The Origin of Old School Tattoos

Old school tattoos are a term that has caused much confusion in the tattoo world. Not many people know exactly what comprises an old school tattoo, so I’ve decided to give you guys a basic definition. Old school tattoo designs are American tattoos that became popular during the three decades from the 1920s through the 1950s. These tattoos are usually composed of simple designs such as pin-up girls, birds, ships and anchors.

Old school tattoos were generally done in large, bold designs that were meant to be worn with pride. They were done in such large and bold designs because tattooing back then was very much different than modern tattoos.

This is true for a number of reasons, but the primary reason was because the tattoo guns and inks weren’t very good. Over time tattoos would become distorted and become illegible. This was because the ink used at the time, ‘Indian ink’, would often break down into lighter colors. So tattoo artist made sure the designs were big and simple to make sure this didn’t happen.

Another reason old school tattoos were simple is because “flash” wasn’t used. Most artists at the time had to either do the tattoo “free style” or they had to stencil the design on the skin in charcoal. As the artists worked these charcoal stencils would smear and the design would break down. A simple design allowed the artists to continue with the tattoo without having to redo the stencil.

After the second world war, tattoos became further denigrated by their associations with Marlon Brando type bikers and Juvenile delinquents. Tattooing had little respect in American culture. Then, in 1961 there was an outbreak of hepatitis and tattooing was sent further underground.

Though most tattoo shops had sterilization machines, few used them. Newspapers reported stories of blood poisoning, hepatitis, and other diseases. The general population held tattoo parlors in disrepute. At first, the New York City government gave the tattoos an opportunity to form an association and self-regulate, but tattooists being independent as they are were not able to organize themselves. A health code violation went into effect and the tattoo shops at Times Square and Conney Island were shut down.

For a time, it was difficult to get a tattoo in New York. It became illegal and tattoos had a terrible reputation. Very few people wanted a tattoo then but luckily we have seen tattooing re-emerge as an accepted art form with old school tattoos being reborn into a new style called commonly known as nu school.