American Traditional Tattoos: The History Behind the Art

The history of tattoos is as complex as it is interesting. More specifically Traditional Tattoos are quite distinct, popular, and eye-catching with their unique characteristics and style. The history of Traditional Tattoos, or also referred to as old-school tattoos or traditional tattoo flash, is based in American servicemen's personal statements. American traditional tattoos have a great deal of history to them and served as a point of expression for thousands of years. The term, ‘Flash’ tattoo, is also rooted in reference to traditional tattoos with a common understanding and meaning. Flash tattoos were often seen drawn out by tattoo artists on the walls of their tattoo shops, alluring the onlookers to spark the inspiration of design. Some of this meaning can be seen in the distinct imagery used, such as swallows, anchors, sharks’, hearts, dragons’ skulls and panthers to name a few. Popular tattoos such as these symbols had distinct meaning alluding towards what an individual serviceman went through, or the journey on which they had embarked.

It is with this meaning that sleeves were developed to tell a distinct story. In American culture, the swallow tattoo for example, alluded to sailors sailing miles along the sea. The swallow itself represented the journey and idea of a sailor returning home. This meaning came from the infamous migration patterns that swallows follow in their natural habitats, as they make long journeys and always return home to San Juan Capistrano. By getting a swallow tattoo, a sailor would reference his intention to always return home. It was quite common to see swallows tattooed in pairs. Often, a sailor would get one swallow tattooed and upon his return home, would add the second to represent the successful end of the journey. Additionally, if a sailor were to pass away at sea, it was thought that the swallow carried the sailor’s soul to heaven. In having more than one swallow tattooed, a sailor could show through artistic representation, his expertise at sea. Traditional tattoos allowed for the creation of a story and for each additional tattoo to add to this story. The sleeve of tattoos shaped the narrative and illustrated what an individual had gone through and experienced.

The next most popular traditional tattoo is the shark. Sailors would often get inked with a shark tattoo to protect them from dangers at sea. The shark represented strength and the command of the sea, empowering and protecting the sailor, as the shark has no natural predators in the ocean or in nature. In having a shark tattoo, a sailor displayed confidence and control of the sea, while constantly moving forward. Given sharks can never stop moving, this reference represented the constant journey of a sailor at sea.

It was quite common to see traditional shark tattoos paired with anchor tattoos, as an anchor in maritime reference, quite literally kept a ship stable and in one location. The anchor also represented a sailor’s ability to stay grounded and calm during various unforeseen obstacles and challenges the sea would present while they were away. The traditional anchor tattoo design often has a ribbon along the bottom of the anchor, displaying the name of a family member or loved one, in constant memory while the sailor was away.

Traditional tattoos are rooted in very distinct and specific meanings. This meaning most recently dates back to sailors, and the unspoken meaning certain flash tattoos held. As previously discussed with swallows and anchors, traditional heart tattoos also alluded to the risk said sailors were taking in going out to sea. Sailors were often out at sea for months at a time, with the heart tattoo constantly representing a visual piece of imagery. The heart was often seen with a banner, displaying a loved one’s name across it.

As tattoos evolved in complexity, obtaining a traditional sleeve became quite distinct and served as a storyboard. A traditional sleeve would showcase a culmination of individual tattoos weaved together across various limbs on the body. Sleeves could be seen on arms, legs, and other large areas that represented an open canvas. As each traditional tattoo is unique, they also represent a whole picture or story. This was referred to as a patchwork sleeve, or the representation of individual tattoo pieces integrated together to create one large piece. A traditional sleeve allows for areas of negative space, or skin to show, as opposed to having full ink or filler in spots of overlap. The beauty in a traditional tattoo sleeve is the freedom allowed to combine varying styles. Meaning, the patchwork tattoo sleeve, allows for the integration of varying styles, tattoo artists, and design, creating a patchwork-like appearance. In comparison, the Japanese tattoo style, the patchwork style is very different. The Japanese traditional tattoo style is one of cohesion and fully covers the area of skin or the wearer's body, leaving no negative space and distinctly displays one large piece of work. The imagery used in the Japanese traditional tattoo is very distinct, with cultural significance, strong use of color, and color blocking, and detailed line work. The Japanese traditional tattoo style is one of the oldest styles in comparison to the American Traditional tattoos, dating back to over 5,000 years. Similar to the American Traditional tattoos, the Japanese viewed tattooing as an expression of folk art.

Both American traditional tattoos and Japanese traditional tattoos used color blocking as a distinct style. The heavy use of ink and color lends itself to a tattoo that pops and catches the eye. The challenge with this style is over time, the vibrancy of the ink would begin to fade, losing its luster and allure. Both styles use bold lines and outlines to color block the areas with precision and distinction.

Mad Rabbit supports and encourages self-expression through tattoos as an art. This display of art dates back thousands of years and emphasizes the complex history of tattoos in various cultures. With our various products, we strive to enhance, protect, and support each individual and their tattoos as unique and distinct masterpieces. Each tattoo tells a story. Our products help you tell your best and badass story. Whether this is a complex journey at sea, or simply a piece memorizing a loved one, our goal is to help you display your best self each and every day.

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