Old School Tattoos and Their Meanings

What is old school?

Well, let me tell you, to me anything that’s stood the test of time. Jeans, ‘plakkies,’ a ‘lil black dress, a cold beer or a ‘pakslae’ for kids who don’t have ears. Yes old school tattoos, boys and girls, are one of the pillars. Tattooing as you know it, still to this day, is loved and adored by millions.

I get very excited just thinking about it. Imagine being back in the day – getting a weekend pass off the ships; drinking, women and tattoos (old school tattoos, as we know it today). One name is synonymous with this, former Navy man: Norman Collins aka Sailor Jerry.

It was on the backs, shoulders and arms of men like these where that Sailor Jerry built his rep and changed the world of tattoos.

Jerry combined vivid colours, bold iconography and sheer artistic ambition to create a new kind of tattooing. He was also the first westerner to correspond with and learn directly from great Japanese tattoo masters. He mastered their techniques and vowed to beat them at their own game, this was Pearl Harbour days after all, so no love was lost here, guys. Beyond this, Jerry was also more innovative on a more technical level, pioneering modern tattoo machine configurations, sterilisation techniques and purple ink.

But what are old school, traditional tattoos really?

You are basically looking at strong, clean line work, a limited palette and a typical nautical and military theme. Although it looks simple to the naked eye, I would say because of its simplicity it is one of the hardest styles to do, purely because there is no room for error, like zilch.


This, to me, is what a tattoo should look like. Simple yet powerful, full of mystery and legends. This is what stood the test of time and hopefully , will stand the test of 50 odd more years to get more of them.


Here are some meanings of traditional old school flash tattoos:

Swallows – were associated with the idea of return. Obviously due to their famous migration pattern, always returning home. But it was a popular belief that if a sailor died at sea, birds carried his soul home.

Anchors – were a representation of stability. This is why many anchor tattoos often had “mom” or the name of a sailor’s sweetheart inscribed with the tattoo. These were the people that kept them grounded.

Snakes – represented potency and power. Usually depicted as coiled and ready to strike, the snake exhibited a don’t-tread-on-me sensibility. Thus, warding off evil, misfortune and potential brawls.

Panthers – were inked as totems of prowess and virility. Panthers were usually drawn with red, bloody claws, open jaws and occasionally in the company of a naked woman.

Eagles – are symbols of (an idealised) America, representing honour, prowess and intelligence. They are fierce and iconic, often depicted in front of a flag.

Pin-ups – represented the ideal and extremes of femininity. the woman inked on a sailor’s arm would be the only feminine form he’d see for months.

Ships – are both practical and metaphorical. It was a sailor’s place of work but also represented an adventure.

Hearts – symbolised keeping loved ones close. These tattoos were also seen with the likes of “mom” emblazoned on them.

Nautical star – portrayed as the North star, it was believed to keep a sailor on course and help guide a sailor home.

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