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History and Meaning of Old School Tattoos

Old school tattoos, or rather our idea of traditional tattoos, are the first images that pop into our minds when we think of ink. These images are some of the most iconic and instantly recognizable among the vast assortment of tattoo designs we are spoiled with today. You can just imagine this work of art adorning the bicep of young marine fighting for king and country, or a fierce pirate terrorizing the seven seas. Thus it comes to no surprise that sailors and marines were the pioneers when it came to westernised tattooing.

Old school tattoos are typically big, colourful, and scream vintage in heavy black outlines. Back in the heyday of old school tattoos, equipment was still primitive to what we have today, but make no mistake, some of the artists were protected in their own right. Symbols were mostly either patriotic or military, representing war machines, or for those who missed the little lady back home, pin up girls. Ships, snakes, anchors, hearts, dice, cherries, bikes and mermaids also featured prominently in the designs. 


The seafaring theme dominated the scene much more than any other. The sailors were a suspicious bunch, so they often looked for symbols of what they imagined to represent good fortune. One of these sailor tattooists, and known as the father of modern tattoos is Jerry Collins, casually referred to as Sailor Jerry. Jerry was born in 1911, and being a sailor all his life, he tapped in on this inspiration and created some of the most iconic tattoos we’ve seen to date. Thanks to his art, he brought tattoos into the acceptable limelight at a time when tattoos had no place in the lives of ordinary folk. Sailor Jerry inspired products like Sailor Jerry rum, and took artists like Mile Malone and Ed Hardy under his wings.

Old school tattoos never quite disappeared from the scene; in fact, it is making a roaring comeback. Never before have so many people been sporting old school tattoos, albeit with a sense of irony.


Meaning of Old School Tattoos

• Swallow tattoos

Legend among seafarers said that if a sailor does not survive his travels, a swallow will carry his soul from the water into heaven. The swallow was a profound image among sailors, and is one of the most popular choices today. It represents love, safe travel, loyalty and family above all else. It chooses a mate for life, and swallows return home every year, no matter where they are. To sailors, this was a symbol of hope for returning home.

• Anchor Tattoos

An anchor represents stability, safety and strong foundations. For those with Christian roots, the anchor also takes on a great significant meaning, as early persecuted Christians used the anchor as a hidden symbol for the cross.

• Nautical Star Tattoos

A nautical star represents the North Star, and is also found on compasses and maps. Like the swallow tattoo, sailors believed that a nautical star will help them to find their way home.

• Mermaid Tattoos

Sailors got these fantasy creatures emblazoned on them to ward off the dangers of shipwrecks. It represents destructive female beauty and potent sexual energy that leads men to their doom.

The old school tattoo designs are far too numerous to mention, but based on its history, it becomes clear that the symbology revolved around protection, homecoming and strong roots. Today, these meanings might be lost, but it does not deny their very rich history and aesthetic appeal.

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