Traditional Tattoos by Allie Michelle

tattoo1Chinatown, NY 1920

Early tattoo methods included using chisels, picks, or soot-covered thread which would be sewn through the skin.  After the invention of the tattoo machine in the 1891, tattooing steadily increased in popularity.

During the late 19th century and early 20th century, the tattoo remained a rare sight. Although they became a trend among the social elite, people generally considered those with tattooes as lower-class and freakish. Most people with tattoos either worked as sideshows in circus exhibitions or belonged to the military.

During the clean-cut era of the 1950s, people associated tattoos with Marlon Brando biker types, criminals, or juvenile delinquents. After a hepatitis outbreak, American authorities even started to ban or limit tattoos.  In the 1960s, the attitude of tattooing in popular culture radically shifted during the Tattoo Renaissance. Several influential artists in particular emerged including Sailor Jerry, Lyle Tuttle, Cliff Raven, Don Nolan, Zeke Owens, Spider Webb, and Don E. Hardy whose artwork still influences contemporary tattoo designs.

Circus Freaks


In 1936, Life Magazine said that only 6% of people were tattooed, and over 300 completely tattooed people were employed by circuses.


Around the turn of the 20th century, every major circus, carnival, and freak show employed people covered in body ink. Some worked in sideshows while others performed in traditional circus acts such as juggling and sword swallowing. Those with tattoos often earned a lucrative $200 or more per week (equivalent to $2,000 in today’s money!). The most famous tattooed man of this period was The Great Omi also known as the Zebra Man, who had his entire body and face covered with inch-wide zebra stripes.

Tattoos in the Military

Other than looking pretty badass, military tattoos representing a tour of duty also serve as a symbol of respect for the armed forces


Tattoos have a long and colorful tradition in the armed forces. Many military veterans get ink done to commemorate a particular unit or platoon, pledge loyalty to their country, to memorialize the loss of a fellow soldier, or mark battles and kills.

During the American Civil War, tattoo artists often worked near battlefields, creating tattoos dedicated to fallen soldiers, military life, and American patriotism. During both World Wars, soldiers and sailors frequented tattoo parlors for designs representing their units, courage, patriotism, defiance of death, and longing for family and loved ones left behind. Popeye and Betty Boop also became popular in the early 20th century among sailors.

Tattoos on Women

In order to lure the audience, ladies such as Ringling Brother’s Betty Broadbent told tales of captivity in which Native Americans had taken them hostage and tattooed them as a form of torture.

In the late 1800s, most women with tattoos belonged to the circus and had their entire bodies covered with ink. The sideshow industry eventually slowed down by the late 1920s putting them out of business.

Winston Churchill’s mother (pictured below), Lady Churchill, had a snake tattoo on her right wrist as well as bilateral nipple piercings.


Surprisingly enough at the end of the 19th century, tattooing gained a faddish popularity among the aristocracy including Queen Olga of Sweden, Princess Weldemar of Denmark, the Duchess Marlborough, and Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma, and Lady Churchill. However, positive associations with tattooing remained strictly limited among the elite.


“I wanted some decoration. See, the one on my wrist is for everybody; the one on my tit is for me and my friends… Just a little treat for the boys, like icing on the cake.”- Janis Joplin

Tattoo Pioneer, Lyle Tuttle did Janis Joplin’s Florentine bracelet tattoo on her outer wrist which represents Women’s Liberation. Unfortunately, no color pictures exist of the ink.

Women also sometimes used cosmetic tattooing such as blush for cheeks, colored lips, and eyeliner. However, it wasn’t until the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1960s that women with tattoos such as Janis Joplin began to slowly reemerge as a challenge against social concepts of beauty and femininity.

The Artists and their Style


Traditional Tattoos like those designed by Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins combine the roguish attitude of the American sailor with the mysticism of the Far East.

Traditional Tattoos, also known as Classic or Old-School Tattoos, refer to the style used between the early 1900s and 1960s. At that time, tattoo artists had a limited selection of ink colors and used bold black outlines with very little shading along with green, red, yellow, and the occasional blue or brown. Many vintage tattoos involve nautical themes, a tradition that comes from pirates like Captain Cook who started getting tattoos back in the 1700s. Other popular classic subjects included naval and armed forces emblems, pin-up girls, heart and dagger tattoos, eagle tattoos and Harley Davidson symbols which often included a banner with lettering. A particularly famous tattoo was the naked hula girl who when positioned properly on a bicep could swing her hips as the arm moved.


Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins regarded his tattoos as the ultimate rebellion against “the Squares.”

Japanese tattoos have inspired many Western tattoo artists, including British “King of the Tattooists” George Burchett, Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, Cliff Raven Ingram, and Don Ed Hardy.Sailor Jerry in particular impacted traditional tattooing. His trademark images, usually brightly colored, humorous, and nautically inspired, include bottles of booze, snakes, wild cats, eagles, falcons and other birds of prey, swallows, motor heads and pistons, nautical stars, classically styled scroll banners, knives, guns and other weapons, dice, and anchors.