The traditional tattoo style as we know it today first started to take shape on the bodies of sailors in the 18th-20th centuries. During this period, it spread all around the globe, becoming one of the largest artistic movements in history, but its beginnings go way further back. The practice of tattooing is ancient, dating back at least 5,000 years, so it’s been a feature of life on the high seas ever since people learned to sail, but it wasn’t until Captain Cook encountered indigenous peoples with elaborate, ornamental bodysuits that the art form officially got its name in English.
Because of the exploits of Cook and his band of seafaring men, the Tahitian word tatu was eventually adopted into the English language as “tattoo.” Over time, more mariners took up the practice, inscribing each other’s bodies to pass the time on their long voyages, and before too long, a new profession was born among their ranks – the traditional tattooist.
By Parkinson, Sydney, 1745-1771.
When sailors with a knack for illustration started making tattoos – graduating from scrimshaw to human skin – the traditional style began to evolve toward an aesthetic that reflected their adventurous lives. The style, with its bold lines and color palettes, is now unmistakeable. You know it when you see it, even if it’s a mile away. A distinct iconography also arose from their experiences abroad. The images that we now recognize as belonging to the traditional style – anchors, bald eagles, crawling panthers, lady heads, pinups, pirate ships, and more – ushered a rich legacy of maritime symbolism into the future.
One of the traditional tattooists at our shop, Luke Jinks, is particularly good at explaining how much this legacy means to the tattoo community.
“It’s important that people remember where tattooing came from and the artists that laid the groundwork for all of us, as without them we wouldn’t have what we have today,” he says. “It’s great that people keep pushing the boundaries of traditional tattooing and tattooing in general, as no one wants to keep seeing the same classic designs reproduced again and again, but for me, some tattoos that are being done now take no account of how a tattoo is going to look a couple of years down the line, let alone 50 years later. We know traditional style tattoos last. We have living proof!”
A Few Examples of Traditional Designs
The classic “Rock of Ages” design, which features a stranded woman clinging to a cross-shaped boulder in the middle of a raging ocean, is a prime example of how iconic imagery found its way into the realm of traditional tattoos. This image frequently appears as both small-scale tattoos (aka bangers) and large-scale ones like backpieces today, but it originates from the world of fine art more than a century ago. In 1876, an artist named Johannes Adam Simon Oertel created the original image – a painting of the damsel in distress. Somewhere along the way, someone in the tattoo world caught wind of Oertel’s masterpiece and translated it into a tattoo, probably because of how the image – one of shipwreck and salvation – spoke to the perils of life at sea.
The previous example sheds light on the history of tattooing, but no design is quite as emblematic of the the traditional style’s passage into Western culture as the swallow. You’ve probably seen these cheerful birds roosted on the forearms of oldtimers or peeking out from behind hipsters’ ears. They’re a common choice for tattoo collectors and are thought of as representing themes like hope and goodwill. But if you put yourself in the mindset of a turn-of-the-century sailor, you can imagine how seeing them dive through the air just prior to making landfall could have inspired him to get a tattoo.
The Style’s Migration into the Mainstream
Traditional tattoo iconography has only continued to accrue new imagery like the Rock of Ages design and swallows in recent history, and in the skilled hands of artists like those here at Cloak and Dagger, it still does to this very day. None of this would be possible, however, if it were not for the hard work of a few early tattooists with entrepreneurial spirits: those who were daring enough to bear the art form into the mainstream.
The traditional style presently holds fast to its place in the global tattoo scene, standing toe-to-toe with other time-tested genres of body art like Irezumi (traditional Japanese tattoos) and moko (Maori bodysuits), but that wouldn’t be the case if it weren’t for those artists. While the shipping industry that carried it around the world has shrunk to a shadow of its former self, the style and its deep symbolism persist, having migrated into a more professional and permanent setting – the tattoo shop – because of their tireless efforts.
The journey of tattooing from the hulls of ships to the modern tattoo studio was a long one, but by the late 19th century, tattoo booths started popping up in major port cities like London and New York. The phenomenon spread further inland as time passed, where tattooers set up shop at arcades, boardwalks, traveling circuses, and Turkish baths.
During World War I and World War II, for instance, it became extremely popular for British servicemen and women to commemorate their wartime experiences by collecting patriotic body art – like the iconic “Rose of No Man’s Land” design, which was inspired by the Red Cross nurses who laid their lives on the line to rescue dying soldiers. This surge in demand enabled ambitious artists – such as Sutherland Macdonald, London’s first professional tattooist – to found their own small businesses, moving into actual studios, where they proudly hung their flash behind storefront windows that read “TATTOO” in carnivalesque script.
The Legacy of Early 21st Century Traditional Tattooists
The move into dedicated tattoo shops established a stable business model for artists, and this allowed them to rise to prominence based on the quality of their work. Pioneers in the traditional style like Jessie Knight, the first female English tattooist, made names for themselves, setting an example for other aspiring young artists who struggled to make ends meet. They became role models, showing how, with enough hard work and determination, it was not only possible to make a living but to artistically express one’s self with tattooing.
As more artists began to see it as a viable career and took up tattooing as a profession, the style became more refined and apprenticeship systems started to develop, ensuring that the craft would be handed down, artist to artist, for generations to come. This shift in the industry also preserved the influence of rising masters of the art form, imparting their artistic contributions to students and setting the stage for studios like Cloak and Dagger.
What the Traditional Style Means to Us Today
Because of his faith in the traditional style, Luke’s the type of artist who sticks close to his roots. “I like bold, simple tattoos, tattoos that you know will stand the test of time. When you see 70-year-old men with crawling panthers or eagles on their forearms and you can still tell what it is,” says Luke, “Even though it’s half a century old, you know this is how tattoos should be done.” In each of Luke’s pieces, you can sense the powerful influence of his predecessors, but his work also embodies his own unique artistic sensibilities, which are as fierce as his feelings about the history of the art form.
One of the most exciting aspects of contemporary tattooing is how artists are constantly pushing the boundaries of different styles. Hugh Sheldon, an artist at our shop who has a distinct take on the style, shows how working with traditional designs repeatedly can actually result in stylistic innovation. Hugh enjoys “the familiarity of classic images,” as he puts it, but the acutely angular appearance of his renditions of tried-and-true imagery – such as tigers, skulls, eagles, etc. – sets his work apart. His portfolio proves that it’s possible to create a signature aesthetic while working within the confines of a distinct style.
Another of our traditional tattoo experts, Al Boy, likes to emphasize how we can’t help but put a little of ourselves into our work.
“What originally drew me to working and studying the traditional style was my brother’s present when I was 16 – a Schiffer’s book called Historic Flash. It caught my attention, so I started drawing vintage flash everyday,” Al recalls. “Also my graffiti crew mate inspired me a lot when he started getting vintage tattoos, and after several years, I met Stizzo from Milan, who drove me towards the traditional style, showing me rare books and teaching me the basics of traditional tattoo techniques.
“I personally think that the traditional style explains a lot about the importance of getting tattoos, ones that mean something to you, in the best possible way, with the most solid and permanent technique,” Al continues. “As for the choice of picking a traditional flash design, it all comes down to everybody’s individual taste, but never forget the history of such an interesting and beautiful craft. It’s important to know how to recognize a solid tattoo – one that will last forever.”
The Future of the Art Form
As long as tattooists and tattoo collectors connect over our shared enthusiasm for the traditional style, it will continue to pass the test of time, too, remaining a prominent feature of the world of art for centuries down the road. Just imagine, one day we could even see our grandchildren rocking the same timeless, badass imagery on their bodies as we do, and in a future as uncertain as ours, we think that’s the sort of permanence we need.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the bold and beautiful art form that we’ve devoted our lives to, pay a visit to Cloak and Dagger or, better yet, consider booking an appointment with one of our talented artists. It would be our pleasure to talk about the meaning and history behind the perfect traditional tattoo design for you.
Traditional Tattoo Galleries
Monday - Saturday
11:00 am - 7:00 pm
11:00 am - 5:00pm
34 Cheshire Street
London, E2 6EH
020 7175 0133