Oldschool Tattoos: History, Examples, Symbolism, New Ways of Usage

Oldschool (also written as “Oldskool”) is a traditional American and European tattoo style opening the tattoo tradition in the newest Western history. It can be called a bit rude: the graphics is characterized with bright colors (mostly solid red, yellow, green, blue) frames with bold black outlines. The shadowing is little or absent at all.

Sailors were the first who restored the tattoo practice on the West being in close contact with cultures of Polynesia and South-West Asia region, where picturing of bodies is a whole tradition. A term “tattoo” itself comes from Tahitian “ta-ttow”, which is a word imitation for the sound of Polynesian traditional tattoo-instrument in action.

Sailors depended a lot on the tricks of nature, so superstition was a quite widespread trait among them. Tattooing was like an act of symbolic defense against misfortunes on the sea. Also sailors put on their bodies portraits of their beloved girls left on the land or other symbols reminding about them. All these factors influenced a lot on the tradition of oldschool tattoo, which began to form in the end of 19th century. The most well-known classic oldschool motifs like swallows, anchors, mermaids, beautiful girls, hearts, roses, water, fishes, nautical stars roots exactly in the sailor way of life.

However the popularity of oldschool has been growing permanently though the 20th century until the style went far beyond the marine environments. Nowadays it’s one of the most widely distributed and fashionable tattoo art direction.

Let me presents some beautiful examples of modern oldschool I found on Pinterest.

Don’t forget to check out our Tattoo Salon Website Templates!


This ancient symbol was supposed to help a sailor not to go astray and to stay himself (“stay true”) in any case.

Anchor tatoo 3.

Anchor tatoo.

Anchor tatoo 4.

Anchor tatoo 2.


Traditionally a swallow is a tattoo a sailor gets once he passes 5000 nautical miles. This bird symbolizes luck and a fortunate returning home.


Swallow tatoo 2.

Swallow tatoo 3.

Swallow tatoo 4.

Swallow tatoo.


On the West roses symbolize the same as lotus on the East. It means love, but special pure love, which is close to Greek agape.


Rose tatoo 3.

Rose tatoo.

Rose tatoo 2.


Sailors were alone in their travels and projected their sexual dissatisfaction on tattoos. Except the portraits of left beloved ones, often they got a sexy girl, an impersonation of female attractiveness; in other case it was a devil-girl depicted with attributes of sin like alcohol, cards, dices. Often sailors inked themselves with beutiful mermaids.

Pinup tatoo.

Pinup tatoo 2.

Pinup tatoo 8.


Hearts are a symbol of romantic love in Western culture. The same meaning it has in oldschool tattoos, also associated with joy and happiness.


Heart tatoo.

Heart tatoo 5.

Heart tatoo 2.

Heart tatoo 3.


It’s the obvious marking of nautics. Later it became a symbol of freedom.

Ship tatoo 3.

Ship tatoo.

Ship tatoo 4.

Ship tatoo 5.

Ship tatoo 2.

Other Stuff

Stuff tatoo 4.

Stuff tatoo 3.

Stuff tatoo.

Stuff tatoo 2.

Recently oldschool tattos became the inevitable part of modern culture. Its aesthetics came out the sphere of inking the body. Now we can see it in different types of visual and animation art. The funniest thing about tattoo spreading I noticed not so long ago, when met the pictures of inked Disney characters.

But the most interesting evolution of the style leads us to the real life practical usage. The main precondition to this was a creation of Sailor Jerry Ltd., called after the nickname of a father of oldschool tattoo Norman Keith Collins.

Sailor Jerry Ltd. releases different accessories with classical oldschool illustrations: souvenirs, clothes, even alcohol. Converse launched a line of shoes depicting classical Sailor Jerry’s tattoos. And it was just a beginning. More and more products exploit the oldschool style.

You can ask how it’s connected with web design? Remember about logo you most probably see every day. Twitter.

I am not dare to state the authors of Twitter Bird were inspired by oldschool swallows, but I can assume. Even if I’m wrong, why you can’t?

I’d like to know what you think of oldschool tattoo style. Please comment.

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Written by

Allison Reed

Allison is a professional SEO specialist and an inspired author. Marketing manager by day and a writer by night, she is creating many articles on business, marketing, design, and web development. Follow her on LinkedIn and Facebook.


  • Julia Agnes
    June 11, 2013

    so inspiring…

    • ArtRivera
      June 11, 2013

      I’m glad to know that. =)

    • ArtRivera
      June 14, 2013

      Glad to know. =)

  • Kreativ Font
    November 6, 2013

    Nice … I’ve seen that many people are looking for tattoo fonts … It’s very interesting to see typography used in this way …

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