Tattoos are far from a modern invention – they’ve been around for hundreds of years. Did you know that the first tattoo machine was invented in 1891? We didn’t either! It took another 80 years f...

100 Years Of Ink: Tattoo Fads By The Decade

Tattoos are far from a modern invention – they’ve been around for hundreds of years. Did you know that the first tattoo machine was invented in 1891? We didn’t either! It took another 80 years for tattooing to become an accepted, mainstream idea, though.

Each decade has brought a change in tattoo culture, so we wanted to explore the most popular tattoos trends from the humble beginnings of the artform, up until now. These are the top tattoo fads from the last 100 years, starting in 1910.

Tattoos in the 1910s

Historical Woman Getting a Tattoo

Early in the 20th century, tattoos were reserved mostly for sailors and circus performers. Those who did sport ink during the 1910s and earlier were usually using their tattoos to tell a personal story. The most common reasons that people had tattoos during this time was to signify their jobs (like anchors, for sailors). The majority of society during the early 20th century was pretty religious, as well, so it was common to see tattoos showing religious symbols.

Maud Wagner Portrait

Remember, during the 1910s, only the outcasts and seamen were tattooed for the most part. Circus folk were frequently tattooed, and you could get tattoos done at various circus shows as well. They would bring samples when they travelled, which was the first example of flash.

For sailors, it was just a part of their journey to get inked at a parlour near their port. They would get tattoos once they arrived which would symbolize the length of their journey. A swallow, for instance, would mean that the soldier had travelled 5,000 miles, and a turtle would mean that they had crossed the equator.

Tattoos in the 1920s

Woman with Eyebrow Tattoos

During the roaring ‘20s, it was still largely uncommon to see tattoos on the majority of society – at least the traditionally designed tattoos. During this decade, permanent cosmetics became popular among women, so a lot of the ladies of this time were sporting subtle ink on their faces. They would try to match the popular makeup trends seen in Hollywood, but makeup was expensive during the 20s, and it wasn’t the greatest quality. Many women would do the next best thing; they would get cosmetic tattoos like permanent eyebrows, cheek tinting, and lip contouring, so there was no need to buy and use makeup on a daily basis.

Still, though, tattoos were mostly the domain of sailors, hobos, carnival folk, and criminals at this point. That’s why a lot of women who had cosmetic tattoos would keep it a secret – even if that was the fad of the time.

Tattoos in the 1930s

Social Security Tattoo

In the 1930s, a newfangled thing called social security numbers came out, so everyone had to memorize their personal SSN. Not everyone found memorizing a series of numbers easy, so they tattooed the number onto themselves.

Society still wasn’t keen on body art, but getting your SSN tattooed onto yourself was seen more as a necessity than anything else. Regular people who had these tattoos weren’t lumped into the same societal category that other tattooed people would be in; it was still mostly criminals, sailors, and performers who sported tattoos for the most part.

Social Security Tattoo on a Woman

Tattoo artist Jenny puts it bluntly: “If my Grandma were still alive, she may have pointed out that tattoos are for sailors and ‘loose women,’ but she was born in the ’30s, so that’s understandable”. This was a common sentiment among people of the 1930s, with the exception of the SSN tattoos.

Tattoos in the 1940s

Sailor Jerry Style Tattoos Covering a Body

By the 1940s, tattoo styles were changing a little bit thanks to a couple of talented artists. Tattoo artists started adding colors into their designs, and the iconic “Sailor Jerry” tattoo style was born. Tattoo artist Norman Keith Collins, AKA Sailor Jerry, created his own pigments and added them to his designs.

Sailor Jerry Tattoos

Another artist, Gus Wagner, can also be attributed to the traditional style of tattooing that we know today. During this time period, tattoos were all about bold motifs, and colorful designs. Colors could be brighter than the previous traditional red, green, yellow, blue or browns, but these were still common tattoo colors in the Sailor Jerry designs.

Sailor Jerry Tattooing a Woman

It was still most common to see a lot of nautical and military themed tattoos during this decade, just with added colors. Patriotic tattoos were common as well, as WWII was going on. Women stepped up to the plate and entered the workforce, and we see some (not many) ladies getting patriotic ink as well.

A lot of these designs are timeless, and you’ll still see Sailor Jerry tattoos to this day.

Modern Sailor Jerry Tattoos on Arms

Tattoos in the 1950s

Ship Tattoo on a Chest

Tattoos in society shifted once again during this decade. Tattoos became a symbol of masculinity – ever notice that the infamous uber manly Marlboro man was inked? That wasn’t a coincidence. He was a bad boy, and bad boys in the 50s had tattoos.

Still, academics during this time were trying to link physical appearance with criminal behaviour, so people with tattoos fell victim to these baseless theories. Because of the widespread opinion on this, though, only the “outcasts”, once again, were predominantly sporting tattoos in society.

Some common designs that you would see were still nautical themed; anchors and ships, and chest tattoos, specifically, were most popular during this time.

Tattoos in the 1960s

Lyle Tuttle Full Body Tattoos

During the 1960s, there was an outbreak of Hepatitis in New York, and tattoo parlors were supposedly to blame. It’s said that the outbreak was due to improper cleaning and hygiene procedures. Because of this, a lot of people held back on getting inked during this time period. Celebrities, however, did not. They had access to one of the best tattoo artists of the 60s, Lyle Tuttle.

Janis Joplin's Wrist Tattoo

Janis Joplin was one of his most famous clients. Tattoos were mostly seen in the media during this decade, aside from bikers and the usual “unsavory” folk. Skull and crossbones were frequently seen on bikers during the 60s. Patriotic tattoos weren’t as popular during this decade, because a lot of people were unhappy with the war in Vietnam.

Joplin’s bracelet tattoo became somewhat iconic after her death; women converged on tattoo studios to get the same ink done on their wrists.

Tattoos in the 1970s

Tattooed Man from the 1970s

Tattoos really didn’t start becoming mainstream until the 1970s. More and more regular folk started getting inked; it wasn’t just sailors and military men anymore. Tattoos became a form of self expression through body art. Messages and symbols of peace became ideal design choices too.

More intricate designs became popular during this decade, which is when full sleeves and bodysuit tattoos became all the rage.

Tattoos on 1970s Punks

Tattoos in the 1980s

Ozzy Osbourne Getting Tattooed

The 1980s were all about rebellion. Anchor tattoos were still big, but so were larger, more colorful motif designs. Bold black line work also became popular during this decade, like the Celtic knot design.

Rock and roll changed the music scene, and had a big impact on tattoo culture as well. People saw their favorite rock artists sporting ink, and wanted to get tattoos to match. Getting inked officially became accepted in society, so there was a huge upswing in the number of non-celebrities who were getting tattoos.

Guns and Roses Showing off Their Tattoos

Tattoos in the 1990s

Pamela Anderson Barbed Wire Tattoo

The tattoo trends of the 90s were heavily dictated by popular celebrities of the decade. The barbed-wire arm band became hugely popular thanks to Pam Anderson; both men and women flocked to get tattoos to match the Baywatch beauty.

We can’t forget the classic 90s tattoo fads – sun tattoos, Chinese letters, and tribal designs were massively popular during the 1990s. Upper arm tattoos were big during this decade.

You weren’t anybody in the 1990s if your tattoo didn’t match one of these super trendy fads; if the Spice Girls did it, you knew it was cool.

Nick Lachey's 98 Degrees Tattoo and Tribal Armband

Mel C Tattoos

Tattoos in the 2000s

Lower Back Butterfly Tattoo

The millennial decade is when we start seeing lower back tattoos explode onto the scene. This was the tattoo spot of choice for many women during the 2000s. Butterflies and yin yangs were some of the top choices for designs.

This is also the decade where Rihanna burst onto the music scene, and with that, making star wave tattoos popular.

There were still some 90s elements to some of the trendiest tattoo designs, but it was the choice locations of where to place the tattoos that changed more than anything.

Yin Yang Sun Tattoo

Rihanna Star Wave Tattoo

Tattoos in the 2010s

Rose Finger Tattoo

The 2010s are the pinnacle of trendy tattoos; it’s not just about what you get, but where you get it. Tattoo placement is just as much of a fad nowadays as the designs themselves.

Small finger tattoos are incredibly popular, leaving a lot of room for creativity. The most popular finger tattoo of this decade is the novelty moustache.

Rihanna Underboob Tattoo

Rihanna’s still setting tattoo trends even a decade after she came onto the scene. Now, it’s her epic underboob tattoo; women all over the world started getting inked in this same area after RiRi debuted her Isis tattoo.

Infinity tattoos are huge right now, as are feathers. Tribal designs are making a comeback, but aren’t quite the same as they were in the 90s. The new tribal designs are part of a more detailed design, and are usually on larger pieces, like sleeves.

Watercolor Flower Armpit Tattoo

Armpit tattoos are the newest tattoo trend. Watercolor tattoos are popular at the moment as well, but we have yet to see if that’s a trend that will last, or if it’s destined to become a fad.

Tattoos aren’t going away anytime soon if the last 100 years are anything to go by. We might see dips and rises in certain trends, and changing preferences for designs, but the artform itself is here for the long haul. It’s safe to say that whatever’s going on in society has a big impact on what’s popular in tattoos.

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