Old school tattoos usually feature big and bold designs with heavy black outlines that are filled with solid and vivid colors. Common old school tattoos include such images as mermaids, anchors, eagles, snakes, sparrows and daggers. Back in the old days, tattoo machines were rather primitive and the ink that was used didn’t include many of the colors that are available today and the skill of the artist was minimal.
Norman Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry, is considered the father of old school tattoos. Norman Collins joined the Navy at an early age and picked up tattooing during his time spent in Polynesia. Later, he settled in Hawaii where he opened a tattoo parlor. His clientele mainly consisted of sailors. This is where the style of old school tattoos is believed to have originated. This style is categorized by the simple and bold line work, with minimal shading. During the birth of old school tattoos, the majority of tattoo parlors were based on boardwalks or outside of military bases. Norman Collins was the most well known pioneer of this style. Flash sheets become popular during this time, allowing artists to display their work, which in turn allowed customers to choose their design more quickly. It wasn’t until many years later with the rise of custom tattoos that old school tattoos became what they are today, allowing the customer to have more control over the subject matter. The simple imagery and heavy line work has made old school tattoos one of the most iconic styles in the industry.
Old school tattoos were initially meant to represent different milestones in the sailor’s career or in remembrance of certain places they had been to. However, many images were also used as talismans. They were trusted to bring good luck or to ward off bad luck. Many sailors were superstitious because their work revolved around unpredictable elements.
Anchor tattoos stand for safety, security and stability. Of course the meaning behind anchor tattoos is also related to sailors and the navy or people who work on ships. In the navy, anchors were meant to symbolize the successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Anchors were also meant to symbolize faith.
Nautical stars were the most commonly found tattoo among sailors. This design represented the North Star, which was used for navigation when at sea.
Old school tattoos such as the dagger were meant to symbolize death, war, or justice. The knife or dagger appears in many military or patriotic tattoo designs or military crests and seals.
A sailor would get a sparrow tattoo for every five-thousand nautical miles traveled. Because of their migration pattern, a tattoo of a Swallow represented always being able to find your way home. Swallows also represented the flight of the departed soul.
A tattoo of a pig and a rooster traditionally symbolized the survival from a shipwreck. This is due to the fact that both of these animals were often kept in wooden crates on ships. When a ship would capsize, these crates would often float with the current and wash ashore.