Step right up and see the incredible tattooed lady! Held captive and tattooed every day for a year, she lives to tell her amazing tale!
Nineteenth century crowds flocked to circus ‘freak shows’ to marvel at the tattooed performers, who often invented fantastical tales to accompany their head-to-toe ink. By the turn of the twentieth century, the ancient practice had already become – in Western cultures and especially across the USA – a rite of passage for servicemen, sailors, jailbirds and circus folk. The style and iconography developed by artists of the era formed the backbone of the emergent tattoo culture up until the 1970s.
Some blame Janis Joplin for inspiring a rebellious generation to go under the gun and seek out designs that spoke to them, not their grandfathers. Forty years on, Kat Von D and her merry crew of reality spin-offs are credited with inciting a new wave of tattoo aficionados. This time around, our society’s infatuation with bygone eras and simpler times has ensured the old guard of tattooing got its own back.
Traditional American designs were a staple of the Australian tattoo culture when pioneer artists like Melbourne’s John ‘Johnny Dollar’ Entwistle opened up shop, before eventually giving way to Japanese, tribal and contemporary styles. Nowadays, traditional and neo-traditional designs are so highly sought after many artists consider it a fad. The designs are characterised by thick lines, bold colours and the classic iconography that once graced the walls of tattoo parlours everywhere. While there is a large interest in vintage flash today, these images held a different significance for the original wearers. Sailors earned a bluebird on the chest after 5,000 miles at sea, with the ever-popular mirrored bluebirds reserved for those who had doubled that. A pin-up girl design could keep you company when deployed at war, a flag or memorial would remind you of home.
Traditional artist Wade Larkin, who has been tattooing for seven years at Brisbane’s Wild at Heart, believes the cultural relevance of these motifs is transferable, with each individual applying their own interpretation and meaning.“You get people choosing the classic ‘homeward bound’ tattoos, and I guess for them it still really means the same thing,” Larkin says. “But you can do anything as a traditional-looking tattoo; I’ve even done Playstation controllers.”
The vintage-lover’s lament ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’ doesn’t just apply to the quality of fashion, home wears and cars. For many artists, a return to the style of golden era tattoos means work that will look as good in thirty or forty years’ time as it does freshly inked. “They’re timeless, classic and they never go out of style,” Larkin says. “You see all the tattoos from the ‘80s, with fine lines and detail, and they’re not looking too good now, whereas someone who got a classic panther design, you can still tell it’s a panther.”
Danny Young of Melbourne’s Tattoo Magic agrees, saying an interest in old-school tattoos was what initially drew him to the practice. “I try and do a bit of everything, but everything I do I keep in that simple way; I keep it bold and clean,” Young says, adding, “I think they age better”.
Having tattooed for seven years in the traditional style, Young sees it as one of the many trends the industry has embraced over the years, but one with staying-power and artistic merit. “Maybe people romanticise them a bit, but it’s good to go back to the classic ones and back to basics, because it got a bit out of hand for a while there,” he says. “Things just get so overdone, even in music – it’s good to go back to simple rock ‘n’ roll.”
Young and Larkin are examples of how firmly the movement is tied to vintage and Rockabilly culture. Larkin, who has played in Rockabilly bands, takes an interest in vintage hot rods. Young’s nostalgia for simpler times extends to everything from music to graffiti styles. Rockabilly and custom culture festivals like Brisbane’s annual Greazefest, almost invariably feature some of the nation’s most sought after traditional artists. Greazefest’s tattoo-inclusive art show is sponsored by local parlour True Love Tattoo, which opened in 2005 with the ethos of ‘keeping the oldschool dream alive’. For some the style allows an outward expression of their vintage tastes, for others an opportunity to pay homage to pioneering artists like Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy and to share in a piece of history.
It’s fascinating how much tattooing has progressed over the decades, in quality, style and popularity, but some things never change. Larkin will tattoo a Sailor Jerry design exactly as it appears – mistakes and all, but says the digital age has made it just as easy for copycats to reproduce custom artwork. “It seems that someone will post something online and a suddenly there’ll be three more of them exactly the same,” he says. “But that’s what traditional artists did too; tattooists have just copied and copied each other over the years.”
Here’s to another century of quality body art.