Tattoo Ideas: New School vs. Old School

Updated on March 2, 2013

Written by: Jaclyn Popola

I know it when I see it, but I've been struggling for weeks to come up with a way to explain the difference between old school and new school tattoos. I have finally figured it out! The Old School style of tattooing seen in the earlier half of the 20th century used symbols that celebrated patriotism and similar values and were done by electric tattoo machines. OLD SCHOOL, or traditional, tattoos utilize bold, black outlines and incorporate classic "flash" designs, premade designs that could be selected right off the wall at the tattoo parlor. Sailing ships, big-breasted women, American flags, banner hearts with the word "MOM" lettered inside, pin-up girls, Hawaiian beauties, anchors, roses, spiders, sharks, hearts split in two by a raging torpedo with the word "BUSTED!" scrawled in dark ink, jewels, treasure, eagles, playing cards, cobras, crosses and ornamented skulls are all examples of old school ink. Even the sparrow, which is a very popular trend currently, is an old school tattoo.

"Sailor Jerry", born Norman Collins, is considered the forefather of the old school movement. After becoming a sailor at age 19, he opened a tattoo shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, known primarily as a romping ground for swaggering sailors and drunken soldiers. These men were not interested in high-quality tattoos complete with shading and detail; all they wanted was something they could show off to their friends. Although old school tattoos can certainly still be gotten today, you might be more likely to see examples of this style on the forearms of crusty old sailors and retired war veterans.

After the second world war, tattoos started to become associated with gangsters and juvenile delinquents. When shoddy sterilization practices sparked an outbreak of hepatitis in 1961, the scene was forced even further underground. But after new legislation was passed and updated health codes were implemented, interest was renewed by a younger generation which forged the NEW SCHOOL style we see today. New technology combined with fresh ideas has resulted in tattoos that are bold, and bright and utilize heavy outlines.





Questions & Answers


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        dave 5 years ago

        I kind of agree in principle britani, but tattooing is such an old medium that there are certain images that have stood the test of time. That's pretty much what flash is. Crawling panthers, swallows, lady heads, anchors are all things that have been done thousands of times but can still be done in such unique ways, there's real artistry in that. There's a pop to a huge eagle chest piece all artistic applications are done well. Color, lines, expressions, and layout are all things that exhibit artistry and craft, not just the "originality" of the subject itself.

        My personal favorite "subject" are hannya masks. If you look them up knowing that a lot of people go into shops and ask for one of these, you'd think they all look the same. They are often bigger pieces and an artist's talent, vision, and how differently they treat skin to paper will really shine (or not). There are thousands of these tattoos, i'd be willing to bet you'll never find two that are made by different artists that look the same.

        Just some food for thought :D

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        @h2o 5 years ago

        old skool seems to be the outward expressions of the inward"old soul"each defining pivital to the point right now gotta go inkwork

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        britani 5 years ago

        So what I am seeing really, is that traditional tattoos are ones that have already been made and are still being used and copied over all these years.... call me a Jack ass but as an artist I believe that is some what messed up. Art, whether on paper, canvas, or skin, should never be the copy of someone else's creation..... I am in favor of new tattoo art, because it is always going to he different from that of another person... it is art from the mind of the artist, not from a book of past artists that every other person is going to have on their skin.... just an opinion, don't mean to shit on anyone's day...

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        Christy Jo 5 years ago

        With the exception of Matt, nearly everyone who has commented is an utter jackass. The pissing contest between artists got old twenty years ago. If it's not YOUR work, it sucks. Okay, we get it. Put the stick down, the horse is long dead. Also, there is a tattoo shop on nearly every block, in nearly every corner of the world - tattooing makes you about as unique as Starbucks. You are NOT some extraordinarily witty, interesting, badass motha because you're hanging around outside the shop you work in/own.

        No offense Matt, even if you sucked ass, I would get a tattoo from you based on your awesome attitude, and ability to spell out the word "your"... Hell, your ability to spell, period!

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        ayisha 6 years ago

        cn i do diz for science class

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        Satan 6 years ago

        New school means you clusterfuck a bunch of obnoxious bright colors, and whenever possible make it look like it could be on an insane clown posse album cover

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        B. 6 years ago

        now i pretty much can tell the difference between a new school tattoo and an old school tattoo.

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        bjp 6 years ago

        Petty it took 3 years for someone to know what they were talking about. Matt is exactly right.

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        xxx 6 years ago

        the worst tattoos ive ever seen. the most has nothin to do with traditional oldschool tattoos. beside of that they are terribly done.

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        bob 6 years ago

        What's really interesting is that you don't understand the copyright notices that you're violating.

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        Cath 6 years ago

        Matt (the comment above mine): THANK YOU!

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        Matt 7 years ago

        I myself am a new school artist, working in an "old school" or traditional shop.

        A lot of what you said is wrong, and I hate to be a jerk, but a lot of those tattoo pictures were bad examples.

        OLD SCHOOL traditional is NOT "simple". It is however flatter, and tends to rely on RED, GREEN, and a golden YELLOW, as well as very heavy black. It's not the concept, or subject matter of the tattoo, it's the attitude that it portrays. Old school has a very PROUD, and STRONG feel to every piece. and old school artists are TYPICALLY (not always) the less friendly of the tattoo artists, but they're usually less friendly because, well, you would be too if your entire lifestyle was exploited and made to look into a fashion show over the course of one season of Miami Ink.

        New School is a brighter, lighter, almost more friendly side of tattooing. It's bubbly, bright, and almost obnoxious, to be honest. But that's what it's proud of, the lighthearted side of tattooing.

        Think of those movies based on schizophrenics, like Me, Myself, and Irene. Dude was nice for years, keeps all his feelings inside, and develops a totally mean alterego. Now reverse it, and apply it to the tattoo industry. You have a buncha tattoo artists using dark colors, heavy shading, and mean attitudes, repressing all the urges to branch off and do wild shit. Eventually, there's an explosion, and there's a whacky alterego that develops.

        That's the best way i can describe it. New school is just an explosion against tradition.

        Now, neo-traditional tattooing is where a lot of tattooing is going now. Actually, a good portion of the pics you posted are neo-traditional. Which is basically people combining their favorite elements for each and doing something with it. For the most part, people are doing neotraditional pieces unintentionally. But that's another rant for another time.

        Sorry I had to butt in, and I didn't mean to upset anyone.

        But for good examples of Traditional / New School / Neo-Traditional Artists' work, look up:

        Josh Woods, Shane O'Neil, Russ Abbott, Jeff Ensminger, Jime Litwalk, Gunnar, and Joe Capobianco.


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        chiptuning Opel 7 years ago

        Sehr schön, habe mich wirklich über die Bilder gefreut!

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        John 7 years ago

        (and while I'm still thinking about this subject...) another good way to distinguish the two is to say old school tend to look more 2 dimensional than 'new school' the features mentioned above really being about using light and shade to give the image a more 3D appearance

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        John 7 years ago

        Traditional tattoos that don't have these features tend to be dubbed 'old school'

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        John 7 years ago

        'New school' is so called because it mirrors a style of graffiti which can be traced back to the late 70's in the States and which reached Europe including the UK by the 1980s, being characterised by a far more definitive shading and block edging to letters, symbols & characters.

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        Cloudiink 7 years ago

        I love the traditonal old school sytle. I have a swallow with roses and stars on my arm. It may not be orginal which I understand some people aim for but I appreciate the old style, you can see it from across the room as others have pointed out. They don't have to be simple at all. I also love the way some of the old school stuff is shaded in.

        I think new school is great too but I am sticking to old school for my body.

        You can do old school style and put your own personality put into it. I think old school can be versatile and this page has made it seem like all the elements of old school have to be in the tattoo before it can be classed as old school whe I think it just needs to have that old school 'feel' if you know what I mean. Some of the photos that have been classed as new school on this page I think are more old school.

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        7 years ago

        interesting.. i love old school and my boyfriend is a fan of new school. i'm very "snobby" when it comes to tattoos.. i hate new school, but i do like his (maybe cause he's my boyfriend) i don't think it's completely correct to classify old school as "simple." my tattoos are old school and are definitely not simple. it's easy to describe new school as cartoon-y i like what D said about the close up vs far away thing. i want you to know exactly what's on my body when i'm across the street. what's the point of something sooo detailed that you really have to look up close and study it? i don't know, just my opinion.

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        jake 7 years ago


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        Inspired Ink 8 years ago

        TOOOOOOOOOOOOO Much thinking, NOT enough drawing

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        skintint666 8 years ago

        I think you are really discussing the difference between traditional and neo-traditional, rather than old school and new school. New school tends to be more "urban" though still bold and simple.

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        whitetrash 9 years ago

        don't discuss things your not into.

        that's stupid

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        salmongirl 9 years ago from Alaska

        an old school tatt is the one my grandpa got in the navy - one color and all semi faded. That's an old school tatt. (gotta love ya grandpa).

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        niggywho 9 years ago

        There is a difference between the two but if you don't notice it, it means YOU ARE NOT AN ARTIST.

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        dupsch 9 years ago

        grandes tatuagens ! Tanto em Nova ou velha escola de tattoos ! Great

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        oluwatoba 9 years ago

        Iwhent to be part of the tattoo ideas member

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        samee 9 years ago


      • starrkissed profile image

        starrkissed 9 years ago from Arizona

        most of these are fantastic!!

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        MAu 9 years ago

        You people don't know shit !!!! new school has more of a graffiti stretched out style and to a certain degree old school is similar in it boldness and style .. it has nothing to to with inks paper or machines ( NOT GUNS ) old school and new school are about simplicity !!!

        These pictures on here are a bad example of old school

      • Sadie_H profile image

        Sadie_H 9 years ago

        I love bright colorful tattoos (I'm partially biased, since that's the kind I have). Thanks for the pictures!

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        penguin 10 years ago

        Ironic that I discovered this website by following a google link to your article on the difference between swallows/sparrows but your label of old/new school sparrows are actually swallows =)

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        10 years ago

        Old school tattoo are different from new school because you have a wide variety of inks to use today, and you can do so much more with them. Colors used to be limited due to the fact that ink was poor in quality compared to today, and some colored ink would not stay in the skin. Everything has evolved technologically - better inks, better needles, better guns, better thermo paper to make stencils. But don't get me wrong, there is something to be said about a thick black border and simplistic color that is custom to old school style. Do you want people to be able to tell what your tattoos are from across the street, or do you want them to have to study it up close because it all blends together? That is the real difference between old and new.

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        Dante Sacal 10 years ago

        its so nice !!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • GreatTattoosNow profile image

        GreatTattoosNow 10 years ago from San Jose

        Wow lots of great pictures! I love the new school tattoos. The colors and brightness really make them standout.