I know it when I see it, but I’ve been struggling for weeks to come up with a way to explain the difference between old school and new school tattoos. I have finally figured it out! The Old School style of tattooing seen in the earlier half of the 20th century used symbols that celebrated patriotism and similar values and were done by electric tattoo machines.
OLD SCHOOL, or traditional, tattoos utilize bold, black outlines and incorporate classic “flash” designs, premade designs that could be selected right off the wall at the tattoo parlor. Sailing ships, big-breasted women, American flags, banner hearts with the word “MOM” lettered inside, pin-up girls, Hawaiian beauties, anchors, roses, spiders, sharks, hearts split in two by a raging torpedo with the word “BUSTED!” scrawled in dark ink, jewels, treasure, eagles, playing cards, cobras, crosses and ornamented skulls are all examples of old school ink. Even the sparrow, which is a very popular trend currently, is an old school tattoo.
“Sailor Jerry”, born Norman Collins, is considered the forefather of the old school movement. After becoming a sailor at age 19, he opened a tattoo shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, known primarily as a romping ground for swaggering sailors and drunken soldiers. These men were not interested in high-quality tattoos complete with shading and detail; all they wanted was something they could show off to their friends. Although old school tattoos can certainly still be gotten today, you might be more likely to see examples of this style on the forearms of crusty old sailors and retired war veterans.
After the second world war, tattoos started to become associated with gangsters and juvenile delinquents. When shoddy sterilization practices sparked an outbreak of hepatitis in 1961, the scene was forced even further underground. But after new legislation was passed and updated health codes were implemented, interest was renewed by a younger generation which forged the NEW SCHOOL style we see today. New technology combined with fresh ideas has resulted in tattoos that are bold, and bright and utilize heavy outlines.