The History of Traditional Tattoos and Why They’re Still So Popular Today

Back in the 1930’s, traditional tattoos were reserved for sailors and rebels. Nowadays, this striking design can be found on all different types of people.

Today is the day that you get your first tattoo. While a lot of different designs and styles stand out to you, the dark lines and colorful nature of the traditional tattoos on display stand out to you. Where did this bold style of tattoo come from?

Well, it all goes back to the 1930s. Back then the only ones who bore these tattoos were sailors and those seeking to be rebels. With their reputation and the questionable sanitary nature of the parlors, it took a while for these tattoos to take off.

Before you commit to your tattoo choice, keep reading to learn more about the bold history of traditional tattoos and the different styles that are still popular today.  Visit the our Las Vegas tattoo shop when ready for your next tattoo.

1. Traditional Tattoo Timeline

The origin of tattoos can be traced back for thousands of years. Some 3,000-year-old mummies have even been found with them. The first tattoo parlors didn’t start popping up until the 1900s.

It only took 9 years after that for the government to pass a bill stating that those with obscene tattoos would be rejected for military service. Many rushed to parlors to get their more questionable tattoos covered up with something else.

This bill was only the start of a tattooing decline that would last until fine art tattooing was introduced.

World Wars

Before World War II began, many sailors got tattoos done at parlors in China and Japan. This would mark the first time that Asian art was brought over to the US.

After World War II tattooing suffered a major decline. When sailors got back their wives found their tattoos to be distasteful, to say the least. These tatted sailors also had problems finding jobs.

On top of this, many parlors were deemed unsanitary. One American tattooer by the name of Charlie Wagner was even sued because he was caught not sterilizing his needles.

Fine Art Tattooing

The decline in tattooing lasted until the late 1960s when fine art tattooing came into play. This began with a man by the name of Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry.

His style combined the Asian art style with iconic imagery from America. Throughout his career, he worked with a variety of other tattooers from around the globe in order to fix the common issues in parlors.

In the 1970s his apprentice Ed Hardy opened up his own shop. It was the first appointment based shop to come about. It was around this time that tattoos became popular for men and women alike.

With the Vietnam War in full swing, many hippies started to get images of peace signs and marijuana leaves tattooed on their bodies as an act of protest. Perfect style for a small wrist tattoo.


Tattoos, while still seen as a bit un-tasteful to some workplaces are a lot more widely accepted today. Many people go the traditional tattoo route as they still hold some of the same meaning today as they did back then.

Taking care of your tattoo

2. Characteristics of Traditional Tattoos

Traditional tattoos stand apart from the crowd with their bold lines, bright colors and small amounts of shading. The images can include women, skulls, anchors, snakes and many more. We’re going to go over some of the most popular types and what they stand for.

Bald Eagle

The Bald Eagle tattoo is a staple choice for those who are all about America. Due to the bird’s grace and fierce nature, it’s been a popular subject matter in traditional tattoos since pretty much the beginning.


Swallow tattoos hold several different meanings. Some sailors got the tattoo once they sailed over 5,000 miles as an act of celebration. Some got it for a much more sentimental reason, however.

You see, no matter how far a Swallow travels, it returns to the same nest each year in order to mate. So, sailors would get one Swallow tattooed on them before they left for the open seas and then get a second one when they came back. This practice sort of acted as their promise to always return to their loved one.


You’ve probably seen the depiction of an anchor with the word “mom” written on it in cartoons. This is actually quite a popular traditional tattoo choice. It symbolizes something that keeps you grounded.

Usually, this thing is the name of a person like your mom. Hince getting the anchor tattoo with the name of someone special written on it.


Skull tattoos were quite popular with adventurers and sailors back in the day. A person bearing this tattoo showed that they were unafraid of facing death head-on. Skulls are still a popular traditional tattoo choice today.


Back in the day, women weren’t allowed to be sailors so men would go months upon months without seeing one. These men would get tattoos of women to remind themselves of what they have waiting for them back at home.

Many men still get pin-up tattoos done today. Sometimes in the likeness of their significant others.


Snakes are a symbol of strength and power. It can also represent throwing away the past due to the fact that snakes shed their skin. Some simply get a tattoo of a snake because they look cool.

Either way, you may get a few looks. Even today many see snakes as a symbol of wickedness because of their depiction in the Christian Bible.

The Complete History of Traditional Tattoos

As you sit down in a chair to get your first tattoo, consider going with traditional tattoos. They have a rich background and with their bold lines and bright colors, they look super cool. Try out one of the designs that you’ve read about here and embrace history.

Are you ready to get your own traditional tattoo? Contact us to tell us about what you want to get or ask questions about our services.

Check out other popular tattoo styles at Teitan Tattoo.