What makes a tattoo “Traditional”? Some folks mistake a traditional tattoo for one that is poorly drawn, and certainly the old days had their fair share of mediocre artists. On the other hand there were plenty of amazing tattooers, and the real reason for the simple style of drawing was twofold. First, in the ‘old days’ of traditional tattooing (1920’s to 1960’s) the primary clientele was soldiers and sailors, these groups would come in on leave from training or on shore leave from their ships. . .and they all came in at once! In order to pump out 100 tattoos in one day what was required was an art style that could be applied quickly, with strong graphic qualities, and that would be able to survive the less than ideal healing process most military folk put their new ink through.
Second, the technology of tattooing was different than we have today. there were no purpose built tattoo needles, the artists of the day had to use whatever sort of pins they could acquire from wholesale needle makers, these pins were suited for sewing but less than ideal for tattooing. To overcome the limitations a large group of needles were used for the outline, this resulted in a bold line that made up for the individual pins weaknesses AND meant that a line that would last could be applied in one pass. The drawback to such a bold outline is that small details wont work, faces had to be simplified on pin up girls and lettering had to be simple and straightforward to stand the test of time. The combination of the strong graphic quality and the need for designs that could be applied quickly resulted in what we came to call “traditional” tattooing.
I did this rose today on the back of Cara’s thigh, although I drew it from scratch I tried to remain faithful to the traditional aesthetic.
Another trait that an authentic ‘traditional’ tattoo has is a very limited color palette. In the same way that needles were not made for tattooers neither were pigments, in fact most pigments contained ingredients back then that could be hazardous in a tattoo. Tattooers would often order powdered pigment from a paint supplier and do a test patch in their own leg, if it didn’t flare up, cause a reaction or burn then it was considered safe to use as tattoo ink. In the old days the only colors that could be reliable applied without a customer getting ill were black, green, red, and yellow (and red was still pretty iffy. . . ) To this day a traditional tattoo looks the most genuine when only those colors are used, as soon as a little blue or purple gets put in there it ceases to have that old-school sailor look.
Whether done on purpose or a happy accident, it turned out that traditional tattoos had a great ability to remain readable and hold up for decades. Lots of old military folk have a pin up girl or eagle on their arm over 50 years old and most of them are still clear enough to read the faces and feather details. Lets hope Caras rose looks that good when she is 70!