Neo traditional tattoos are composed around distinct portraits of individuals, animals or sometimes objects. They are drawn with clear outlines, framed in decorative patterns and richly colored in muted styles. Tattoo artists use modern techniques to merge traditional themes with diverse imagery into stunningly detailed and timeless works of art.
These days there are numerous styles of tattoos to choose from, old and new. But if you want a modern expression of skin art that draws on inspiration with long roots going back to past eras in America, Europe and Asia, then take some time to learn about neo-traditional tattoos.
Old and New Traditions
Like new school, neo-traditional tattoos emerged with West Coast artists transforming the heavy lines of monochrome inking with finer designs and careful use of colors. But where the new school turned to the contemporary pop culture of cartoons and graffiti for inspiration, neo-traditional artists looked far beyond, to older American traditions. These were particularly American Indian on the one hand, and the Art Deco movement of the 1920s on the other.
Art Deco was itself a surge forward that ignited after the end of the ‘Great War’ as a mash-up of many previous art styles. The distinctive use of lines and patterns that modern tattoo artists imitate, however, can be traced to pre-war European Nouveau Art. This art movement was born out of the discovery of the intricate and heavily stylized decorative styles that arrived in Europe in the mid-1800s, as Japan broke out of nearly three centuries of self-imposed isolation.
As the industrial revolution geared up, Art Nouveau entered popular culture in fashion and other mass-produced consumer goods. Names still well known now, like Monet, Degas and Van Gogh, quoted the Japanese influence as groundbreaking and with it called for a ‘return to nature.’ The juxtaposition of faces, objects and stylized natural patterns that neo-traditional tattoos have taken from Art Deco can thus be directly traced to traditional Japanese art.
The interest in nature, and more so in shamanistic connections with nature, also help explain the continued appearance of Indian American imagery. Familiar objects like war bonnets and animist totems identify the neo-traditional style as distinctly American.
But the repeated occurrence of figures draped in animal skins and heads with a second set of mystical eyes bewildering the observer, also reveals the fascination with otherworldly themes brought into neo-traditional designs.
Aside from shamanistic images, there are other common themes in the neo-traditional ‘tradition.’
Whereas the closely related new school features wide canvases of interacting characters, artists working in the neo-traditional style concentrate on realistic heads and torsos—sometimes also wild predators—that are near photographic in detail.
The portrait of a coiffured, dark-haired 1920s swinger is often the centerpiece, adorned with jewelry and art objects from that period.
The precise detail is achieved with fine lines, detailed patterns and careful color shading. If it wasn’t for the clearly artistic framing with stylized natural elements, the realism achieved sometimes resembles photoshopped digital portraits.
Neo-Traditional tattoos also frequently draw on wildlife images. The head of a wolf, a fox or a vulture ready to strike adds to the inherent tension often encountered.
Other inks can have a butterfly, a beetle or even a snake coiled inside a jar, suggesting that stories and explanations accompany these images.
In other instances, one can find beautifully represented Americana from 1930s culture, like a hand-operated gramophone, a rose petal, a traditional anchor or an ‘old-fashioned’ UFO.
The use of stylized icons is widespread, with more mundane shapes representing fruit, birds or other natural objects like a pine cone.
The “traditional” aspect stems from a time when tattoos identified the seasoned Navy sailor, who collected tattoos from distant ports like souvenirs. Often these were patriotic symbols like the American flag, eagles, daggers, ships or anchors.
This tendency to abstract icons lends itself also to religious meanings, like an eye inside a triangle standing for the gaze of god; or an abstract fish as an anagram of the name Jesus in Greek. Less spiritual but equally meaningful can be abstract objects like a key, a lantern or horns growing out of human heads.
Again and again, studying examples of this school, one finds dark-haired women pensively gazing past the observer. With heavy eyeliner and dark eyelashes, matching dark, short and wavy hair, and with the beaded jewelry common in the 1920s and 30s, the Great Gatsby era look is unmistakable.
But these modern women, and sometimes also male figures, are often pulled back into a mystical world with a crown of an animal head that looks more like a live alter ego than a preserved decoration.
The animalistic element is reinforced with images drawn from traditional American Indian culture, invoking the same ‘return to nature’ inspiration the Art Nouveau tradition of the late 19th century celebrated.
The Art of Neo-Traditional Tattoos
For the practicing tattoo artist, neo-traditional is challenging but at the same time, liberating. Tradition offers a solid grounding for the artist to introduce modern motifs that reflect your values and their style, using modern technology to achieve long-established techniques.
As a modern style, new traditional designs appear quite different but share the same techniques with American traditional tattoos. The heavy outlining of shapes, for instance, continues consistently in this style.
The rich and lush colors typically have a subdued Victorian tone embellished with velvet and lace patterns as if copied from colonial arts and crafts. Thanks to the use of modern pigments and the characteristic clean borders of this school, these inks will endure much longer than tattooists of previous eras could have hoped for.
Tattoo artists have come a long way since decorating Navy mariners with anchors and Marilyn Monroe portraits. With neo-traditional tattoos, it’s possible to connect with ancient and historical art, and especially different traditions of re-imagining nature.
Tattoos are a unique way of discovering your own values and attitudes. If you are a reincarnated American Indian or Daisy Buchanan, then this school of tattoos will immediately appeal to you.
How to Pick a Suitable Design
Neo-traditional tattoos, in many ways, are non-conformist like other modern schools. That can be to your benefit in allowing the artist to incorporate your ideas, stories and values in a way that you can relate to. However, it can also make it harder to narrow down your ideal ink.
Once you begin talking to a particular artist, he or she should have existing work for you to look at. The style and type of imagery used will already help generate some ideas.
If your artist is on Instagram or some other online media, you can take your time to deeper explore their work. And why not test the reactions of friends or those that are close to you, to compare your own?
You’re probably reading this page to find out more about the neo-traditional school, so continue on to look for examples of what different tattoo artists have created under the same heading. If the neo-traditional school appeals to you as much as us, then carefully look at your favorite designs to find out why they appeal.
Stand back and note why the picture draws you in. Is it the face or how it’s framed? Where are the eyes looking? How are the colors used? What does it bring to mind?
Now, look closer and examine the details. What patterns create the appeal? How are the colors working for you? How are the subjects framed?
And also look at the arrangement on the skin canvas. Is your skin a similar tone? How do the body contours enhance the composition? How is the available space used in the scene?
Once you have spent time looking at different designs objectively, you will be ready to return to your chosen artist to explain your expectations and interests so that they can create your personal masterpiece.
Neo-Traditional Tattoos on Your Body
The stunning designs of modern tattoo artists are likely to be the centerpiece of any ink art on your body. If there is no other competing artwork on you, by all means, have it placed on your shoulder or another discrete location where you can give it prominence for best effect when and where you please.
Neo-traditional tattoos can be very intense and self-contained, so often they appear on calves or entire limbs. When the design uses that body shape, e.g., with floral or reptile patterns circling around the back, the effect can be very dramatic.
With the whole of your back as a canvas, the visual impact can be even more arresting. A talented tattoo artist can create impressive scenes with faces, animals and abstract elements intricately arranged. Just be prepared to stand still for minutes as viewers delight in the detail.
The advantage is that the area can be kept out of sight when you’re just going about your daily business. Unless, of course, you have an arm or a tentacle reaching out of the collar of your shirt.