From the tattoo’s humble roots dating as far back as 4,000 B.C.E., spread through cultures in parts of the world all the way from Austria and Egypt to Polynesia and eastern Asia, the unique craft of adorning the body with permanent art has come a long way! Advancements in technology and travel, as well as global shifts in culture that have made tattooing much more popular over recent decades, have made enormous waves in the tattoo industry. These have resulted in the creation of dozens of art styles, which vary as much in their design as the countries do who pioneered them.
Some of the most popular tattoo styles have taken shape in various times throughout the history of tattooing. For instance, tribal style tattoos originally began in the Polynesian islands over 2,000 years ago! American traditional style tattooing, which features bold outlines and rich, easily readable colors, was popularized in the mid-20th century by sailors who collected tattoos as souvenirs during their travels. Many newer styles of tattoos are also based on contemporary and fine art, which began when those involved in the art community began taking a bigger interest in the tattoo industry in the 1980s. A great example of this is the trash polka tattoo style that’s been making waves from Germany and the surrounding region for only a few years, but which has become immensely praised by modern tattoo connoisseurs.
The art of Polynesian tattooing was discovered by Europeans in the 16th century during an exploration of this area. According to writings from this time, it was “a universal custom among men and women” to get much of their bodies tattooed. Tattoos were more prevalent in men than women and represented many things; some were a symbol of status in their respective communities, and some served to honor a person’s dead ancestors. It was thought that to memorialize the deceased in such a way gave the wearer of the tattoo power. The word used by Polynesians to describe the application of tattoos was “tattow,” in reference to the tapping sound made by the tools used in the process (very thin and sharp bone needles attached to a stick, which was then tapped against—this method is still practiced in this part of the world to this day!).
In today’s culture, tribal tattoos are rarely used in these same ways, but some of their original properties remain. Tribal shapes, such as those of animals, are often represented in this abstract tattoo form and are assigned meanings that are synonymous with the meanings attached to them when these tattoos first originated. If you’re considering a tribal tattoo for yourself, check out some of the meanings of these classic tattoos to see if they apply to you!
American traditional tattoos got their start on the East coast, in places like New York and New Jersey, as early as the turn of the 20th century. At this point, however, tattoos in the west weren’t common or widely accepted, and in fact were usually only worn by vagabonds, circus performers, and of course, the military (specifically the U.S. Navy, who had many ports on the east coast of America). The idea started to catch on in the U.S. when traveling military men came home from their travels sporting tattoos from countries they’d visited, which of course were already quite familiar with the art of tattooing. The 1940’s were known as the Golden Age in tattooing; the industry saw an enormous surge in business from deployed servicemen, tied to America’s involvement in World War II. The American traditional style that we know today took shape in the form of eagles, flags, pin-up girls, and other patriotic symbols, as well as in the form of designs that were reminiscent of sailors, such as nautical stars (symbolizing the north star to guide them home), sparrows (which symbolized land and a safe voyage home), ships, and anchors.
This hallmark tattoo style is still very popular today because it has proven itself again the test of time over decades. The style is intentionally simplistic, and the combination of heavy outlines mixed with simple but bold coloring and shapes, has proven to be a very legible combination that weathers well over twenty years, and even longer!
Trash Polka Tattoo Style
Trash polka is by far the newest of the trending tattoo styles listed, but it is also becoming one of the most renowned. The origin of this style can be traced back to a single shop in Würzburg, Germany, called Buena Vista Tattoo Club, and was created by the artists Simone Plaff and Volko Merschky. The style merges together an abstract composition with realistic, non-abstract subject matter, sometimes with text incorporated into the collage. Volko describes his style as a “combination of realism and trash; the nature and the abstract; technology and humanity; past, present, and future; opposites that they are trying to urge into a creative dance to harmony and rhythm in tune with the body.”
This style has a high level of contrast; a signature element of trash polka tattooing is the use of only the color red, combined with black and grey shading and heavily saturated areas of black. Geometric shapes or shapes that resemble splatters and smears of paint are also often incorporated into this style. It is such a desired and popular look that, in only a couple short years, trash polka tattoos have already spread from Europe to Western tattoo artists, who have begun faithfully replicating this style as its popularity grows.
The tattoo industry is always growing and changing, and it will continue to do so for many more years to come. It’s a dynamic industry that, as you can see, has brought to life a great deal of artistic innovation that accurately represents a variety of cultures throughout history. Who knows what direction tattoos will take from here?