Old School Tattoos

Old school tattoo


Old school tattoos might well be called ‘traditional’ tattoos – these are the tattoo images that are immediately recognizable as such and that we would expect to see adorning the arm of an aging marine or biker for example.

In the early years of tattoo art, tattoos were frowned upon by society. Luckily this has changed, tattooing became much more widespread among all walks of life. Old school tattoos never quite disappeared from view, but a few decades ago they did sort of fade into the background.

The last couple of years old school tattoos have been gaining popularity again, up to a point where we can call them trendy. The old school tattoo designs are being adopted by a younger crowd. Sailor tattoos are no longer the sole property of a certain subculture, like they used to be.

There is a difference, though – the old school tattoos might be the same, but the feeling around them is different. Nowadays, these older tattoo designs are worn with a sense of irony. The old school tattoos are appreciated for their timeless appeal. But the tattoo images themselves are worn in a slightly campy way, and valued for their vintage appeal.


Boat & Anchor Tattoos

Sailors and marines where the pioneers when it comes to Western tattooing, so it's not hard to see why anchors and boats appear so often in old school designs (Click here for more military tattoos). Here's a gallery with sailor tattoos and more traditional tattoo flash:


Click to enlarge...

Old School Boat Old school ship tattoo design Old school ship tattoo
Ship Tattoo Vintage rose tattoo with swallow and anchor Anchor Tattoo Flash
Vintage anchor tattoo Anchor and stars tattoo on foot (old school) Old school boat tattoo on a girl's arm
Old school anchor tattoo design Old school anchor tattoo design Vintage anchor tattoo design
Anchor sailor tattoo design Ship wheel tattoo design Anchor and roses tattoo design


Swallow, Sparrow & Eagle Tattoos

The swallow is a sailor symbol and turns up in many old school designs, just like the eagle (Click here for more swallow tattoos). Here's a gallery with examples:


Click to enlarge...

Old school swallow tattoo on arm Retro swallow tattoo Old school swallow tattoo on a man's hand
Old school eagle and anchor tattoo Traditional swallow and dagger tattoo design Old School Swallow Tattoo
Old school swallow tattoo on a girl's arm Traditional swallow tattoo Traditional swallow tattoo behind a girl's ear


Pin Up Tattoos

Pin up girls were models (like Betty Grable) who's photos and posters were very popular the first half of the 20th century. These pin ups, just as "Native Indian pin ups" and hula girls, were a big inspiration for tattoo art:


Click to enlarge...

Old school pin up tattoo Retro pin up tattoo on a man's arm Old school tattoo
Pin Up Tattoo Indian pin up tattoo design Pin Up Tattoos


Gypsy Tattoos

The face of a gypsy woman is also popular as an old school design. Gypsy tattoos either mean good luck or the constant search for happiness. Here are some examples:

Click to enlarge...

Gypsy tattoo on hand Retro gypsy tattoo on arm Vintage gypsy tattoo on arm
Old school tattoo design: woman with snake, skull and flowers Old school gypsy tattoo Old school gypsy tattoo on arm


Other popular old school designs:


Old school tattoos are usually simple in design, with a lot of black ink and little color because in the early years of tattoo art there wasn't a big choice of colored tattoo ink. The old school designs we see today are more colorful compared to the originals, thanks to the evolution of tattoo equipment.

Many of the designs have a ribbon with text, like a boat with the text "Homeward Bound", "Steady as she Goes", a pin up girl with the words "My Ruin" or a broken heart with a ribbon that reads "Busted". Names of lovers or parents were also popular.


Sailor Jerry Collins

The foremost American tattoo artist who helped to develop the tattoo designs that are now considered "old school" is Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins (1911-1973).

Sailor Jerry joined the navy when he was 19 and traveled around the world, getting his first tattoos and gaining exposure to the tattoo art of Southeast Asia.

He opened his first tattoo parlor in Honolulu's Chinatown, a place where sailors gathered to drink, pay for women and get tattoos. His tattoo designs are known all over the world and are in vogue again, thanks to the old school revival.

Click to enlarge...

Sailor Jerry cowgirl tattoo Sailor Jerry tattoo Sailor Jerry Native Indian girl tattoo
Sailor Jerry horse and cowgirl tattoo Sailor Jerry singing bird tattoo Sailor Jerry cat tattoo
Old school Native Indian tattoo Sailor Jerry panther tattoo Sailor Jerry geisha tattoo


Sailor Jerry died in 1973. The royalties to his tattoo flash are now owned by two of his students, Ed Hardy and Mike Malone. In 1999 they started the company Sailor Jerry Ltd. and use Sailor Jerry's artwork on clothing (t shirts, belts, gloves, hoodies, sneakers), tattoo machines, stencils, playing cards, ...

They also produce Sailor Jerry rum, based on the rum that sailors used to make on board of their ship. The label of the rum features a Sailor Jerry hula girl.

Responsible for the popularity of old school tattoos is the 1950s revival in fashion. Started by girls that were into retro, like those from the rockabilly scene, the old school designs got more and more mainstream and thereby reviving the art of Sailor Jerry.


Celebrities With Old School Tattoos

Amy Whinehouse was a celebrity tattooed like a sailor. Most of her tattoos had the old school look, most of them were on her arms. She had a horseshoe tattoo, a feather, a lightning bolt and some pin up girls.

Winston Churchill, the famous English World War II politician, had an anchor tattoo on his arm.

George Clooney has a fake (temporary) old school star tattoo on his chest in the film From Dusk Till Dawn.

 Follow the link for more pictures of celebrity tattoos