Tattoo Time Machine: Tattoo Trends Through the Years

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 10, 2020
    Last Updated: November 10, 2020

Tattoos have been around for hundreds of years. Ancient cultures in Japan and the Polynesian islands inspired European explorers even before the United States was a country. In fact, the word “tattoo” comes from the Polynesian term “tautau” translated into English.

As tattoos have experienced steady growth in popularity, many trends have evolved with it. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the largest tattoo trends over the decades.


The Beginning of the 20th Century

During the early parts of the 20th century, tattoos were frowned upon by upper-class society. However, they were growing in popularity amongst the working class, particularly amongst sailors and outcasts.

Tattoos of the time were usually small and simple, such as the classic anchor to signify someone was a sailor. What’s more, travelers used tattoos to tell their personal stories. For example, a turtle symbolized that someone had traveled beyond the equator, and a swallow meant they had journeyed 5000 miles. 

It was also common to see crosses and other religious symbols. Men were more likely to get tattoos, but women sometimes got them as well, particularly in places where they could hide them under clothing.

Circus Performers

The big exception to the rule regarding women’s tattoos was on the freak show circuit. People at the time were fascinated by tattoos, and tattooed men and women were a common sight amongst circus performers. 

A few women, in particular, would get tattooed from head to toe to find fame and as a means to support themselves without the assistance of a man. For instance, Nora Hildebrant was one of the first women to gain notoriety for being tattooed in this way. 

Nora would perform in freak shows, telling an elaborate story about how she was kidnapped by Sitting Bull, who forced her father, Martin Hildebrant (one of the first people to open a tattoo shop in the United States), to tattoo her over her entire body. Of course, the story was entirely fiction, but she attracted large crowds nevertheless.

Martin Hildebrandt

Three Decades of Marginalization 

As the century progressed, tattoos were mostly relegated to sailors and the lower classes. However, there were several exceptions. For example, in the roaring twenties, women often had cosmetic effects tattooed on their bodies, such as eyebrows and tinted cheeks. 

In this way, they avoided having to put on expensive makeup every day. Still, many women were reluctant to tell anyone given how tattoos were viewed in society.

By the 1930s, tattoos remained mostly frowned upon, but with certain exceptions. For instance, when social security numbers were assigned, many had them tattooed to remember them. This practice was not seen as unseemly like other tattoos.

1940s – American Traditional Style

The 1940s saw several talented artists begin to develop new tattooing techniques and styles. Norman Keith Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry, is credited with creating the American Traditional style of tattooing. More colors were introduced during this time, although nautical and military designs were still the most common.

1950s – Masculine Symbolism

In the 1950s, it was common for men who had been soldiers in World War II to sport tattoos. For this reason, tattoos became a symbol of masculinity. At the time, the Marlboro Man was shown in cigarette ads with a small tattoo on his hand. Still, the scientists of the era were studying the correlation between appearance and criminality, and tattoos were typically judged negatively.

1960s – Peace and Love

An unfortunate outbreak of hepatitis in New York City was blamed on a famous tattoo parlor in the 1960s, which led many to avoid becoming inked during this time. However, celebrities had access to the famous tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle. Peace signs were common, as well as bracelet designs such as the one sported by Janis Joplin. For bikers, this was the age of the skull and crossbones.

1970s – Self Expression

By the 1970s, tattoo art was beginning to gain legitimacy. It wasn’t just for military men and sailors anymore and became far more mainstream thanks to tattoos artists like Norman Keith Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry. Intricate designs were popular, and this was the era of full sleeves and bodysuit tattoos.

Norman Keith Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry

1980s – Rock and Roll Rebellion

The 1980s continued to see growth in the popularity of tattoos. It was common for rockstars to show their ink and many people followed suit. Larger tattoos became more popular, and bold linework was all the rage. This is also the decade that spawned the Celtic knot design.

1990s – Celebrity Influence

There were a lot of trends in the 1990s as celebrities spread the popularity of tattoos. Thanks to Pamela Anderson, barbed wire became a common sight. During this time, upper arm tattoos were big. Popular designs included Chinese letters, sun tattoos, and tribal designs.

2000s – Location Changes

The 2000s were all about different locations for tattoos. While many of the popular designs for the 90s remained so, people began getting tattoos all over different parts of their bodies. For women, the lower back was a prevalent spot to have tattooed. Plus, Rihanna burst on the music scene, making star wave tattoos widespread. Other trending designs were butterflies and yin yangs.

2010s – Creativity Rules the Day

By the time the 2010s rolled around, tattoos were widely accepted. Thanks to TV shows like Ink Masters and social media, everyone began getting tattoos. With the internet, people could look up designs and possible tattoo locations to find exactly what they wanted. 

Small finger tattoos became popular during this time and remain so today. The novelty mustache on the finger continues to be a popular trend, as well as feathers, sleeves, and intricate designs.

Today’s Trends

Today, there are a lot of different tattoo trends. Black and white tattoos are popular, as well as watercolor. Some people are even having their armpits tattooed. Tattooing has become a thriving art form that has attracted many talented artists, making it an ideal time to get a tattoo.

No matter what, tattooing isn’t going away anytime soon. While specific trends will rise and fall, people will continue to harness the medium for its power of self-expression and creativity.