Photo: Charles Fenno Jacobs / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

What Were The Most Popular Tattoos In Every Decade Since The Turn Of The 20th Century?

Tattooing has been around for thousands of years, practiced as part of cultural and traditional beliefs around the world. Tattoos have different meanings to different people; some tell a story, while others are a reminder of where you have been or a guide to where you want to go.

Trends in 20th-century tattoos in the United States have a bit of all of this mixed in. Tattoos from the 1910s and 1920s trace a path from sailors to the counterculture of the 1960s that rejected social norms.

Tattooing has seen innovation and change across the decades, but vintage tattoo designs never completely fall by the wayside. Take a look at the most popular tattoo designs across the decades.

Photo: Charles Fenno Jacobs / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • 1910s: Nautical Themes And Ladies In The Buff

    During the late 19th century, tattooing in the United States was reportedly common among members of high society. Around the turn of the century, however, tattooing was called "the most vulgar and barbarous habit," and deemed appropriate "for an illiterate seaman, but hardly for an aristocrat."

    Connections between seamen - regardless of literacy - and tattooing can be traced far earlier than the 20th century. During Captain James Cook's nautical explorations of the 1700s, his sailors tattooed themselves after finding the practice among Polynesian groups so impressive. Tattooing was also a form of identification among sailors around the world.

    Tattooing became a souvenir of sorts, indicating where a sailor had been. Some tattoos were also superstitious in nature. For example, pigs and roosters tattooed on the feet were meant to protect a sailor from drowning.

    Among other tattoos common for sailors were inappropriate works of art. Sailors with unclothed women tattoos on their person were so endemic that, in 1909, the US Navy insisted they would reject any candidates with "indecent or obscene tattooing."

    By the 1910s, major naval communities and port cities began to see the development of tattooing businesses. In New York City's Bowery, Samuel O'Reily's tattoo shop was a destination for sailors in search of a tattoo. In Norfolk, Virginia, August "Cap" Coleman opened a tattoo parlor in 1918 where he inked sailors.

  • 1920s: Cosmetic Enhancements

    During the early 20th century, tattooing became more technically advanced with the introduction of new, more efficient tattooing equipment. Combined with a lower cost for tattoos, the art form became more common among the working classes - and caused the elite to shun the practice. 

    Yet tattooing as a form of cosmetic enhancement grew in popularity throughout the 1920s among the wealthier classes. Women had makeup tattooed on their faces - everything from blush to lip liner to eyeliner. The notion of tattoos as permanent makeup was introduced by British tattoo artists George Burchett and Sutherland MacDonald before it made its way to the United States. 

    Because tattooing was becoming more popular in the United States, many communities in the 1920s took steps to prohibit youths from getting tattoos

  • 1930s: Your Social Security Number

    When the United States government introduced Social Security numbers (SSN) in 1935, people went to great lengths to connect themselves with their new numerical identification.

    For many women, an SSN was a sign of autonomy, one they could wear engraved on a necklace or even inked on their body. Men would have their numbers inked on their arms, backs, or chests, sometimes accompanied by patriotic designs. According to reports, at least one man had his SSN tattooed on his dentures so he would always have it on hand. 

    Tattoo artists noted the increase in business that resulted from the issuance of SSNs. Mildred Hull, a tattoo artist in New York, recalled how her business "picked up again in the late '30s thanks to FDR." One San Francisco tattoo parlor claimed it averaged "two social clients a day." 

  • 1940s: Military Themes And Japanese Aesthetics

    "Time marking" and "pledge" tattoos grew in popularity during the 1940s, with the latter dominant among military veterans. Soldiers had their military units and divisions inked onto their bodies, a permanent sign of patriotism and dedication to their brothers-in-arms.

    Apart from circus performers and tattoo artists themselves, soldiers and sailors remained the dominant population to get tattoos in the United States. Patriotic images, like eagles and flags, often appeared with other military symbols, such as anchors and ships.

    Tattoo artists also picked up new aesthetics during military service, and artists like Sailor Jerry Collins incorporated Asian themes and images into his work. Sailor Jerry, whose real name was Norman Keith Collins, introduced waves and wind motifs alongside animals like tigers and dragons.

    Collins added colors to the practice and even developed his own ink. He also promoted cleanliness and invented new techniques to sterilize tattooing equipment.

  • 1950s: Colorful And Hidden

    There was a backlash against tattooing in mainstream society in the United States during the 1950s, one that caused many individuals to hide their tattoos. Tattoos were associated with deviant behavior, counterculture, and general rejection of the norm. The connection made tattoos all the more popular with nonconformists. 

    Motorcycle crews, prisoners, and perceived deviants were all linked by the trend. The military pushed back against tattooing as well, once again telling people to avoid tattoos. 

    There was still a lot of innovation during the 1950s, however. Men like Phil Sparrow (born Samuel Stewart) and Lyle Tuttle both worked to promote cleanliness and sanitary practices in the profession while simultaneously incorporating color into their work. Influenced by Sailor Jerry Collins, tattoo artists also inked large, cohesive tattoos rather than isolated, unrelated pieces of art. 

    Phil Sparrow, a former university professor who left academia to become a tattoo artist, noted that for women during the 1950s, tattooing was a complicated practice that blended possession and liberation. Women bikers, for example, were considered "property" of their men once tattooed, but getting ink simultaneously rejected socially constructed notions of femininity.

  • 1960s: Custom ‘American Traditional’ Designs

    During the early 1960s, there were concerns about the health risks posed by tattooing. In 1961, after a hepatitis outbreak was blamed on a tattoo artist at Coney Island, the New York health department banned tattooing. The tattoo ban in New York City remained in effect for 36 years

    Across the rest of the country, however, tattooing experienced a resurgence during the late 1960s. In what many have termed a "Tattoo Renaissance," a return to traditional anchors and pin-up girls was tweaked with new colors, techniques, and effects.

    Tattooing during the 1960s was also associated with celebrities. Musicians like Janis Joplin proudly waved their tattoos in front of audiences. As more and more pop culture icons got inked, the practice became increasingly appealing.