Towards the end of the 19th century, the birth of the electric tattoo machine was a revolutionary turn in the tattoo nearly non-existent industry. Suddenly faster and safer tattoos could be had, so the demand in the tattoo industry for skin art soared. With demand increasing, artists developed “flash” art to circulate portfolios or just pre-drawn material on sheets to be displayed prominently on the shop’s walls, or in an open portfolio that customs could purvey while waiting. The term “flash” refers to how quickly the tattoo can be rendered and is displayed on the walls of tattoo shops to be copied or used as inspiration for a more unique design. The need for new designs was ever pressing, so mail order catalogs started distributing them with tattoo shop supplies to help artists meet the ever-growing demand.
This mail order distribution flooded the marketplace with bright and colorful designs that were easily printed. Fine detail and shading was not easily printed in the 19th and 20th century process, so the designs reflected the limited printing capabilities of the era and the Traditional style was established. These designs are one-dimensional and lack artistic depth to create a simplistic and stylistic appearance. These tattoos are done easily and quickly, which is a remnant of the difficulty and pain that accompanied tattooing when it first emerged in the West. When the tattooing process took much longer with a needle that moved much more slowly, it was painful and less sanitary. The simple designs on which the tradition of Western tattooing was built, are the foundation of tattoo culture.
The Traditional style was further cemented in its iconic imagery by the number of sailors who wanted a speedy memento, and favored the imagery we relate today as a staple of this style of tattoo art. Patriotism in design; such as bold, proud eagles or the American Flag were seen circulated in the Flash Art sheets. Sentimental symbols of Americana such as Hollywood Starlets, or an ISO sweetheart, were also favored adornments as a reminder of home for troops. The Traditional style had its critics as machines and artists refined the art of tattooing, but many see the style as a piece of history and a time capsule, so it remains popular today.
Traditional American, or Western, tattoos have the hallmark of red and green solid features, very sparse in shading (if any at all) with rare highlights in yellow, blue, purple and sometimes brown. Traditional or “Old School” tattoos have the distinct feature of being outlined with an emphasis of a bold blue-black line. These designs generally include one-dimensional roses, poppies, and other blooms that can be easily rendered in a flat and heavily contoured style.
Because tattoos are done completed with more efficient equipment and clients are willing to sit for longer periods of time, traditional tattoos have adapted and become more dimensional. The artist will often add more depth and a larger array of color to a traditional-style design to create a more modern look. Nautical imagery is frequently used to symbolize the sailors and culture of sea life that allowed tattooing to flourish in North America and Europe, particularly the U.K. Compasses, anchors, rope, mermaids, and other sea imagery is used to represent the maritime often with patriotic symbols like flags and national birds. Sailor and sailing tattoos are particularly rooted in the American Navy.
Nautical imagery done in a traditional style can also be considered as a “Sailor Jerry” design that evokes memory of the original masters of tattooing. The famed tattoo artist Sailor Jerry is integral to the history of tattooing in North America and greatly influenced the traditional tattooing style. Many of the images that he made famous with his innovations in the industry are; pin-up girls, nautical images, weaponry particularly knives, swallows, birds of prey, “Aloha” monkey, and more. These specific types of “Sailor Jerry flash” images are retrospective to the new and emerging tattoo culture of the mid-20th century and the opposition to societal expectations of dress and appearance. These images are a symbol of classic rebellion and transition into a new type of culture and trend.
Large ship tattoos are part of the nautical theme that usually signifies a life at sea. Used as a metaphor, the ship at sea is a symbol of a loneliness or a reclusive soul or personality. Banners, very typical of the traditional tattoo, are added to serve as a platform for phrases or quotes. Large traditional tattoo pieces like sleeves and leg designs generally include multiple images spaced out over the skin to appear separate but also cohesive. The images are usually similar in size to create a sense of unity with dot work or another pattern placed in the space between the symbols. Traditional sleeves or expansive pieces often adhere to one color palette like dark greys with red and blue accents to further the sense of cohesion.
Traditional designs, even authentic retro designs, can be very simply to resemble a hand-poked image or more complicated with depth and highlighting. Normally, a minimal amount of shading is added to the image to create just enough dimension to render the design recognizable. The more dimension and realistic elements added to the design, the more clarity and the more it will resemble real life. A lack of realism is a movement away from reality into an animated realm that is controlled completely by the artist.
Many traditional tattoo designs will use just a small amount of shading and instead create dimension with lines such as wide-spaced hatching or cross-hatching. This is typically used with animals, often tigers, wildcats, snakes, and swallows or other birds. These are generally symbols of strength and perseverance through hardship although they could also represent a wildness and inner savageness.
While they can be done in black and grey tones, traditional tattoo designs are usually done with colored inks. These colors are not necessarily but can be limited to single hues rather than an array of blues, reds, and yellows. The limited color palette is a reflection of the limited pigments that were available to tattoo artists in the first decades of the 20th century. Blending colors and multi-faceted tones are usually reserved for more modern designs but modern elements may be blended with the traditional to create a unique piece.
Modern and unique traditional designs will use traditional-style one-dimensional images like flowers and banners to highlight the focus of the piece. A portrait completed with a sense of realism may be emphasized with flat roses or other flowers that juxtapose the portrait in order to complement it. This method of design successfully blends the traditional with the new in a way that utilizes both styles without allowing one to become overbearing.
Scenery is an attractive choice for traditional designs and can be captured in a traditional oval or circular design. Mountain and ocean scenes can be done simply but effectively to showcase the individual’s home or favorite place. More modern designs may not include a border while truly traditional designs often use a border to create a more concrete shape. The border is usually created to complement the design and add an extra element to the tattoo. It may be constructed of natural elements that originate in the depicted scene like leaves and flowers, or the scene may be bordered with an ornate picture frame or snow globe. Banners may be used as a border or simply the text itself.
Timepieces are most often designed in a traditional style to capture the idea of mortality. Hourglasses and pocket watches refer to the past, a concept that is complemented by the classic, traditional style which reflects a past decade. These symbols of fatality need very little detail to be clearly rendered and can rely on a single highlight or shadow to create the right sense of dimension.