- Posted by Carl Hallowell
- On May 21, 2018
A Traditional Tattoo is a tattoo that has a history, a past, a precedent. Traditional tattoos are now known by this name because they were handed down to us by our forefathers. These are the designs that have been used in American tattooing since the invention of the electric tattoo machine in 1891.
What Were Traditional Tattoos Originally?
The first designs were almost always patriotic. The American eagle, the American flag, US Navy anchors, daggers with banners reading “Death before Dishonor”, are all examples. Religious tattoos also emerged, although they were less prevalent. Next in line were the love tattoos, hearts with mom or a sweetheart’s name added in the banner. The red rose was there early on. In the ’30s a book was released which had a strong pose of a crawling panther illustrated within. This powerful image quickly made its way to the walls of the tattoo parlor, and it was instantly accepted into the tattoo design oeuvre.
In The ’40s And ’50s, More Tattoo Designs Were Added
Throughout the ’40s and ’50s, more designs were added to the Tattoo Flash the early American Tattooers painted. Some designs became wildly popular. They looked so good, so right, on the skin. Others failed to gain a foothold- these designs did not sell, or they didn’t read well on the skin, perhaps they did not age well. These designs would be discarded, while the strong designs survived. Tattoo Darwinism, I like to call it.
The look of the Traditional Tattoo is typified by a clean simplicity in design. The outline is prominent, black, and bold. Off the outlines runs the iconic black whip shading of the Classic American Tattoo. Color is then added to the tattoo to bring it to life. A good amount of skin is left untattooed, leaving a gap between the color and the line that makes the tattoo light and airy, and helps it to jump right off the skin and read out wild!
Modern Tattoo Artists Take On Traditional Tattoos
Many modern tattoo artists and tattoo customers as well have begun to mimic “the look” of traditional tattooing while abandoning its imagery, meaning, and values. This is a gross misrepresentation of the form. It misrepresents the strength and purity of traditional American tattooing and waters it down with cheap imitations under the guise that it is traditional work. This is a wrong turn away from the heritage we should be working together to preserve, and to celebrate.
What a high art, this humble form of folk art that the great tattooists of early America co-created together with those brave enough to choose to be tattooed in the early 20th century. Charley Wagner, Bill Jones, Cap Coleman, Owen Jensen, Bert Grimm, and Amund Dietzel were just a few of these Great Tattooists. Bob Roberts, Oliver Peck, Timmy Tatts, Keith Underwood, and Eric Perfect are some of the modern names practicing and upholding the values of the American traditional tattoo today.
It’s Not An Anything Goes Type Of Art
Black Panthers, Red Roses, Daggers, Clipper Ships, Anchors, Skulls, and Snakes are just an excerpt of the pantheon of American Tattoo Imagery. There are many other designs as well. But their number is absolutely finite. And relatively small. This is not an “anything goes” type of art. This is a highly structured craft with a strict set of rights and wrongs. Have it done right, and you receive the mark of truth beneath your skin. Choose wrongly, and forever wear the mark of ignorance, a job poorly done and a great opportunity missed. The history is there for us to respect, to understand and to grasp. The art of traditional tattooing means taking the gifts of the images we have inherited, and nurturing them, keeping them alive, and with them, emboldening the next generation, and the generation after that, with this purely American art form. traditional tattooing. Do right and fear not.