Vintage Tattoos: Inkings That Stand The Test Of Time

Rose Hand Tattoos |
Rose Hand Tattoos @oldschooltattz

There are many new tattoo movements that are popular among body art enthusiasts right now. From tiny minimal designs that leave just a whisper of ink, to hyperrealistic designs that make you do a double take, tattoo trends of today are certainly something to behold. 

However, vintage tattoos still appeal to many, and they remain a popular request at tattoo studios around the globe. These old school tattoos have stood the test of time and remain sought after among the newer styles of today’s world.

But why? What makes this style of tattooing still so relevant? 

Let’s explore vintage tattoo designs that should still be considered when getting inked in the 21st century. 

Traditional American Ship Tattoo |
Traditional American Ship Tattoo @gaia_zeta

What Is The Old Style Tattoo Called?

Vintage tattoos go by a few names, including old school tattoos, traditional American style, and American classic. Many of these designs cross over into the sailor tattoo category. 

Tattoodo explains that this genre of body art,

“…is known for its bold lines, bright colors, and iconic designs like roses, anchors, and gorgeous lady heads…this style of tattooing is one of the most well-known and beloved aesthetics within the tattoo community.”

Lady Head Old School Tattoo |
Lady Head Old School Tattoo @gianlucaartico

What Is A Timeless Tattoo?

Classic American tattoos are often seen as timeless tattoos, even though the designs were created so long ago. 

Flash tattoo files are filled with old school designs. 

However, they’re not just considered timeless because of the bold designs and popularity – old school tattoos tend to age really well.

'Trust No One' Thigh Tattoo |
‘Trust No One’ Thigh Tattoo @alxbngala

What Makes A Tattoo Age?

One of the biggest causes of tattoo fading is UVA and UVB rays. These damaging rays of the sun break down tattoo ink, making a tattoo lose its vibrancy and fade. 

The style of tattoo you choose also has an impact on how ink will age. Bolder lines and darker inks tend to fade a lot slower than more minimalistic designs.  

“Bold, black text and traditional American tattoos still look badass when they fade. It’s kind of like how distressed jeans look cool […] This may seem excessive for most people, but planning how a tattoo will look as it ages will be a fist bump to yourself in the future,”


Another consideration if you want to keep your tattoo looking as fresh as possible for as long as possible is to choose a placement that isn’t in a high friction area.

Consistent rubbing can displace ink, creating a more faded look. Areas that take a lot of friction include the hands, feet, inner thighs, and hips.

Anchor and Flower Tattoo |
Anchor and Flower Tattoo @leonwalkertattoo

For A Timeless Tattoo That Resists Fading, You Should:

  • Keep your ink out of the sun or wear SPF
  • Stay hydrated and keep your skin moisturized
  • Choose a tattoo design with bold lines 
  • Opt for a tattoo placement that’s flat and isn’t prone to friction, such as the bicep, forearm, shoulder, or back
Old School Pin Up Girl Tattoo |
Old School Pin Up Girl Tattoo @alxbngala

What Are Sailor Jerry Tattoos?

The pioneer of traditional American tattoo design was a man named Sailor Jerry. He was an American who traveled around the country developing his tattoo style.

He went on to the navy, and, after World War Two, opened his own tattoo shop in Hawaii where he focused on sailor tattoos.

How Do You Come Up With Traditional Tattoo Designs?

There are many options when it comes to traditional tattoo designs, including:

Swallow and Anchor Tattoo |
Swallow and Anchor Tattoo @jonnyshand

Anchor Tattoos

Anchors represent stability and being able to stay on the path even when the elements are against you. 

Swallow Tattoos

Sailors used to get a swallow tattooed to represent that they’ve travelled 5,000 nautical miles. Swallows are also associated with returning home after a voyage. 

Skull Tattoos

A popular tattoo theme especially among people with dangerous jobs, a skull can represent one’s acceptance of death. 

Rose Tattoos

The rose is one of the most tattooed flowers in the world. When done in the traditional American style, the rose buds feature bold black lines and petals saturated in red, with little shading and a small amount of details. 

Pin Up Girl Tattoo |
Pin Up Girl Tattoo @alin_tattooer

Pin Up Girl Tattoos

Pin up girl tattoos represent an exaggerated form of femininity.

“The name ‘pin up’ came from the idea that men would pin photos or posters of these seductive women on their walls to gaze upon, in months spent apart from real life women,”

Custom Tattoo Design

Nautical Star Tattoos 

Navigation was a huge part of life at sea, so it stands to reason that a nautical star (representing the north star) became a popular tattoo choice among sailors. 

Heart Tattoos

Many sailors in the early 20th century got hearts tattooed on them to pay tribute to and remember their loved ones while they were away at war.

“A sailor staring down a long stint at sea – including the possibility of not returning home – often wanted a heart tattoo to keep his loved ones close,”

Sailor Jerry

You’ll find most if not all of these designs in flash portfolios of tattoo artists who specialize in old school ink. But you can change up some elements to make it more your own while keeping the traditional bold aesthetic. 

Face and Dagger Old School Tattoo |
Face and Dagger Old School Tattoo @andrewbtattooer

For example, you can add a banner to a heart, rose, or swallow tattoo with a date or name tattooed on it. Or, you could combine a pin up girl face with another tattoo, such as a dagger as we see in the above design. 

Make an appointment with your chosen tattoo artist and discuss options with them. Experienced tattooists will be able to give you different ideas and let you know what would look great and not so good. 

Swallow Tattoo |
Swallow Tattoo @skinart_traditional

There are many reasons why traditional American tattoos have stood the test of time. The meaning behind these tattoo designs still resonates with many people today, and the bold lines remain eye-catching.

This, combined with the fact that these inkings tend to stay vibrant for longer, and you have a style that will continue to be a popular choice for decades to come!

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