Call it what you will, maybe Classic or Old School, but Americana tattoo images are back–in a big way. When was the last time you were at a shopping mall and someone wasn’t wearing Ed Hardy? Although I typically like to highlight a specific tattoo symbol in the monthly article, this month is fueled by the need to know something about Americana.
Where to Begin
Although the tattoo symbols of the 1890s don’t yet have the look of the designs that we currently associate with Americana tattoos, it may be the technology of the era that we should thank. In 1891, Samuel O’Reilly riffed on Thomas Edison’s electric pen and patented the first electric tattooing machine. As with all methods of tattooing, the tool will dictate, to some extent, the design: the string stitching method of the Aleuts used to create dashed lines, the straight row of teeth in the uhi of Polynesia suited to create geometric patterns.
The electric tattoo machine allowed for the clustering of several needles into a relatively tight configuration. Sold far and wide, it carried with it the ability to quickly tattoo bold black lines and heavy shading. If there is a stylistic hallmark to the Americana tattoo, dark lines and shading are at the heart of it, as are a basic but vibrant color palette of blue, red, green, and yellow.
Because it’s popular once again, you might think that the Americana tattoo style has always been with us. But, as with all things tattoo, styles and symbols come and go. Americana tattooing hit a high in the Golden Age of tattooing, between World Wars I and II, but took a hiatus in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. It’s no surprise that some of the luminaries of the Golden Age, people whose careers thrived at the time, have come to typify the look and feel. Perhaps none is better known than Sailor Jerry–possibly due to the modern branding of his images and the release of his flash in books.
And, as long as we’re in the era, I always like to mention Amund Dietzel, the Master in Milwaukee, who opened a tattoo shop there in 1916 and created the crawling panther tattoo after seeing it in a children’s book Minute Myths and Legends: Dramatic Moments in the Affairs of the Gods, Arch-Demons, Goddesses, Demi-Gods and Heroes of This and Other Worlds with illustrations by Marie Schubert, published in 1934.
Americana is a style, yes, and an era too, but it’s also a certain repertoire of symbols. In the Golden Age, between the wars, tattoos were often a proud badge of military service. Many of the popular Americana symbols that would be unthinkable in a different style are drawn from the military and, specifically, from the navy. They would include: ships (sailing and other), flags, snakes, anchors, daggers, guns, alcohol (I’ll drink to that), birds (especially eagles), swallows, nautical stars, scrolls and banners, dice, skulls, and girls, girls, girls (sailor girls, hula, girls, Suzy Wongs, cowgirls, pirate girls, and more girls–you get the idea). The occasional butterfly, pig, or Hawaiian flower appears, as do the pierced heart and simple text tattoos. But the quintessential Americana tattoo remains true to its mostly nautical origin.