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Old School Tattoos

Updated on December 10, 2012

Old school tattoos, which featured straightforward, ready-to-order designs with bold, black outlines, can be traced back to such masters of the art as Samuel O'Reilly, Charlie Wagner, and Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins.

Although technology prevented these early tattoo artists from executing more complicated designs, and, in particular, from using less prominent outlines, practical constraints translated easily into visionary concepts.

Sailor Jerry, for example, was inspired to make use of the bold outlines, which have since become virtually definitive of old school tattoos, by his travels in southeast Asia as well as by communications between him and Japanese tattoo artists.

Even after old school tattoos declined in popularity following the Second World War, tattoos derived from the iconic work of O'Reilly, Wagner, and Sailor Jerry can still be seen today.

Common images found in old school tattoos include eagles, sparrows, playing cards, dice, skulls, stars, roses, and hula girls. Sailor Jerry specialized in the creation of hula girls and other gorgeous women, and, like all of his work, these designs were infused with particular meaning and symbolism.

Owing to limitations in technology, old school tattoos tended to make heavy use of black, red, and green often to the exclusion of other colors.

Another prominent feature in old school tattoos is the banner, usually bearing a date, a motto, or a person's name. Because old school tattoos were especially popular among sailors and servicemen, the mottos chosen were often taken from branches, units, or divisions of the armed forces.

Improvements in technology brought about "new school tattoos," many of which are simply more complex and colorful versions of old school tattoos.

Because old school tattoos had to be etched in acetate, tattoo artists of the early twentieth century had to work quickly and finish the tattoo before the etching became too worn down to use.

Nevertheless, like old school tattoos, new school tattoos frequently make use of bold outlines. Several "new school" designs also borrow themes and images from old school tattoos.


Old School vs. New School

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