depicted skulls and wizards. Famed rebels such as Janis Joplin began inking themselves with these forms of tattoos and, after several public appearances of these marks, all of a sudden everyone wanted to follow in the footsteps of their favorite rockers and artists. Images of mystical creatures and beings, flames, skeletons, Grim Reapers, and the like began lining the flash walls of tattoo parlors and suddenly, tattooing took off in a big way.

It was this outlaw rebellion that led to the wider acceptance of tattoos and the new generation of tattoo artists began to take it up a notch. Suddenly, scratchers and talent-limited artists weren’t alone in the game as high-quality artists began jumping into the industry. Newer equipment styles, finer pointed needles, and richer colored ink opened the door for the fine-arts movement to slide into the tattoo industry. Designs were no longer limited to the flash samples hanging on the wall. Custom-designed, individualized tattoos became a reality. Pieces became larger and connected with other pieces, forming one large canvas for the artist to work his magic on. Abstract and Realism inspired pieces began to make their debuts.

In the late 1980s and into the ’90s, the tribal tattoo gained popularity. Often freehand, these were seen as large stand-alone pieces or full bands and generally located around biceps and ankles of both men and women. During this time, the Celtic knots grew in popularity, as well, keeping up with the tribal bands at great speed.

Biomechanical tattoos started appearing with the birth of the internet trend. Worn by science fiction fans and/or computer nerds, these depicted microchips attached to the skin, wires, gears, and the like. The most frequently used image was generally of the skin being ripped open to reveal mechanical objects below–think terminator. Along with this style came industrial music and metallic, shiny shirts. Ever seen Grandma’s Boy? Yeah, the Robot Guy.

In the late 1990s, and well into the early 2000s, we began to see the style now referred to as ‘New School.’ This blend of cartoony lines and thick borders came with the rise of Britany Spears and the Boy Band fad and generally included objects like cherries and stars. If anime, Day-Glo parties, and graffiti had a baby. . . well, that baby would be called New School.

Another interesting form of tattoo trend was called Trash Polka. Along with its interesting name, the designs are created from black and white portraits or images with (most often) splashes of red across the piece. These pieces are not for the OCD, as they are generally a hodge-podge of several images, colors, and methods. Other fads of the late 1990s and early 2000s included Straight Edge tattoos, Ska Checkers, stars, and sparrows.

The mid-2000s to now have seen a drastic improvement in styles and trends available to the ‘tattoo collector.’ The new styles are extremely detailed, long-lasting pieces. Generally, they are deeply meaningful to the wearer and able to stand the test of time. These newer concepts are more like artwork than cartoons, lending to their ability to stand the test of time. These styles include black and grey, portraiture, stick and poke, blackwrk, and the newest addition: watercolor.

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