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New School vs. Old School Tattoos: What's the Difference?

I have thirteen tattoos. I think they're all pretty cool (and definitely don't qualify as "bad-quality").

Old School vs. New School Tattoos: How to Tell the Difference

Old School vs. New School Tattoos: How to Tell the Difference

American Traditional vs. Neo Traditional Tattoos

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. Here's what I know: "Old School" is another word for American Traditional; "New School" means Neo Traditional. Read on to find out the difference!

What Is an Old School Tattoo?

The old-school style of American Traditional 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" imagery—pre-made designs that are chosen right off the wall at the tattoo parlor.

"Sailor Jerry," aka 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, that became 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 are certainly popular today, you're also likely to see examples of this style on the forearms of crusty old sailors and retired war veterans.

Traditonal American Flash: Old-school tattoos look like something you'd see on  the wall.

Traditonal American Flash: Old-school tattoos look like something you'd see on the wall.

Old-School Tattoo Imagery of American Traditional

Traditional flash: sailing ships, big-breasted mermaids, American flags, banner hearts with "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, daggers, eagles, playing cards, cobras, crosses, and ornamented skulls are all examples of old-school ink. Even the swallow, a very popular trend, is an old-school tattoo.

For more examples, see this article about Traditional Nautical Tattoos.

The Transition From Old School to New

After the Second World War, those old-school tattoos started to become associated with gangsters and juvenile delinquents. When shoddy sterilization practices sparked an outbreak of hepatitis in 1961, the tattoo 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 that forged the New School style we see today.

What Is a New School Tattoo?

New technology and innovations have resulted in the new school style with tattoos that are bold, bright, exaggerated, heavily outlined, and in the latest styles. New School is a large category of different styles that may include bright colors and a mixture of other techniques.

The New School style began in California late in the 1970s, gained steam in the 80s, and became a popular trend in the 90s. Artists like Marcus Pacheco in Oakland, California helped pioneer and popularize the style.

Probably as a result of the widespread popularity of tattooing ensuring plenty of customers, new technology, and the internet enabling the sharing of ideas, New School is characterized by a more communal attitude where ideas and techniques are widely shared amongst artists.

New-School Tattoo Imagery of Neo Traditional

Neo Traditional (aka New School) incorporates elements of many traditions, including cartoons, hip-hop iconography, bubble text, memes and pop culture, 3D effects, graffiti styling, anime, irezumi, and folk art. It may also incorporate traditional old-school imagery but with a modern twist—which is why many get confused between the two. You'll see mythological beasts, fantasy creatures, characters from popular culture (movies, television, anime, books, etc.), and other new ideas. Oftentimes, the overall effect of a new school tattoo is humorous, playful, or tongue-in-cheek.

To see more examples, check out Dubuddha's Gallery of New School Tattoos.

Old School vs. New School Tattoos

Remember, "old-school" usually refers to American Traditional, and "new-school" to Neo Traditional. It gets confusing when you see an Old School subject done in a New School style.

Old SchoolNew School

Employ a limited palette in a traditional range of bright colors.

Use the latest, brightest colors available: neon, white, glow-in-the-dark, etc.

Images are more limited to traditional choices and are immediately recognizable: daggers, hearts, skulls, nautical, and other traditional iconography.

Images might be traditional, but might also be taken from the current culture (popular or obscure).

Done in a universally recognizable old-school style—thick, dark lines and bright colors.

The artist's personal, original style and taste come through in the design.

Individual tattoo artists claim ownership of designs and take drastic efforts to protect those designs from competitors.

A more communal attitude about designs where ideas and techniques are swapped, sampled, and shared.

New vs. Old School Tattoos: How Can I Tell the Difference?

It gets especially confusing when you see an Old School subject done with a New School style, but if you remember these differences in color and subject, you will learn to recognize the difference.

  • Both are usually done in bright colors, but the old-school one will usually only be yellow, red, blue, and/or green, while the new-school colors may also include the newest, most newfangled inks.
  • Sometimes, the cultural reference of a New School tattoo is so obscure or niche that you won't recognize what it is. That's part of the fun for the new-school tattoo owner: it's a bit of a test to see who gets it.
  • On the other hand, an Old School design is always immediately recognizable. We've seen that swallow (or dagger or mermaid or treasure chest) before, so we don't need to ask what it is.
  • Old School looks like the flash you see on an old tattoo parlor wall—New School includes something new or unexpected.


dave on January 26, 2013:

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

@h2o on December 01, 2012:

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

britani on August 07, 2012:

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...

Christy Jo on May 05, 2012:

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!

ayisha on April 17, 2012:

cn i do diz for science class

Satan on March 06, 2012:

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

B. on February 01, 2012:

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

bjp on September 21, 2011:

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

xxx on September 19, 2011:

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

bob on September 07, 2011:

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

Cath on August 31, 2011:

Matt (the comment above mine): THANK YOU!

Matt on January 04, 2011:

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.


John on October 07, 2010:

(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

John on October 07, 2010:

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

John on October 07, 2010:

'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.

Cloudiink on September 27, 2010:

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.

C on August 20, 2010:

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.

Inspired Ink on July 14, 2009:

TOOOOOOOOOOOOO Much thinking, NOT enough drawing

skintint666 on May 03, 2009:

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.

salmongirl from Alaska on November 27, 2008:

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).

oluwatoba on September 14, 2008:

Iwhent to be part of the tattoo ideas member

samee on August 27, 2008:


starrkissed from Arizona on July 27, 2008:

most of these are fantastic!!

Sadie_H on June 02, 2008:

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

penguin on January 24, 2008:

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 =)

D on January 02, 2008:

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.

Dante Sacal on September 28, 2007:

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

GreatTattoosNow from San Jose on August 12, 2007:

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