The history of Traditional Tattoos (part 2)

8 March 2011

traditional tattoo 2 anteprima The history of Traditional Tattoos (part 2)“Traditional” is the name of the most popular American tattoo style in Europe.

In the previous article we discovered what is meant by old school, what its symbols are and who the leading lights of the genre are. Now we’ll move on to new school, a great inspiration for the contemporary tattoo.

traditional tattoo 2 interno The history of Traditional Tattoos (part 2)Article and tattoo works (on top and right)
by Guido Baldini, Lost Cowboy Tattoo

Traditional tattoo images are linked to life at sea, physical or introspective voyages and battles in times of war or personal, everyday ones. The same images are seen again and again and are often reworked, redefined, made more detailed or simplified.
American tattoo artists from the beginning of the last century were mostly self-taught. These artists were usually part of a circus or carnival sideshows.
During the time of year when the shows were off the road, they used to work in tattoo studios around the country sharing information on new techniques and above all exchanging designs to decorate the body.

The gypsy-like existence of these characters has been handed down through the images they created. Their flashes now adorn the walls of tattoo shops.
By recreating the “dirty”, romantic atmosphere of a bygone age we are catapulted into the collective imagination of exotic adventure novels.

Some of us, by imprinting these designs onto our skin, have a desire for adventure which society and everyday life deny us.

In the 1990s tattoos enjoyed a revival in popularity and they became more socially acceptable.
Their underground status and prejudice against them have all but disappeared.
Culture and technology have been their allies.
Better equipment, infinite colours and a medical culture have helped the tattooing procedure to become safer and socially acceptable.

The biker style tattoos of the 1980’s with their details and delicate grey shading gave way to the new school and its myriad of colours in the mid 1990s.

After this fluorescent pigments and surreal images on the skin, the turn of the century and new millennium saw a revival of tribal styles, in their original form, carried out with respect for the culture involved, in some cases by hand, as they would have been done originally.

Classic Japanese tattoos were highlighted not only as belonging to the Yakuza mafia culture, but as an artistic heritage of the land of the rising sun.
Its elegance takes your breath away.

Yet now, in 2010, Japan has been looking to America for some years now: the iconography is more down to earth, less religious or even linked to western beliefs.

The traditional American designs from the 1950s, with a pervading rockabilly feel, have taken the place of, or at least share a space with, the gods and dragons of Japanese folklore.
They probably want to redefine their own, age-old and often closed culture, as people all over the world are trying to do.

Now people want to move on, focusing more and more on rediscovered traditions, which have never been so in demand. They are looking for identities.
The tattoo artist leaves behind the much desired ‘artist’’s role and becomes a more romantic, less obscure and cerebral figure, linked to the world of pirates or elegant outlaws.
He or she turns into a “creative scoundrel”.

The “tattoo artist” is once more a “tattooer”.
The image is more of a craftsman than an artist.
The client becomes a character similar to those depicted in the paintings of Titine Leu.


The Americans began this process and the whole world is following them. The past is coming back to life in new forms. Everywhere appreciation for the traditional style is leading to restoration and translation, according to the country where the tattoo is created.
In Italy “Love” becomes “Amore” for example, in France it becomes “Amour”.
The colours and shapes of the flags change. The values do not. Those are universal.

The primitively defined tattoos of the early twentieth century were adjusted to create perfect lines while still respecting their soul and simplicity.
Jerry Collins, Don Ed Hardy and Mike “Rollo” Malone in the ‘60s and ‘70s contributed to the perfection of the traditional style by seeking new artistic stimuli from elsewhere.
Japan and Japanese culture were the perfect destination for this search.

“Sailor Jerry” Collins’ motive was almost patriotic, considering the period (Second World War and Vietnam) in which his career took place: to elevate western tattoos to the same aesthetic image of oriental ones.
Using the Japanese style to express western concepts and using the same “religious” fantasy / pattern fantasia of the Edo period, Collins redefined traditional and brought it up to date.
Ed Hardy and Malone have continued the process right up to the present day.

The forms are still simple and naïve, but this time they have an Asian simplicity; the elegant, fluid, light details, similar to that of powerful, sinuous Tibetan paintings have recently become the key to producing the new traditional (or neo traditional) style.

The essential strong black shading and the contrast colours of new pigments, which are now unlimited, facilitate the process. The meanings remain the same.
Less anger and more desire for love is beneath the skin of the tattooed.
The oriental lifestyle, with its pursuit for fluidity, pervades forms and feelings. Sometimes the peace of the soul is obtained by getting a tattoo as if the procedure were an exorcism.

In the twenty-first century we feel more introspective and uninhibited about the declarations we make on our skin. Love, passion and more desire for atonement appear among the designs of skulls (a classic), elegant locks and keys, daggers, roses and pin-ups.

Patriotic inking is now limited to the United States, where people, struck by a new Pearl Harbour on September 11 2001, feel the need to declare their true colours and join the war with Stars and Stripes on shields and God in the majestic form of an eagle.

Of course American tattoo artists are still the pioneers behind all of this.
Civ, Phil Luck, Brad Fink, Eli Quinters, Dan Trocchio, Eric Jones, Seth Ciferri and Martin La Casse are the most famous on the East Coast.
Bob Roberts, Chris Garver, Grime, Tim Lehi, Scott Sylvia and Jeff Rassier on the West Coast.

But let’s not forget that in Europe, driven by a sense of style and good taste which runs through our veins, and surrounded by art on every street corner, skilled tattoo artists are seeking the roots of our own traditional tattoo styles.



Henk “Hanky Panky” Shiffmacher and Peter in Amsterdam, Dennis Cocknell in London, Miss Roxy, Bimbo and Mike in Copenhagen and Bruno (tattoo artist of the legendary Foreign Legion) in Paris are famous in the Old World for tattoos inked onto sailors and adventurers on land and at sea.
Herbert Hoffman could be called the German Sailor Jerry Collins.

The past is back.
Its forms have been filtered and perfected.
Cultural globalisation feeds the new traditional.
The romantic sentiment remains the same.

- The End -

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