Tattoo Trends Through the Decades

Tattoo Trends Ron Ackers

Image source: 1000 Tattoos – Taschen

Tattoos have long fascinated both advocates and opponents of the art. There have been tattoos for almost as long as mankind has been gathering together and forming societies. The ancient Egyptians had tattoos, as did many natives of far-flung exotic lands and it has even been proven that there were tattoos amongst the icemen of the very distant past.

What so intrigues people about tattoos? For some, it is the ability to tell a story on their bodies, for others it is a means to remember travels or even lost loved ones. Others are drawn by the appeal of the “bad boy” image while still others are pulled in by the sheer beauty of the art.

While there are many different reasons why people get tattoos and just as many reasons for why they choose the designs that they do, there does seem to be some correlation to the choices that they make with the decade that the person is living in and with major world events that are occurring. There seem to be some tattoo designs that speak to a generation and become trends.

Tattoos of the early 1900s

In the beginning of the 20th century, tattoos were still very much viewed as something that was only done by sailors, criminals, or circus performers. For the most part, tattoos were hidden in the underbelly of society, kept to naval yards and circus tents. Considering this, it should come as no surprise that the tattoo trends from the year 1900 through the 1920s consisted of nautical, patriotic, and religious designs. There were many anchors, crosses, and regimental seals to be seen on those brave folks that chose to bear tattoos. Society still very much frowned on the practice of tattooing and those that chose to have it done. In fact, many of those in the middle and upper classes would actually pay to see people with multiple tattoos covering their bodies at the circus or in sideshow freak tents.

Many of the tattooed ladies seen on display in the circus wove tales of being captured by savages and forcibly being tattooed by their captors in order to draw in more paying visitors to their act, as they knew that tales of danger would invoke fear and cause more interest in the crowds. The truth of the matter was that the women voluntarily chose to get tattoos over most of their bodies (some of them being covered almost totally from head to toe) and they very carefully chose their tattoo designs.

The process of tattooing itself was still in transition between being done by hand with the “stick-and-poke” method which involved a sharp stick and a pot of ink and the more modern method using the tattoo machine which had been invented by Samuel O’Reilly in 1891. It wasn’t until Charlie Wagner patented the first coil and tube tattoo machine in 1904 (which is almost identical to the machine still used today by tattoo artists) that people began to get higher numbers of tattoos, due to this quicker and less painful method of tattooing. During this time, tattooing became a valid occupation and many tattoos were seen on the wives of tattoo artists, as they practiced their skill sets.

Tattoos of the 1930s

The time during the Great Depression marked the beginning of the end for the negative light in which most people viewed tattoos. They were no longer seen only as something that a circus freak would have but became almost a household sight. This was due in large part to the introduction of Social Security numbers. The US government created a huge propaganda campaign about the new numbers, emphasising to the public how important it was that folks never forgot them, so in turn, many people began having them tattooed on their bodies in an effort to always have access to their social security numbers. Most of these tattoos were simple and small, consisting of just the number in black ink on their arm, but there were also examples of more elaborate tattoos that showcased not just the bearer’s social security number, but also a patriotic image, such as an eagle or an American flag. Some folks even had their blood type tattooed alongside their social security number.

With the Great Depression in full swing, many people were out of work and their families were suffering. Some of these people attempted to enter the workforce in one of the only areas that seemed unaffected by the economic crisis: the circus. Quite a few people sought out tattoo artists to have their bodies elaborately inked in an effort to gain entrance into the circus life, thereby securing a place to sleep, food to eat, and a bit of money to send back home to their families. Unfortunately for those folks, the circus world was over-saturated with performers and many of the newly tattooed were turned away due to lack of need for new performers. The public was also less interested in seeing tattooed performers, as people with tattoos were now something that could be seen pretty much anywhere, and was no longer relegated only to circuses and freak shows.

The 1930s were also a time where more and more tattoo artists were setting up shop (mostly in their own homes or the back rooms of local businesses) and the term “tattoo parlours” seems to originate from this era, as more people were getting their tattoos done in sitting rooms and parlours. These tattoo artists came from a variety of backgrounds, although many of them seemed to originate from the ranks of sailors, due to their exposure to tattooed cultures on their seafaring journeys.

Tattoos in the 1940s

With the attack on Pearl Harbour and the start of World War II, people all over the world enlisted in the armed services in an effort to support their countries and protect their families. Tattoos were once more used as a way of showcasing patriotic pride and many people chose to have their country flag or military insignia tattooed on their bodies. In the United States, with almost all of the men away fighting for their country, women were expected to take up the slack and enter the workforce. Homemakers all over the country took off their aprons and put on coveralls as they entered factories to fill in for their men.

One of the most memorable ways that the US government promoted the importance of women taking the place of the men that were overseas fighting in the war (what they declared was the civic duty of all American women, in fact) was by creating iconic figures such as “Rosie the Riveter”. Rosie was depicted in wartime posters as a strong woman in work clothes, her hair pulled back and covered by a handkerchief, curling her arm and making her bicep flex, and the message “We Can Do It!” in bold letters above her head. Many women also chose to have patriotic tattoos at this time, with the symbol of the American flag and Rosie’s slogan being the most popular choices.

At the same time, tattoos were also making a new beauty statement with the introduction of tattooed models, such as Betty Broadbent. Betty was a “tattooed lady” and acrobat in a nationally recognised circus. She appeared in the first televised beauty pageant in the United States at the urging of her circus employers as a means to prompt the public to buy tickets to the circus. Betty’s nationally televised appearance (in all of her tattooed glory) showed the world that feminine beauty came in many different forms.

Tattoos of the 1950s

Tattoos seemed to have fallen out of favour in the 1950s due to a rise of conservative culture and attitudes, most likely in response to the end of World War II and the return of men to the workplace and women to the role of homemaker. Tattoos were once again seen mostly as the decorations of the criminal element, such as ex-cons, bikers, and gang members.

Tattoos of the 1960s

Significant societal changes came about during the time of the Vietnam war. Gone was the patriotic spirit, as most people did not support the war. Many of the tattoo designs seen on sailors and soldiers during this time were angry (and even racist), with sentiments such as “Good Cong, Dead Cong”.

The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution also opened up the world to accepting tattoos as the cultural climate changed from a conservative to an open one. Although most of society still saw tattoos as a trend of the criminal class, young people were rejecting traditional values and demanding social equalities for all. Women’s rights became a big movement of the 1960s and women everywhere were beginning to express their rights and opinions through the adoption of the new birth control pill, burning their bras in protest of being controlled by men and the government, and with tattoos displaying their personal tastes and beliefs.

Janis Joplin also increased the popularity of tattoos during this time, as she was seen with a Florentine bracelet tattoo on her wrist in many different music publications of the day. Her popularity as a singer, along with her confidence and choice of rebellious self-expression made her an iconic figure among women. After her death in 1970, women flocked to tattoo artists to have a replica of her infamous tattoo placed on their own wrists in tribute to Janis.

Tattoos of the 1970s

An influx of talented tattoo artists with a background in fine arts brought about a significant change to the world of tattoos in the 1970s. The introduction of more involved and intricate pieces, such as full sleeve tattoos and body suits, as opposed to the smaller and less involved pieces of the past helped to draw in even more public interest in tattoos.

Tattoo imagery was beginning to diversify, incorporating softer lines and a more flowing art form, and began to let go of the more simplistic imagery of old, such as anchors and eagles. More female tattoo artists also began to enter the scene, which drew the world of tattoos even more into the world of fine art and music.

Tattoos of the 1980s

Thick, black line tattoo designs, such as the Celtic knot, became popular in the 1980s. The birth of the tribal tattoo also occurred and was first showcased to the public by “Tattootime” magazine with a photo of an abstract tattoo of blended Polynesian and Japanese influences.

This was the decade of plastic surgery and people choosing to express themselves through wild hair colours and clothes styles. The 1980s was an era of rebellion and the punk scene exploded, encouraging the acts of rebellious self-expression amongst youth all over the world.

The birth of MTV and other mass media outlets drew tattoos into the limelight via musicians and celebrities being showcased with tattoos of their own. Although tattoos were still banned in some major cities, such as New York, this seemed to add to the desire for tattoos as the idea of rebelling against “the establishment” fit in with the mindset of this decade. Tattoos continued to be colourful and draw inspiration from the fine art world, as in the 1970s.

Tattoos of the 1990s

The 1990s bring with them a boom of the tribal tattoo, feminism, and a new sub-genre of music. The Riot Grrrl movement begins with women being frustrated over the punk scene being overrun by men and a new wave of feminism is born, and along with it, tattoos on women experience a boom in popularity. Female only bands begin to emerge on the punk scene, creating a new subculture of strong, independent women.

By 1996, more than half of those seeking tattoos are women. Tattoos began to lean toward more feminine designs, with butterflies, hearts and stars merging with tribal bands. Permanent makeup also makes a comeback, with many women choosing to have eyeliner and lipstick tattooed into place permanently. Female cancer survivors are also choosing to cover up their mastectomy scars with beautiful, feminine and elaborate tattoos.

The ignited popularity of tattoos is attributed to well-known athletes, musicians and actors proudly displaying their own tattoos through the media. Cher, Sean Connery, Dennis Rodman, and Pamela Anderson all have tattoos and display them proudly for all the world to see.

Tattoos of the New Millennium

Tattoos gain even more momentum in the 2000s with the advent of “reality shows” based on the lives and work of famous tattoo artists. Kat Von D is first seen on “LA Ink” and becomes so popular that she begins to model her beautiful tattoos and soon stars in her own show. Following the trend set by Kat and believing that tattoos are another form of alternative beauty, women all over the world continue to have tattoos done. There are studies done that show a link between women with tattoos having a higher level of self-esteem than those without them.

There is also a renewal of the patriotic spirit in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attack and many people choose to have tattoos done in memory of those that tragically lost their lives on that day.

Tattoos become even safer and more mainstream with the modern safety precautions such as sterilisation in place and more people of previous generations that chose to forgoes tattoos in the past due to health risks are now getting tattoos. Many grandparents are even choosing to go with their grandchildren to have tattoos done together. More and more employers are adopting their dress codes to allow for tattoos, as more people are joining the ranks of ink collectors.

Tattoos have certainly gone through an evolution when it comes to design, placement on the body, and social opinion. There can definitely be correlations seen throughout the decades, with feminism and a spike in tattoos among women being one and wartime and a jump in the popularity of patriotic tattoos being another.

Even though there is certainly a discernible link between tattoos and the times, the evolution of tattoos continues and we can only begin to guess at what the future will hold for the world of tattoos.