Tattoos have been a part of our societies for a very, very long time, but just like any other art form, our opinion of what’s cool or fashionable has changed quite a bit over the years. The practice of tattooing and body modification has been present in both the East and the West for about as long as humans have had opposable thumbs. Archaeologists postulate that tattoos in ancient cultures- such as those seen on Otzi the Iceman- were intended to be medicinal or therapeutic in nature; these normally were comprised on lines or dots along “trouble” areas that often cause pain in old age, like the knees or lower back. Other cultures, like the various Celtic societies and the tribal cultures of Polynesia, used tattoos as symbols of rites of passage or marks of victory in battle.
It wasn’t really until the 1900s that tattoos started to branch away from their ritualistic roots and into the realm of personal expression… at least in the Western cultures. And we’ve definitely gone through a lot of trends in the past hundred years!
At this time, it was still mostly sailors who boasted any ink. All of it was stick-and-poke (meaning a needle dipped in ink and then inserted into the skin), as the electric tattoo gun hadn’t yet been invented. That being the case, designs tended to be very simple and usually pretty small.
Sailors used tattoos as indications of where they had been. For example, a swallow would represent having sailed 5000 miles; a shellback turtle was a symbol for having crossed the equator. Sometimes soldiers would come back with more extensive tattoos done in the style of the Polynesian cultures they had visited, which is originally how the concept of “tribal” style tattoos made its way over to the west.
The 1950s is when personal expression really began to come into play. The early forms of the tattoo machine made getting inked a much faster and more affordable process, so the art form was becoming increasingly more popular with the general public.
This decade is the origin of what we now call “Traditional” style tattoos: bold lines, simple designs, and usually done in primary colors. Tattoos were still pretty limited to the military, so patriotic images were the most common… though the 1950s is also the time of the “Sailor Jerry” style. Sailor Jerry tattoos are a style developed by Norman Keith Collins, who worked on sailors almost exclusively. He made his living inking sexy, curvaceous pin-up girls on his clients, and his style is still extremely popular today.
This era is when tattoos began to get their rebellious reputation, at least in the U.S. This was a time of great civil discontent and unrest, and what better way to represent that then permanently etching something into your skin?
At this time, there were two ends of the spectrum as far as tattoos went: either you got the hardcore designs (flames, skulls/skeletons, knives, etc.) or you opted for the mystical, magical approach (wizards, unicorns, and such). The former was the ideal choice for the gangs that got their start during this time (the Hell’s Angels being perhaps the most notorious). The latter was the preferred artwork for those involved in the “hippie” and psychedelic cultures.
The electric tattoo machine was pretty much the same one artists use now, and the speed with which an artist could slap an image on someone’s skin started a whole new trend: flash tattoos. The idea behind this was that an artist could “pre-design” a bunch of simple, smallish tattoos and have them on display in their shop. Prospective clients could just walk in, choose from the list, and walk out with some new ink all in the same afternoon. It was quick and easy, if lacking a little in originality.
The 1980s didn’t see much in the way of big tattoo innovations, apart from designs shifting a little more from stick-and-poke and towards the artistry of modern ink. But the 1990s had a few different trends that have become absolutely notorious in the tattoo world. The most famous of these trends? Definitely tribal.
Like mentioned above, tribal tattoos emerged in the West after sailors saw the designs in the many Polynesian cultures. But 90’s tribal was different; basically people would take random shapes and convert them into thick, graphic linework that vaguely resembles the styles of true tribal societies. While this started out as cool and edgy, it quickly became overdone… and for many in the tattoo world, rocking a 90’s tribal design is now considered something of a faux pas.
Other much-loved (and now much regretted) 90’s tattoo trends included barbed wire armbands (mostly popular with the guys), “tramp stamps” for women (tattoos spanning the lower back, just above the hips), nautical stars, and Old English lettering.
The 2000s had their own share of incredibly popular designs. Celtic knots were big in this decade, as were Kanji tattoos (designs using Japanese or Chinese calligraphy, now also considered a faux pas).
The 2000s weren’t all about mainstream designs, however. This decade saw some serious artistic improvement with the development of new styles. “New School” tattoos- cartoony, bold lines, and super bright, saturated colors- got their start in this time. Biomechanical artwork also began to show up in the early 2000s (try imagining what you might look like as an android or cyborg, and you get the idea). “Trash Polka” was the third design style to emerge; while it was somewhat less popular than the previous two, you can still see Trash Polka being implemented today. Trash Polka is done strictly in shades of black, white, gray, and red, and involves superimposing various images and textures on top of each other.
Nowadays, individualism has become more prevalent than ever in tattoo culture. More people are investing the time and money required to get high-quality, intricate, and original artwork. But even so, the 2010s still have their share of trends.
Geometric and watercolor tattoos are both newer innovations in the ink world that have exploded onto the scene. Both tend to be very visually appealing and saturated in vivid colors, but are hard to maintain; the lack of black outlining often causes the colored ink to fade out more quickly, or to became blurred/ muddy.
Also currently popular are micro tattoos (incredibly tiny, simple designs… most popular with women); white ink tattoos; and mandalas, which are a branch off of the Geometric style.
More and more new styles and designs are emerging in ink culture as the demand for personalized body art rises. As the skill and creativity of modern tattoo artists continues to bloom, it will be exciting to see what new trends emerge in the coming years!