Tattoos have been around for thousands of years. Yep, thousands. And over the centuries, they have enjoyed quite the evolution. That evolution has led us all the way here to our semi-permanent tattoos. The ultimate form of commitment-free self-expression. In the case of tattoo culture, art most definitely imitates life, as political and social revolutions have impacted what styles are trending and who’s choosing to get inked. In the United States, tattoo trends have evolved a lot in the last hundred years, morphing from an underground, seedy practice to a mainstream, exploding industry. Let’s take a look at how tattoos have changed over the last century in the USA:
Early 1910s, 20s, 30s
At the dawn of the 20th century, tattoos could be found on those society perceived as unsavory or “other”—sailors, circus freaks, prison inmates, etc. Sailors used tattoos as a way to document their travels, popularizing nautical tattoos like anchors. Other tattoos had specific meanings in the nautical community: a swallow tattoo meant that a sailor had traveled 5,000 miles, and a turtle told people they’d crossed the equator.
Sailors with swallow tattoos were well traveled. | LINK
Tattoos were so taboo that people paid to see circus freaks displaying them at sideshows.
Navy and Army men could get away with displaying patriotic tattoos, and the occasional civilian could rock a religious tattoo like a cross and get away with it, but tattoos were very much out of the mainstream at the beginning of the century.
It’s important to remember that tattoos were uncommon for another big reason: they hurt! People who got tattoos usually stuck with only one or two because the “stick-and-poke” method was painful.
Things changed in 1904 when Charlie Wagner invented the coil and tube tattoo machine in 1904. Getting a tattoo became a lot less painful, encouraging tattoo enthusiasts to up the number of tats on their bodies.
During the 1930s, when the government introduced Social Security Numbers, a significant number of people chose to have their SSN tatted on their skin, encouraged by the government’s stern warning that you should never forget this number.
Tattoos enjoyed a huge patriotic boom thanks to World War II. More men got tattoos to honor their service in the armed forces, and, as women filled the void men left in the work force, they too got tattoos to show their support for the USA, emboldened by their new power in the economy.
A woman shows off the tattoo she got during World War II | LINK
Tattoos were no longer just for circus freaks. More people were beginning to see them as a beautiful art form.
Sailor Jerry tattoos proliferated during this time. Simple, two-dimensional, colorful designs like a heart drawn around the word “Mom,” hula girls, pinup girls, palm trees, and patriotic tats dominated his iconic catalog.
Sailor Jerry Tattoos:
But tattoos went back underground when World War II ended and the US opted for a more conservative society—think 1950s housewife, not Rosie the Riveter. Tattoos went back to being for seedy folks with whom you wouldn’t watch Leave it to Beaver.
The Vietnam War, the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, rock and roll…the 60s were a time of cultural upheaval, and the tattoo industry reflected that rebellious spirit. Patriotic tattoos declined as most people did not support the Vietnam War, and cause-specific tattoos were seen on people raging against all sorts of injustice. The peace sign tattoo soared during this embattled era.
A protester highlights the many political issues that dominated the country in the 60s. | LINK
Tattoos became bigger and more intricate in the 70s. People started to get full sleeves tattooed, and the artwork itself became more detailed, including elements like shading and depth. Members of “seedy” groups like biker gangs rocked skeletons and Grim Reapers, while hippies rocked fairies and space-themed tats.
For the most part, if you wanted a tattoo, you had to choose from the drawings a parlor had on hand, not an idea you came up with yourself.
Perhaps the most iconic tattoo of the decade belonged to Janis Joplin, whose wrist tattoo was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone and prompted many women to seek out tattoo artists for their own versions.
Left: Janis Joplin appears on the cover of Rolling Stone, showing off her left wrist tattoo that you can see here if you look closely. | LINK
The wacky 80s, dominated by big hair and a new channel called MTV, encouraged the growth of tattoos as a form of self-expression.
Tribal tattoos, colorful tattoos, and thick black line tattoos (aka blackwork)—like the Celtic Knot—were popular during this decade.
New School tattoos also emerged in the 80s—cartoonish designs that often depicted characters doing unexpected things.
Celtic Knots (LINK)
a New School tattoo (LINK)
Feminine tattoos—like butterflies, hearts, stars, dolphins, suns—enjoyed a boom during the 90s, as did tribal tattoos. Women also began turning to tattoos to transform mastectomy scars into works of art.
Tattoos really went mainstream in the 2000s, thanks to reality TV and social media. Shows like Miami Ink, NY Ink, LA Ink, and Ink Master brought tattoo culture into all sorts of living rooms and tattoo artists like Kat Von D became celebrities.
Advances in sanitation also did away with the “seedy tattoo parlor” idea. People who shied away from tattoos because they worried about catching a disease from a needle could now think about getting a tattoo risk-free.
[Left: Celebrity ink master Kat Von D (LINK)]
The stigma against tattoos went down during this time, encouraging more and more people to get inked all over the place—from the lower back to the inside of the lip. For the most part, employers no longer look at tattoos as a reason not to hire someone, so people of all walks of life are getting tatted, like pre-school teachers, therapists, and soccer moms who would have never gotten inked in decades past.
Recent and current trends in the tattoo world include biomechanical tats, watercolor tats, and trash polka.
Left: A watercolor tattoo (LINK) | Center, a biomechanical tattoo (LINK) | Right, a trash polka tattoo (LINK)