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Old school sailor tattoos first reached their height in the early to mid 20th century. After falling out of fashion for the last 60 years, old school tattoos are making their comeback.
Popularized by tattoo artists like Sailor Jerry (Norman Keith Collins) and Armund Dietzel, old school tattoos are the traditional American/Western tattoo style. They were popularized and inspired by the sailor lifestyle in the early 1900s. Rife with symbolism, they could serve as both talismans and resumes at once.
Although sailor tattoos are recognized as the traditional American style, its origins are traced back to British exploration of New Zealand.
In the 1770s, Captain James Cook performed the first circumnavigation of New Zealand. In New Zealand, they came into contact with the tattooed Maori who lived on the island. Their highly intricate and detailed tattoos inspired the crew to get the Maori to tattoo them as souvenirs. This tradition of sailors receiving tattoos to recognize places they had gone spread through the Pacific and grew into its own style of tattoos.
Hawaii may be where sailor tattoo tradition had the most notoriety, but it was common practice throughout the Americas, in the Pacific, and the Atlantic alike. The tradition grew to include not just souvenirs, but to commemorate achievements, or even to act as talismans.
Sailor tattoos are making a comeback in 2017, and not just among sailors. With the popularity of photo-realistic intricate tattoo designs still on the rise, it may seem odd that this simple, classic style is making its return.
Perhaps it is inline with the simple, minimalist approach that has been growing in design trends across industries. With bold black outlines and limited colour use, sailor tattoos are simple and aesthetic.
For others it could just be the search for a lost sense of Americana. Motifs that speak to adventure, freedom, and exploration are being adopted by the adventurers and world travellers of today’s youth.
Sailor Tattoos are rich with symbolism and tradition. Over centuries, the meanings have become more elaborate and diverse, although in most cases the basic themes and tenets have remained intact.
Sported by the likes of Popeye himself, the anchor tattoo may be the most iconic sailor tattoo. Strong to the finish, it is commonly recognized today as a symbol of stability and security. In the Age of Sail, the anchor was tattooed to signify having sailed across the Atlantic. It was also used to signify reaching the rank of Boatswain.
The pin-up girl tattoo became popular due to the US Navy attempting to crack down on lewd and obscene tattoos. No one could join the navy if they had such a tattoo. So it became common practice for sailors who did not want to be pressed into service to get tattoos of naked women.
If they eventually did want to serve in the navy, as many did for World War 1 & World War 2, they would have to get a tattoo artist to “dress” the woman. These tattoos transitioned into the pin-up girl we are familiar with today, and it is why it was such common imagery from 20th century war efforts.
Ever since the release of Pirates of the Caribbean, the sparrow tattoo has become a popular and widely recognized tattoo. However, Jack Sparrow was hardly the origin of this tattoo, nor was it always associated with pirates.
At the height of the Age of Sail, swallow and sparrow tattoos were commonly used by sailors as a talisman, and as an indicator of experience. A sparrow symbolized return, and sailors hoped that this ink would help assure their safe return home. These birds were also indicators of 5000 miles of travel, and a new one could be added for each additional 5000 miles. Today, it is a suitable tattoo for travellers to commemorate or declare their experience.
The sea is the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence.
– Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
The oceans have long called to a sense of adventure, mystery and wonderment. While the Age of Sail has passed us by, the sea has never been tamed. The return of sailor tattoos reflects today’s mindset of awe, exploration, and wild spirits.
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