Vintage tattoos use fairy-tale imagery, traditional colors and techniques refined over hundreds of years. For something less than ordinary, try mixing bright modern ink colors and images, with body-art traditions inspired by dark mysticism and famous vintage tattoo styles. To get the best design, choose a registered tattoo artist who has a comprehensive portfolio that includes vintage inspired work. Work together to create a final design that pays tribute to tattooing history, while being personal to you.
Famous vintage ink styles include sailor tattoos of the 19th century. During this time, European navies traveled the world, collecting images inspired by far away lands. In “The Decorated Body,” David Brain explains that the church clamped down on decorative tattooing during medieval times. So when body decoration made an exuberant comeback, sailor tattoos told tales of the high seas and adventure. They were also used as charms, for example a rooster was tattooed on the foot to prevent drowning. Vintage sailor images such as anchors, birds, mermaids, sea-monsters and sailing ships make classic tattoos, or you could just let the spirit of unknown adventure inspire a more personal design. Traditional sailor tattoos were drawn with dark navy or black ink. Each individual image is worn like a charm, so consider placement and symbolism carefully.
Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins (1911-1973) was one of most influential tattoo artists of the 20th century. Fans of Sailor Jerry wear each tattoo much like the original sailor charms. It’s easy to get a vintage tattoo inspired by this style, as most tattoo artists are familiar with Sailor Jerry’s work. Yet these classic 20th century inks are figurative, so you must check portfolios first to make sure you like the tattooist’s drawing style.
Sailor Jerry tattoos depict classic sailing motifs mixed with 20th century imagery, especially 1940s and ‘50s style. They are distinctive because they are simple pictures, filled in with warm colors and drawn with a smooth black outline. Birds, hearts, flowers, maidens and sailing ships form tiny stories. A bird flies through the air knotting a string of ribboned hearts or a ship sails home in a sea of roses. The classic color palette of black, blue, browns and red looks instantly vintage. Shading makes each image three-dimensional and softly rounded. For an unusual take on this, you could adapt the style to a modern picture. This style is ideal for those interested in burlesque or horror.
Japanese Irezumi tattooing originated in the Edo period, from the early 17th to mid 19th centuries. During this time, tattooing was reserved as a punishment but from this developed an art form that saw the whole body covered with a suit of ink. A modern look inspired by this vintage style is to have a single sleeve or leg tattooed. For an authentic look, stick to colors from the Edo period palette, such as blues, black red and dark shades. Original Irezumi designs use images from traditional story-telling, including dragons, carp and floral scenes.
Unusually, Irezumi takes note of how the body moves under the tattoos, placing images accordingly. For example, a tree may blow in wind when your shoulder moves. For something really unusual, apply this approach to a modern image.
For an up-to-date take on a vintage theme, try contrasting modern colored inks with old-fashioned illustrations from fairy tales. Names look beautiful when written in flowing, decorative vintage lettering. This looks unusual in itself because since the 1990s modern tattoos often simply have names written in a different language.
- "The Guardian"; Tattoos; Amalie Finlayson; March 2002
- Japanese Tattoos; Tebori, Horimono and Irezumi, What are the Differences; Joshua Andrews
- The Selvege Yard: The Legend of Sailor Jerry
- "The Decorated Body"; Robert Brain; 1979
- Art By Tattooists: Beyond Flash; Jo Waterhouse; 2009
- Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images