Tattoo history: Changes throughout the decades

Tattoos aren’t as modern as you might think- they have been around for hundreds of years. Tattoo history is shaped by different tattoo designs which have been popular throughout the decades. Since the beginning, there were different designs and opinions about tattoos.  It all began back in 1891, when the first tattoo machine was invented in New York City by Samuel F. O’Reilly. But it took another 80 years for tattoos to be an accepted mainstream idea.


Since the beginning, changes have occurred with each decade, and each decade has had its own “most trendy tattoo design”. Therefore in this blogpost, we want to show you the trendiest tattoo designs from each decade, starting at 1910.

Historical tattoo trends


1910-Your story and profession 

In the 1910s, it was very uncommon to see a tattoo oHistorical Circus-Performer. tattoo historyn a person, but the most common reasons that people had tattoos during this time was to signify their jobs (like circus performers, sailors and even criminals). The majority of society during the early 20th century was pretty religious, so it was common to see tattoos showing religious symbols.

Through the tattoo history, circus folk was frequently tattooed, and you could get tattoos done at various circus shows as well. They would bring samples of tattoos with them when they travelled. The sailors would get a tattoo at every destination they arrived at, to symbolize the length of their journey. 


1920-Permanent makeup 

In the 1920s it was still uncommon to see tattoos on the majority of society. During this time, permanent makeup became popular among women. It became more common to see women with unremovable makeup on their face. Makeup was very expensive at that time, so getting permanent eyebrows and lip contouring was seen as a better decision. Permanent makeup is one of historical tattoo trends, which is still very popular among women.


1930-Social security number

Unbelievable but true, social security numbers were the No.1 tattoos of the 1930s. People had to memorize their SSN, but not everyone could memorize a series of numbers easily, so they tattooed it onto themselves. Society still wasn’t convinced of body art at that time, but getting a SSN tattoo became a necessity for some. Regular people who had these tattoos werent lumped into the same societal category as other tattooed people would be in; it was still mostly criminals, sailors, and performers who sported historical tattoo trends for the most part of the tattoo history.

1940-Sailor Jerry

In the 1940s, a tattoo artist started adding colors into their designs, and one of the iconic historical tattoo trends called Sailor Jerry” was born. Sailor Jerry tattoos are very colorful and in tune with nature. This means, animals like sharks, dragons and snakes, were often seen on people, and mostly with reddish details. This style was named after a famous artist called Norman Keith Collins, AKA Sailor Jerry. He created his own pigments and later added them to his designs.

1950-Sign of masculinity 

Tattoos took a turn in the population in the 1950s. They became a sign of masculinity. Still, people would be trying to link inked bodies with criminal behaviour, even if non-criminal men had tattoos. The most common body part to get tattooed was the chest. The most often chosen design during this period were anchors and ships.


1960-Celebrities make a turn 

During the 1960s, there was an outbreak of Hepatitis in New York. The humanity was blaming the tattoo artists for it, because they apparently used unsanitary needles and equipment. New York’s health department has banned tattooing back in the 60s, and the ban lasted for 36 years, this timeline has took a large part in the tattoo history. Due to the outbreak, most people held back from getting a tattoo, but not celebrities.Celebrities had an access to the best tattoo artists of the 1960s, one of these were Lyle Tuttle. 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. Often chosen designs were skulls and crossbones during the 1960s.

1970-Self expression

In the 1970s, tattoos became very popular among the ordinary men and women, not just sailors and criminals anymore. Tattoos became a form of self expression. Messages, symbols and flowers were an often chosen design among women, full sleeves and bodysuit tattoos were very popular among men.


1980-The age of rebellion  

Getting a tattoo became a normal and accepted thing in the civilisation in the 1980s.The 1980s were all about rebellion. Therefore, colourful and bold black line tattoos were popular and commonly seen. The Celtic knot design was an often-chosen design for both genders. In the 1980s, rock and roll began to rise, so people were, and still are trying to get matching tattoos with their favourite artist, which adds on to the tattoo history.

1990-Barbed-wire arm 

The 1990s posses a big impact on fashion. It is still common to see a large amount of people trying to follow the historical tattoo trends, mostly of the 90s, everything from the clothing, music and culture to the tattoos of the 90s. The tattoo trends of the 90s were very influenced by celebrities like Pamela Anderson; both men and women have wanted to get matching tattoos like Pamela’s, she made the barbed-wire arm band hugely popular. Barbed wire tattoos have taken on many new meanings to represent suffering and confinement as well. Other popular designs were the sun, and the use of Chinese letters. These designs were mostly tattooed on top of each other and the most chosen body part was the upper arm.

2000-Back tattoos 

In this decade, lower back tattoos were the trendiest. This was the tattoo spot of choice for many women during the 2000s. Butterflies and the symbol of “yin yang” were some of the top choices for designs. In combination with low rise jeans, these tattoos were an eye catcher. Some people still get these kinds of tattoos, as a throwback to old times. These designs add on to the most iconic historical tattoo trends.

2010-Small tattoos 

The 2010s were all about small tattoos. The placement of the tattoo became as important as much as the design. The most chosen placements were the fingers. Small finger tattoos were and still are incredibly popular, leaving a lot of room for creativity. The most popular finger tattoo of this decade, is the novelty moustache. Infinity signs were also often seen in the 2010s. 

Although small tattoos were very trendy, the singer Rihanna took a turn and made breast tattoos –  an even bigger trend among the female population. Women all over the world started getting inked in the same area after Rihanna showed her tattoo. 

Final thoughts on tattoo history

The tattoo history has its own highs and lows. We can say for sure, that tattoos have a huge impact on trends and society. Some trends faded, but some are still popular, for example small tattoos. 

Nowadays tattoos are done and removed very easily, and can even be done with no pain, if you use the NoPain numbing cream.

Everything you need to know about numbing cream and tattoos can be found in our many other exciting blogposts

Thank you for reading this blogpost, we hope to see you in our inbox in the future. We hope that you have learned something new about the historical tattoo trends!

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