When you look around today you are more likely to find someone who is tattooed than someone who is not. Styles range from Neo-Japanese, to the ancient tradition of Tā moko, to modern Blackwork. However, in western culture, there is none more enduring than Old School/Traditional style, signified by clean black outlines, bright colours and minimal shading. They include designs such as the pin-up girl, hearts, anchors and daggers.
Old School/Traditional tattoos can be traced back to the 1700s, when those on the fringes of society began using them to visually disassociate from cultural norms. They became a symbol of rebellion and a quest for a different kind of existence. Throughout their history no singular profession has adopted them more passionately than sailors.
Much of a sailor’s enthusiasm for the art is due to the tradition within sailor communities of observing and perpetuating long-held superstitions. Where they might once have taken a lucky silver coin or a lock of their lover’s hair for comfort and protection upon their vessels, upon their discovery of tattooing they started to use it as a way of creating permanent and powerful talismans.
Maritime symbols hold specific meanings and so are chosen as tattoos to prevent circumstances a sailor might want to avoid. For example, the North Star (Nautical Star or compass rose), is used to mitigate the possibility of a sailor becoming lost at sea. An anchor stops them from floating away from his boat should they fall overboard. One of the more curious is the symbol of a hen, an animal incapable of swimming, and thought to receive the direct assistance of God should it find itself adrift.
By the end of the 20th century, it is believed that 90% of US Navy sailors proudly sported some form of ink. This can partially be attributed to the meteoric rise of Norman Keith Collins aka “Sailor Jerry”, in the 1930s. Prior to setting up his first tattoo shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, nearby the US naval base in Pearl Harbour, he practiced his art on drunks on Skid Row. During this time, he became accustomed to the motion of the needles and refined his skill, but was yet to find his own distinctive tattooing style.
This would arrive when he joined the US Navy himself, and became exposed to the art of Southeast Asia. The vibrancy of the work he loved most during his travels would later encourage him to develop his own colour pigments and single-needle tattooing, preventing skin trauma and colour bleed, allowing him to create the clean lines and lively colouration that became synonymous with Old School/Traditional tattooing.
Tattoos have a rich cultural history that touch every corner of the globe. Some contribute to a rite of passage, others signify deep bonds between humans and nature, and there are those that are purely decorative. Like folklore, they have evolved, moulding to place and time, altered by brave pioneers and visionaries. Modifying the body with ink is more popular today than ever, and in its broadest sense, remains a visual signifier of community, preventing individuals from feeling lost at sea.