American traditional tattoos: their origins and great designs.

If a little while ago we talked about the history of tattoos and what they mean in the world of work, today we want to talk about the more traditional American tattoos! Stick around, because today you’ll probably want to get a new tattoo! 😉

Traditional American Tattoo: The Context

In our eagerness to try to share and somehow spread our fascination for tattooing, we believe it’s necessary to stop and talk about the Traditional American Tattoo, better known as Old School.

Tattooing can be said to have been introduced to the West through the English expeditionary led by Captain Cook, on his voyages to Tahiti in 1771, Joseph Banks, a scientist with a great interest in art, sailed with Captain Cook. 

This is how the American traditional tattoos or old-school tattoo was born. One of the most famous styles in the history of tattooing, it was born around 1900, on the coasts of the United States, in response to the need of sailors to have something unique and personal in the crowd before returning home, or for the loss of a loved one. 

This style emerged in the “underworld” when people only believed that tattoos were a matter of Indians, murderers, or thieves; this proposal to mark sailors in the ports came about. The name it received at that time was “American Traditional Tattoo”.

The American Traditional Tattoo, therefore, introduced and influenced by sailors, ended up acquiring much more patriotic motifs, especially during World War II, but before reaching this initial boom, the tattoo would go from being an amateur practice (for all those who appreciated this new extravagant form of artistic expression) to its professionalization.

It’s worth noting that the American style wasn’t only present in the United States, with the constant travels of sailors and the artists themselves, the style spread to Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Hawaii, and others. Historically, the first tattoo club was created in England and these tattoo designs were the first to be called Old School!

Traditional American tattooing: origin and development

Thus, one of the first artists to professionalize tattooing was Martin Hildebrandt, who opened his tattoo shop in New York in 1846, although at that time using very rudimentary techniques, far removed from what we know today as the art of tattooing.

This entrepreneurial trend was followed by Samuel F. O’Reilly, also in New York in 1875. There, unlike Hildebrandt, he began to use the first electric machines, which was a brutal advance. Less pain, greater speed, and the ink entering better under the skin; the true tattoo revolution of the time. Later, O’Reilly himself would be one of the first to introduce the figure of the more purist apprentice. 

The end of the 19th century and the course of the 20th century would be key to the development of traditional American tattooing, reaching one of its most splendid phases since its recent appearance. 

This period would be fundamental, thanks to a multitude of tattoo artists who left a great legacy that contributed to the growth and consolidation of the style. As you will see, in this style heart tattoos, skull tattoos, and snake or eagle tattoos are among the most popular designs, and do not forget about native Americans and ship tattoos. Nowadays you can find these choices in the traditional tattoo flash places.

Ben Corday (1875-1938) was one of the greats in the world of traditional American tattooing. Ben Corday’s list of occupations is long: sailor, tattooist, giant, served in the British Army, worked as a wrestler, porter, private family footman, stage and screen actor, commercial artist, engraver, and longshoreman. 

American traditional tattoos: designs with ships, flags, and sailing motives.

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Charlie Wagner (1875-1953) Nicknamed “Michelangelo of Tattooing”, one of the great legends of American tattooing, he developed his career in New York City. Working on the Bowery in lower Manhattan, Wagner took over the shop space at 11 Chatham Square that Samuel O’Reilly, his teacher, had occupied. 

Charlie Wagner continued O’Reilly’s work in more ways than one; if Samuel O’Reilly patented the first tattoo machine in 1891, Wagner improved on that design and received his patent in 1904. Most machines built today are based on Wagner’s design.

American traditional tattoo designs to flash tattoos.

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Gus Wagner (1872-1941) “The tattooed globertrotter”, although they shared a surname there is no relation between Gus and Charlie. At that time the first tattoo machines already existed, but Gus Wagner was one of the few tattooists who continued with the classic “hand-poked” style. 

They achieved very detailed designs by hand with a stick or needle that was dipped in ink. In addition to leaving an incredible collection of flashes, Gus instructed and taught the “stick and poke” technique to his wife Maude Wagner, with whom he also exchanged tattoos. Their daughter Lovetta Wagner, besides performing in circuses, would follow her parents’ profession.

American traditional tattoos, with sailing designs.

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Maude Wagner (1877-1961) learned the traditional tattoo technique from her husband, Gus Wagner, and adopted the art form, which she and her husband spread throughout the country. She ended up with her body covered in her husband’s tattoos; he drew mythical and wild animals, exotic plants, indigenous women, and even her name. 

At a time when tattoos were frowned upon because they were considered savage or lower-class art, Maud broke the prejudices of a male-dominated field and became a talented artist and the first known professional female tattoo artist.

American traditional tattoos: Maude Wagner was tattoed by her husband Gus.

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August “Cap” Coleman (1884-1973), was the master of tattoo artists such as Leonard L. “Stoney” Clair. He ran his studio until the 1950s in Norfolk Virginia and left behind countless classics that many artists still use today. Many of Coleman’s tattoos, which included the big eagle, the flag chest, the ship on the stomach, and the sun designs on the kneecaps, could be seen on the small statue displayed in the window of his shop in Norfolk. 

American traditional tattoos: pictures from August "Cap" Coleman tattoo studio.

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Owen Jensen (1891-1976): a pioneer in Detroit, he left incredible classics, as well as a great legacy in the construction of machines. After fighting in World War I, Owen began to work in various cities and different shows, later with a multitude of artists of the time, Charlie Barr, Coleman, Sturtz, and Lee Roy, among others, and at different studios and tattoo parlors. 

Linked to the circus world, as was usual in the tattoo scene, he married Dainty Dolly, a famous circus fat lady, whom he ended up covering with tattoos, as the story goes.

American traditional tattoos: Owen Jensen tattoo designs.

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Norman Collins aka Sailor Jerry (1911-1973): a US Army serviceman by profession, considered one of the most influential people in traditional American tattooing. After training in Chicago, where he studied with Tatts Thomas, he set up his tattoo studio in Honolulu, Hawaii. 

Heavily influenced by Asian culture, Jerry deeply admired the work of Japanese tattoo masters and was the first Westerner to enter into regular correspondence with them. However, he was also determined to beat them at their own game. He picked up the “Japanese” style and fused it with the traditional American style, leaving behind a myriad of super solid, clean tattoos. 

Swallows, daggers, ships, dragons, and many other designs we’ve seen hundreds of times, are classics from the legendary Saylor Jerry. Ed Hardy and Mike Malone would follow in his footsteps, heavily influenced by him. Norman’s parlor, Sailor Jerry’s Hotel Street, was the place where new sailors came to be tattooed for the first time. 

The Hawaiian Islands served as the main gateway to Asia and this allowed Sailor Jerry to study the craft and style of Irezumi, the traditional Japanese tattoo art. Throughout his career, Sailor Jerry explored the elements belonging to different Japanese tattoo styles and blended them with elements of his own. 

American traditional tattoos: tattoos inspired in this style.

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Classical Tattooing, World War II and Evolution

In addition to the contribution of these and many other artists, World War II marked an important turning point in the consolidation and evolution of the traditional style. 

In this context, soldiers and sailors, increasingly tattooed, didn’t waste a second thinking about what people would say, so in their few spare moments, they took the opportunity to get tattooed. Love, nostalgia, vice, patriotism, and struggle were some of the most recurrent themes. Honolulu, and Pearl Harbor, in particular, was a popular destination for many soldiers, and leaving with a piece for their collection was almost obligatory.

In the 1950s and 1960s, traditional tattooing continued to be associated with people who didn’t want to jump through society’s hoops. It also became more and more associated with convicts, which is why tattooing wasn’t very well regarded. It was also closely associated with bikers, who considered tattoos to be a badge engraved in fire, something for life.

The truth is that from the 60s onwards, tattooing progressed thanks to artists such as Cliff Raven and Jamie Summer, among many others. The repertoire of designs grew thanks to younger and younger artists. So later, in the 70s and 80s, when the punk movement was a trend, classic pieces that served to reinforce their image began to appear under their cut-off cowboy hats.

Technical Aspects of the Traditional American Tattoo

The traditional tattoo designs are characterized by some basic details: thick, firm, unmodulated lines. With solid primary colors in their color palette like reds, yellows, greens, blues, and lots of blacks. Simple designs or of great abstraction that within them have an absolute complexity, of balanced and detailed composition but not excessive. 

Many American tattoo masters have emerged, as we have already mentioned a few lines above. But it’s indisputable that Norman Collins (Sailor Jerry), was a pioneer within the tattoo culture in the West. As tattoos became increasingly popular among the Allied military during World War II, Sailor Jerry found himself opening a tattoo shop in Honolulu (Hawaii), a prominent setting in the history of tattooing.

Old School Tattooing Today

Today, the “American tattoo”, also known as Old-School, remains intact with its solidity, its cleanliness, and all its essence. The biggest change is the brutal technological progress. The “tattoo suppliers” improve their performance: better inks, lighting, furniture, and countless resources. Even from Leaf Pro, we are doing our own thing, trying to do our bit for the current tattoo scene.

Interaction and imitation between artists still exist, but the great advance that social networks have made in promoting artists and the acceptance of tattooing in society has played a key role in this growth.

As time has passed, different styles of tattooing have developed, and many of them have evolved. Nowadays, almost anywhere in the world, you can find a tattoo studio, and most likely a good tattooist to fatten up your collection. What used to be a culture represented mainly by tattoos of pin-up girls, anchors, and knives, has expanded, giving way to the added value of elegance and elaborate pieces. 

Some artists prefer the style where line and drawing are highlighted, others give value to geometrical patterns, others, however, cover large areas of skin with solid black, etc. 

What is certain is that nowadays a new counterculture has been created, which is becoming more popular every day, where tattooing has become more than just a preponderant accessory, it has become a way of life!




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