When Did Tattoos Become Popular + Other Fascinating Facts!

by Tori Jones
100 years of ink

Greetings, ink enthusiasts, skin art scholars, and fresh canvas wanderers! Welcome back to my domain, where pigments meet passion, and where stories are etched on skin, one needle stroke at a time. This is Tori, your guide in the fabulous world of body art.

Now, I know your eyes are probably itching to dive right into this visual voyage through time, and trust me, mine are too. Today, we’re embarking on an unforgettable journey, turning back the hands of the clock to peek at 100 years of ink: a captivating century where tattoos rose from the underbelly of rebellion to the heights of mainstream acceptance.

Throughout this post, we’ll be traveling through time, exploring the evolving landscape of tattoos, where history and culture blend into an artistic expression that’s as profound as it is personal. We’ll be delving into the societal, technological, and aesthetic changes that gave rise to the tattoo fads that captured our hearts — and our skin — every ten years. From the stark and simple tribal tattoos of the early 20th century to the intricate watercolor designs we see dancing on skin canvases today, we’ll cover them all.

Now, whether you’re a seasoned tattoo collector or a newbie fascinated by the art, there’s something in this for everyone. You’ll walk away with a deeper understanding of how the art has morphed over the years, how each decade left its indelible ink on the skin of society, and perhaps, just maybe, some inspiration for your next — or first — tattoo.

So, buckle in, dear readers — wait, no buckles here, just the hum of the tattoo machine and the scent of ink — and get ready to ride the rollercoaster of tattoo history with your favorite needle-wielding history buff. Let’s traverse through the age of ink, marking the milestones that shaped a century of tattoo fads, forever imprinted in our collective cultural skin.

The 1910s: Sea Stories and Circus Stalls

1910s Tattoo
@samanthafungtattoo Via Instagram – Want your tattoo to look brighter? Try tattoo balm 

In the early 1900s, tattoos were not exactly the norm. They were the exclusive territories of sailors and circus performers, the outsiders of society. Ink was a canvas for personal narratives — anchors for sailors, symbolizing their seafaring life, and religious symbols reflecting the societal norms of the time. I remember my grandfather, a seasoned sailor, telling me how every tattoo he got at various ports marked a new milestone in his journey. For instance, a swallow signified a travel of 5000 miles, and a turtle meant they had crossed the equator.

The 1920s: The Dawn of Cosmetic Tattoos

1920s Tattoo
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While traditional tattoos were still seen as taboo, the Roaring ’20s brought the advent of cosmetic tattoos. With makeup being pricey and of subpar quality, many women turned to permanent makeup — eyebrows, cheek tinting, lip contouring. But even then, it was their little secret, as tattoos were still associated with sailors, vagabonds, and convicts.

The 1930s: A Practical Purpose

1930s Tattoo
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The 1930s saw the birth of social security numbers, and, to make sure they always had them handy, people started tattooing them on themselves. This was a necessity rather than a style statement. The notion of tattoos being reserved for sailors or ‘loose women’ was still quite prevalent — something my grandmother often mentioned in our conversations about my tattooing career.

The 1940s: A Splash of Color

1940s Tattoo
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The 1940s brought a change in the tattooing landscape. Artists began incorporating colors in their designs, giving birth to the iconic ‘Sailor Jerry’ style. Inspired by the vibrant hues, I too added my own twist to my designs, adding splashes of color to traditional motifs. With World War II in full swing, military and patriotic themes dominated the scene, and even women started getting tattooed, albeit in smaller numbers.

The 1950s: Bad Boys and Stereotypes

1950s Tattoo
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In the 50s, tattoos became a symbol of machismo. The Marlboro man wasn’t inked by accident; tattoos were the signature of the bad boys. However, society’s fascination with linking physical appearance to criminal behavior stigmatized tattoos, pushing them back to the fringes of society. Anchor and ship designs were still in vogue, along with the rising popularity of chest tattoos.

The 1960s: Media Influence

1960s Tattoo
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A Hepatitis outbreak in the 1960s, allegedly due to improper hygiene in tattoo parlors, deterred many from getting inked. However, celebrities like Janis Joplin, with her iconic wrist tattoo, kept the trend alive. Skull and crossbones became popular among bikers, while the discontent with the Vietnam War saw a decline in patriotic tattoos.

The 1970s: Self-Expression and Peace Symbols

1970s tattoo
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By the 1970s, tattoos were inching their way into the mainstream. No longer the exclusive domain of sailors and soldiers, they became a powerful medium of self-expression, with designs symbolizing peace gaining popularity. This was the era of intricate designs, full sleeves, and bodysuit tattoos.

The 1980s: Rock and Rebellion

1980s tattoo
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The 1980s were the years of rebellion. Anchor tattoos held their ground, but the decade was all about bold, colorful designs and thick black lines — a nod to the Celtic knot design. Influenced by the burgeoning rock scene, tattoos became an accepted part of society, triggering a surge in people getting inked.

The 1990s: Celebrity Culture

1990s tattoo
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In the 90s, celebrities heavily influenced tattoo trends. From Pam Anderson’s barbed-wire armband to the Spice Girls’ Chinese letters, whatever the celebrities got, the public wanted. Sun tattoos, tribal designs, and upper arm tattoos became all the rage.

The 2000s: The Era of the Tramp Stamp

2000s tattoo
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The new millennium brought lower back tattoos into the limelight, especially among women. From butterflies to yin yangs, the focus was more on the location of the tattoos than the design. Pop culture icons like Rihanna made star wave tattoos a trend, but 90s elements lingered.

The 2010s: Placement Matters

2010s tattoo
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The 2010s heralded a new era in tattoo trends, focusing as much on the tattoo’s placement as the design. Small finger tattoos emerged as a hot trend, with novelty mustaches taking the cake. Rihanna’s underboob tattoo became a sensation, inspiring women worldwide. Meanwhile, armpit tattoos and watercolor styles emerged as exciting new trends.

Cultural Events That Had A Dramatic Effect

Absolutely, cultural shifts and significant events have significantly impacted the popularity and evolution of tattoos over the years. Let’s delve into some of them:

  1. World War II (1939-1945): The war saw an increase in tattooing among military personnel, especially those in the navy. Sailors would often get tattoos as mementos of their travels or to signify important milestones in their careers.
  2. 1970s Counter-Culture Movements: During this period, tattoos began to become more mainstream as they were adopted by various counter-culture movements. This decade also saw the invention of the first modern tattoo machine, which made tattooing more accessible.
  3. 1980s Rock and Punk Culture: The explosion of rock and punk culture in the 1980s saw an increase in the popularity of tattoos. Many musicians and their followers began sporting tattoos, influencing their fans to do the same.
  4. 1990s and Pop Culture: The 1990s saw an increase in the representation of tattoos in movies, TV shows, and among celebrities, making tattoos more accepted in mainstream culture.
  5. 2000s Reality TV: With shows like “Miami Ink” and “LA Ink,” tattoos were shown in a whole new light. These shows brought tattooing into mainstream media, further increasing its popularity.
  6. 2010s Social Media Influence: The advent and popularity of social media platforms like Instagram have had a significant impact on the tattoo industry. Artists can now showcase their work to a global audience, and users can find inspiration and artists from across the world.
  7. COVID-19 Pandemic (2020-): Some tattoo artists and studios reported an increase in bookings after lockdowns lifted, suggesting people were keen to commemorate the experience or had had time to consider getting a tattoo.

Each of these cultural shifts and events has helped shape the perception and popularity of tattoos over time, illustrating the deep connection between body art and societal happenings. Along with these events changing peoples perceptions they also impacted the designs that people had tattooed on their bodies. Here’s a simplified table to demonstrate some specific tattoo designs or motifs that gained popularity during each decade from the 1970s to the present:

DecadePopular Tattoo Designs
1970sClassic American styles (e.g., anchors, eagles, hearts), Chinese characters
1980sTribal designs, Japanese style tattoos, Dolphins, Rose tattoos
1990sTribal tattoos, Celtic designs, Barbed wire armbands, Chinese characters, Lower back tattoos (“tramp stamps”)
2000sStars, Script lettering, Minimalist tattoos, Birds (e.g., Swallows), Infinity symbols
2010sWatercolor tattoos, Geometric tattoos, Dot work, Arrow tattoos, Semi-colon tattoos
2020sFine-line tattoos, Blackwork, Biomechanical tattoos, Stick and poke tattoos, Compass tattoos

Please note that these trends can vary widely by region and subculture. The table above is just a general overview and isn’t comprehensive.


As a seasoned tattoo artist, I can attest that the world of tattoos is an exciting and richly textured tapestry. But like with any form of art and self-expression, there are certain considerations. When considering a tattoo, remember, this is a lifelong commitment. Choose a design that holds personal meaning for you and is more than just a passing trend. Ensure you research your artist thoroughly — look at their past work, and make sure their style aligns with your vision. Prioritize cleanliness and safety. A reputable tattoo artist will maintain a clean studio and use sterilized equipment to minimize risks such as infections or allergic reactions. Lastly, remember the aftercare — your tattoo is a wound, and it needs proper care to heal well and retain its vibrancy. With all that said, the journey to getting inked can be incredibly rewarding. So go ahead, tell your story, wear your art, and express your individuality with confidence. This century-old art form has survived and evolved for a reason. Now it’s your turn to be a part of that narrative.

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