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Classic Old School Tattoos

Updated on October 9, 2011

The history of tattooing goes back for centuries, but some of the most popular designs are the old-school American tattoos, popularized in the 1920s through the 1940s, and generally consisting of big, bold designs of birds, ships, and beautiful women. The traditional old school design tattoos were big and bold because old school tattooing was very different than modern tattooing. Some specific reasons for this are:

  1. The machines and ink weren't very good, so the tattoo had to be simple and bold so that the picture was "legible" and would wear well over time.

  2. The tattooists weren't the artists that we have tattooing today-i.e., they weren't art-school educated draftsmen, so the designs were simple and clear for the ease of application.

  3. There weren't stencils, which we have today. Back in the day they would cut the design into acetate, powdered charcoal would be rubbed into the etching, and this would be applied to the skin. As you can imagine, as the tattooist worked, the charcoal quickly smeared and the stencil became undefined and unusable. A simple design at these times was a must.

Sailor Jerry, one of the most famous tattooists from back in the day, created many of the iconic old-school tattoos
Sailor Jerry, one of the most famous tattooists from back in the day, created many of the iconic old-school tattoos

So why do these bold, simple designs still awe us? For one, they still wear well-arguable better than a complex, detailed tattoo in fact. Looking at the bold head and bust of a pinup after 15 years of sun and skin absorption, the design is still obvious and evident, but after 15 years, a complex detailed female face surrounded by filigree and decoration may not look as attractive. These designs are also so intimately connected with tattooing, and call up such a history, that having an old-school design immediately connects the wearer to the entire body of tattooing.

The old school tattoo designs I have included are from actual vintage flash, much of it by Sailor Jerry who is a master of the iconic tattoo images. This is the authentic stuff where it all began--a tattoo of one of these images is truly historic!

The Swallow Tattoo

One of the most quintessentially old school tattoos, these were classically worn by sailors as emblems of good luck. Birds indicated nearby land to those on ships, and swallows return home every year not matter where they are.

There are a few good hubs with nice images of swallow tattoos--some prefer the less stylized, old-school swallows, but there are some nice "new school" designs out there as well.

Vintage Swallows

Swallow images from actual 1940s tattoo flash.
Swallow images from actual 1940s tattoo flash.

The Heart Tattoo

A heart tattoo with a banner reading "MOM" is the iconic tattoo image. Hearts are simple, beautiful designs that indicate love, generosity, purity, and truth. The are lovely alone and easy to incorporate as elements in more complex designs.

Heart Tattoos

Heart images from actual 1940s tattoo flash.
Heart images from actual 1940s tattoo flash.

The Rose Tattoo

The rose is a classic symbol going back for ages that traditionally means "love is true"; it can also symbolize beauty. It can be an image on it's own or one that is fused with other symbols--daggers, skulls, birds, or as decoration around a main image. The Victorian's gave meanings to different colors of roses: redmeans true love, pink means grace, black means death, and white means purity. For more colors, visitThe Meaning Behind the Rose Tattoo.

Vintage Rose Images

Rose images from actual vintage flash.
Rose images from actual vintage flash.

The Anchor Tattoo

The anchor is another classic tattoo motif loaded with symbolism. At first they were popular among sailors, and especially worn by very experienced sailors. However, the meaning behind the anchor of strength and stability became attractive to many tattoo recipients.

Vintage anchor Images

Anchor images from actual vintage flash.
Anchor images from actual vintage flash.

The Eagle Tattoo

The eagle was largely popularized in the 1940s and 1950s, when many veterans got "pledge" tattoos of their unit, division, and an eagle. Eagles are also symbols of power, liberty, strength, and independence, both related to the American symbol of the Bald Eagle, and reaching back for centuries to many cultures. The image is also beautiful and versatile, and can be tattooed both naturalistically and stylistically.


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    • profile image

      jay jayDK 5 years ago

      Thanks for the input an shareing youer knowledge, about old school classic tattos. cause im getting my a sleeve of old school, next month! :)

    • profile image

      scholarshipsformo 7 years ago from California

      I am still waiting to get my 1st tatto

    • profile image

      Mary 7 years ago

      We are a tattoo machines manufacturer,we supply high quality and beautiful tattoo machines,are you interested in,if that you can view our website to learn more about us.



    • amie50 profile image

      amie50 7 years ago

      Tattoo designs have evolved a lot. I still love the appeal of these old tat as they really are simple and just plain straight to the point.

    • raven1967 profile image

      raven1967 7 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Very cool Hub Jon. A lot of good information here.

    • J-ART profile image

      J-ART 8 years ago from Florida, United States

      I just love the old school tatts!

      great hub- ranked it 'up'


    • Frankii S profile image

      Frankii S 8 years ago

      Great article!

      I'm a huge fan of old-school tattoos, especially Sailor Jerry style.

      I got a swallow done a couple of weeks ago.

    • Three-Legged Dog profile image

      Three-Legged Dog 8 years ago from USA

      I have kind of an old school swallow tattoo. I just love how they look! :)

    • MakinBacon profile image

      MakinBacon 8 years ago from Louisville Area

      It was really interesting to see the classic versions of the tattoos. Things have really changed since those times, although they're still part of the mix.

      You're right in the former simplicity of designs. Today, tattooists need to be extremely well-trained and talented to apply some of the complex tattoos available.

    • jonaitis profile image

      jonaitis 8 years ago from San Francisco

      Hi jdmanuk,

      I completely agree with you--thanks for stopping by!

    • jdmanuk profile image

      jdmanuk 8 years ago from UK

      Sailor Jerry's designs definitely had a lot of charm, and I think his look is both retro and timeless.

      I think you have something when you talk about the simple designs wearing better than some of the more intricate ones - often simple is best!