Tattoo trends through the years


When customers start looking for their first piece of ink, they can be tempted by new fads and trends. However, sometimes that might not be the best decision for someone’s lifelong artwork. A good way to keep your tattoo customers happy with what is typically a lifelong commitment is to steer them toward a wider variety of ink styles that span several eras. Here are a few highlights from the top tattoo trends over the years.

The Original Tattoos

Tattoos over time have evolved into amazing pieces of artwork. When tattoos were first invented, they most often took the form of lines or geometric shapes. In Ancient Europe, tattoos were applied to the body by making incisions and rubbing charcoal into the wounds. In other parts of the world like Samoa, soot or pigments were applied to sharp instruments made from turtle shell or boar’s teeth.

Tattoos from the 1800s

Tattoos first became known in the Western world after Captain James Cook returned from his travels to the South Pacific. After this, they enjoyed a short burst of popularity among upper class Londoners. Soon after, entertainers such as boxer John O’Reilly and circus performer Emma de Burgh began appearing in public displaying ornate tattoos. The designs often borrowed from Renaissance Era art and featured figures like saints and cherubs.

Tattoos over time

1920 Tattoos

Many would be surprised to learn that this era saw a rise in cosmetic tattoos on women, an early precursor to today’s permanent makeup tattoos. Women would have procedures done to avoid the expense of makeup. While some viewed tattoos as taboo, it remained prevalent with sailors, circus performers and more. Sailors would often get tattoos as symbols of the places they had traveled. A turtle shell symbolized crossing the equator, for instance. They’d also get tattoos for luck, such as swallows to help them always return home.

The classic “Sailor Jerry” style tattoo began to emerge in this era. These designs are characterized by dark outlines, minimal shading and bright, graphical color. Sailor Jerry, actual name Norman Collins, joined the Navy started a tattoo crazy with US soldiers. Tattoos were seen as an expression that belonged to the counterculture that was rising in America. 

While far from mainstream, tattoos were seen more among soldiers, bikers and others. Flash art, which could be reproduced quickly on a customer’s skin, became more and more popular and drove the era’s tattoo trends. The 1970s saw a rise in mystical designs like wizards, fairies and castles. Bikers would sport death-related designs that included flaming skulls or the Grim Reaper.

1920 tattoos

1990s Tattoos through Today

The rise of Grunge was paired with a growing mainstream acceptance of tattoos and other body art. Improved technology and better inks meant that greater degrees of shading were now possible. A resurgence in interest in tattoo’s origins led to the rise of black tribal tattoos. Tattoos are no longer just for artists, sailors or others in more unconventional or creative professions; professionals in a range of fields sport visible ink. More people are appreciating the artwork, passing up flash from the walls in favor of custom designed work applied by skilled artists in clean, hygienic shops.

In addition, reality TV shows such as Miami Ink had a big impact on normalizing tattoos and tattoo culture.

The Takeaway

  • Tattoos are a symbolic artwork, going back thousands of years.
  • You should encourage customers to look at designs from many eras instead of choosing what’s trendy today.
  • Tattooing is NOW a more respected form of art .
  • Today’s tattoo customers expect clean, brightly lit, safe shops.
  • The shops that will thrive are the ones that are staffed by trained and respectable professionals.

No matter how things change in the tattoo design world, one thing remains constant: to protect your artists and your shop, you need proper insurance coverage. Marine Agency Corp specializes in providing coverage to unique businesses like tattoo shops and understands the specific needs of businesses like this. Get in touch today to discuss your insurance options.

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