Tattoo Trends Through the Decades

Tattoo Trends Through the Decades

It's been a long time since the first tattoos on earth. 3200 BC to be exact, shout out to Otzi the Iceman, for letting us know how old tattoos actually are. Tattoo history is rich with medicinal use, coming of age and symbols of journeys taken. At the start of the 1900s they weren’t seen as acceptable and then as society slowly crept towards where we are today, they became an art form. The styles and trends have evolved over the years as well but lots have made their comebacks in time as well. Tattoos act a bit like fashion, certain trends and styles are not for everyone but no matter what, as long as you’re happy with it, that’s all that matters. 

The 1910s saw the rise of tattoos becoming something or a way to point out sailors, circus performers and criminals. They were not viewed as sociable as most of the tattoos that were gotten were to show off their profession or the life of crime that they had lived. Sailors would get tattoos as a form of initiation and identification. Getting tattoos to signify what crew they belonged to made it a lot easier to return the body someone had found washed ashore. They would also get them to signify what achievements they had received while sailing. Such as a swallow to indicate they had travelled over 5000 miles. Circus performers would often cover themselves in tattoos and be a part of the ‘Freak Show’ segments. In most cases they were covered neck to toe, not a lot of them ventured to face tattoos quite yet but there were a few that were bold enough. These tattoos were done by hand poking the ink into the skin, basically your average stick and poke. Probably a lot more dangerous however. 

The 1920s and 30s were very similar to the 10s, tattoos were still not seen as socially acceptable but they were some more experimental tattoos around as well as one type of acceptable one. The 20s saw the rise of the start of cosmetic tattoos, which were permanent makeup. Back then makeup was expensive so women would get it tattooed to avoid having to buy countless products with the little money they had. Of course, tattoos were still seen as taboo so they often would pretend it was just your average type of makeup. Back tattoos became a little bit of a fun secret for some everyday people as well, as they were easily covered. The 30s still had the same principles but due to America introducing social security numbers they would tattoo it on their skin, so they wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of remembering it. Apparently learning numbers was not a strong suit back then. The 30s is believed to be where ‘tattoo parlours’ became a thing, just in the back of businesses or in their homes but it could be the starting point. 

With the start of World War 2, it was time to get a bit patriotic. Soldiers got their countries flag or their military insignia tattooed on them to show off who they were and sometimes used as a way to identify the bodies. Nautical tattoos also became popular, mainly from the amount of sea travel and fighting that was being done. Tattoos also became popular with women, due to the fact that they now had countries to run in the men’s absence. They started taking on their tattoos as well, patriarchal and nautical ones as well. Even Rosie The Riveter’s iconic slogan became a popular tattoo choice for both men and women. Due to the boom in popularity, tattoos weren’t just for sailors, criminals and circus performers anymore, they were becoming a lot more socially acceptable. Betty Broadbent was the first tattooed model seen on television, she originally did this to prompt sales for her circus but it was a way to show off how woman’s beauty came in many shapes and forms. This was also the period where Sailor Jerry (Normal Collins) introduced colour to tattoos. His designs are still extremely popular to this day, such as Sailor Jerry Sleeves and his original work as well. 

And then it immediately turned back around. In the 50s women were sent back home to care for the children and their husbands and men took over the work again. Tattoo progression took two steps backwards and was seen as taboo again. Yet they were also seen as a sign of manliness but also as something that only criminals could have. It was a confusing time that’s for sure. 

The 60s was all about protest and empowerment to the minorities. These protests were often tattooed onto people’s bodies in a show of support and their ideas about the world. With the Vietnam war, a lot of sailors and soldiers were seen with angry and even racist tattoos while people against the war were seen with the iconic peace symbols and slogans protesting against the war. Women’s Rights movements were also a big thing, the first birth control pill was made, women were burning their bras and getting new tattoos to show off that they were angry and willing to fight to be able to exist without a man. Janis Joplin was famous for her music as well as her iconic wrist tattoo in this era. She was one of the first tattooed celebrities and her Florentine bracelet even made the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine. Even in her death, her tattoo remained a symbol of change as many of her fans copied the tattoo as a tribute towards her. 

Continuing onto the 70s, here comes the punks. The punk movement opened up the world to the unconventional looks, piercings and tattoos were the style along with the spiked up hair and DIYed clothing. As much as punks were the outliner and the non-confirming people of society, tattoos were becoming a lot more accepted. This was also the start of sleeve tattoos and body pieces, no long were tattoos just a solo picture next to another picture (which is still a great style) they were becoming larger pieces of work and drawing in a lot more interest. This was also the beginning of more flowy and diverse pieces of the art, trad style being a little more left behind and art with unicorns and fairies and other more traditionally ‘feminine’ art pieces came around. More women were also getting into the scene and the 70s saw the rise of female artists. Lots of love and care were being put into the pieces and tattoos started to be considered pieces of fine art alongside traditional art pieces. 

Now for the 80s, big hair, even bigger personalities, glam rock, MTV, even more punks and rebellion. It was a time of experimentation with tattoos and things such as the Celtic knot became popularised. Big black bold lines were what people searched for in a tattoo in this time and colour was becoming something everyone wanted as well. Tattoos were still drawing inspiration from fine art as well in this time, there were so many styles and types to choose from it was almost impossible. MTV and other outlets were also a fantastic way to get people into tattoos, much like how everyone got Janis Joplin’s tattoo, people were seeing their favourite bands and solo artists with their tattoos and feeling inspired. The 80s was so full of rebellion and idolisation that tattoos were finally seen as somewhat socially acceptable. This is also where tattoo needles became thinner and ink was better quality, improving the healing processes and overall finish of the tattoo. People’s bodies were seen as canvases and a great place to hang up some art, a big improvement from the early days where tattoos were seen as being a freak. 

Once again, the 90s saw big feminist movements in the music world. Riot Grrrls were created because of the overbearing presence of men in the music industry. These girls were famous for their angry music and tattoos. Women were getting more tattoos than men and saw the rise of the ever classic butterfly tattoos, it was also common practice for breast cancer survivors to cover up their scars with beautiful pieces to feel like themselves again. Permanent makeup also makes its reappearance.  It also saw the rise in tattoos such as Chinese characters and tribal, just a little bit of cultural appropriation due to the fact that these tattoos were often mistranslated and tribal tattoos still hold a fair amount of meaning to the cultures that they originated from. Whoops. If you are looking to get any Chinese characters tattooed, make sure you go to a trusted source to get the correct character you want. Apart from that, celebrities other than Riot Grrrls were making tattoos a look. Pamela Anderson had her iconic wrap around barbed wire tattoo on her upper arm and Sporty Spice was known for her tattoos as well, not to mention Cher as well. Male celebrities were also showing off their ink more and more, rappers such as Tupac, Eminem and 50 cent and Sean Connery and Dennis Rodman were all inked up. What a decade. 


And the one we’ve all been waiting for, the most iconic tattoo, the tramp stamp in the early 2000s. The lower back tattoo is timeless and many people still get them today. The naughties introduced new school tattoos, as all of the cartoons that people get in new school were emerging and becoming more and more wide spread and known. Popular tattoos were the tribal tramp stamps, butterflies and yin and yang symbols. In America, patriotic tattoos also returned after 9/11 as a way to honour the people that lost their lives. Tattoos even got their own reality shows such as LA Ink, which paved the way for artist Kat Von D. Many women were inspired by her to get tattoos, celebrity influence still strong, and there were even studies done about how women with lower self esteem didn’t have tattoos while higher self esteemed women did. Which is true, tattoos are known to make people feel more comfortable in their own bodies. Not to mention because of how mainstream tattoos were becoming, the practice was becoming more safe and research was being put into how to keep infections at bay. 

The 2010s introduced micro tattoos, remember the moustache craze where people were dying to get a moustache on their finger? Finger tattoos and small fine line pieces rose to popularity at this point. Tattoos as a whole were something that everyone wanted, they were the trend and the norm to beauty standards. Instagram and Tumblr were in their early days and with their picture sharing abilities, tattoos were everywhere and it was very easy to find inspiration to what you wanted. As well as more tattoo reality shows were becoming more and more popular and easier to access through the internet. Laser removal for tattoos also became something that was safe to access, so the threat of a tattoo being there forever wasn’t as daunting anymore, it didn’t take a cover up or something a lot more drastic to get rid of them. 

Tattoos have come a long way and there are still more things to come for tattoos. The future could hold a million things for the industry. Plus a lot of workplaces are becoming more chill with visible tattoos and having to hide them away isn’t the first thing you have to think about while getting ready for work anymore. There’s so many things that can happen in a few years, the future of tattooing is still a mystery but we all know it’s only going to get more fun and something that will never die out. 

- Eliza Catford

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