Nowadays, there are many styles of tattoos to choose from, old and new. But if you want a modern expression of skin art that draws inspiration from long roots dating back to the eras of America, Europe and Asia, then take the time to learn Neo Traditional tattoo designs.
Old and new traditions
Like the new school, neo-traditional tattoos have emerged with West Coast artists transforming the heavy lines of monochrome inking with finer designs and careful use of colors. But where the new school has turned to contemporary pop culture of cartoons and graffiti for inspiration, neo-traditional artists have looked far beyond, to older American traditions. These were in particular the American Indians on the one hand, and the Art Deco movement of the 1920s on the other.
Art Deco itself was a leap forward that ignited after the end of the “Great War” as a mixture of many previous artistic styles. The distinctive use of lines and patterns that modern tattoo artists imitate, however, can be attributed to pre-war European Art Nouveau. This artistic movement was born from the discovery of the complex and highly stylized decorative styles that arrived in Europe in the mid-1800s, when Japan broke nearly three centuries of self-imposed isolation.
As the industrial revolution prepared, Art Nouveau entered popular culture in fashion and other mass consumer goods. Names still well known today, such as Monet, Degas and Van Gogh, cite Japanese influence as revolutionary and, with it, call for a “ return to nature ”. The juxtaposition of stylized faces, objects and natural patterns that neo-traditional tattoos have borrowed from Art Deco can thus be directly traced to traditional Japanese art.
Interest in nature, and even more so in shamanic relationships with nature, also helps to explain the continuous appearance of Indo-American imagery. Familiar objects like war hats and animist totems identify the neo-traditional style as being typically American.
But the repeated appearance of figures draped in animal skins and heads with a second pair of mystical eyes confusing the observer, also reveals the fascination for the themes of another world introduced into neo-traditional conceptions.
Besides shamanic images, there are other common themes in the neo-traditional “tradition”.
While the closely linked new school features large canvases of interacting characters, artists working in the neo-traditional style focus on realistic heads and torsos – sometimes also wild predators – that are almost photographic in detail.
The portrait of a swinger in the 1920s with hair and brown hair is often the centerpiece, decorated with jewelry and works of art from that period.
Precise detail is obtained with fine lines, detailed patterns and a careful color gradient. Without the clearly artistic framing with stylized natural elements, the achieved realism sometimes resembles photoshoped digital portraits.
Neo-traditional tattoos are also often based on images of wild animals. The head of a wolf, fox or vulture ready to strike adds to the inherent tension often encountered.
Other inks may have a butterfly, a scarab or even a snake wrapped inside a jar, suggesting that stories and explanations accompany these images.
In other cases, you can find a magnificently represented Americana of 1930s culture, such as a manual gramophone, a rose petal, a traditional anchor or an “ old-fashioned ” UFO.
The use of stylized icons is widespread, with more mundane shapes representing fruits, birds or other natural objects such as a pine cone.
The “traditional” aspect comes from a time when tattoos identified the experienced sailor of the Navy, who collected tattoos in distant ports as souvenirs. They were often patriotic symbols like the American flag, eagles, daggers, ships or anchors.
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This trend towards abstract icons also lends itself to religious meanings, like an eye inside a triangle representing the gaze of God; or an abstract fish like an anagram of the name Jesus in Greek. Less spiritual but just as significant can be abstract objects like a key, a lantern or horns coming out of human heads.
Again and again, studying examples from this school, we find women with black hair who look thoughtfully in front of the observer. With thick eyeliner and dark eyelashes, matching dark, short, wavy hair, and with pearl jewelry common in the 1920s and 30s, the look of the Great Gatsby era is unmistakable.
But these modern women, and sometimes also male figures, are often sent back to a mystical world with an animal head crown that looks more like a living alter ego than a preserved decoration.
The animal element is reinforced by images drawn from traditional Native American culture, invoking the same inspiration of “return to nature” that the Art Nouveau tradition of the late 19th century celebrated.
The art of neo-traditional tattoos
For the practicing tattoo artist, the neo-traditional is difficult but at the same time liberating. Tradition provides a solid foundation for the artist to introduce modern patterns that reflect your values and style, using modern technology to achieve long established techniques.
As a modern style, the new traditional designs look quite different but share the same techniques with traditional American tattoos. The heavy outline of the forms, for example, continues consistently in this style.
The rich, lush colors generally have a subdued Victorian tone adorned with velvet and lace patterns as if they were copied from colonial arts and crafts. Thanks to the use of modern pigments and the clean, clean edges of this school, these inks will last much longer than tattoo artists of previous eras could have hoped for.
Tattoo artists have come a long way since decorating sailors in the Navy with anchors and portraits of Marilyn Monroe. With neo-traditional tattoos, it is possible to connect with ancient and historical art, and in particular the different traditions of reinventing nature.
Tattoos are a unique way to discover your own values and attitudes. If you are a reincarnated American Indian or Daisy Buchanan, then this tattoo school will seduce you immediately.
How to choose a suitable design
Neo-traditional tattoos, in many ways, are unethical like other modern schools. This can be to your advantage by allowing the artist to incorporate your ideas, stories and values in a way that you can identify with. However, it may also be more difficult to refine the ideal ink.
Once you start talking to a particular artist, he or she should have an existing work to look at. The style and type of images used will already help generate ideas.
If your artist is on Instagram or any other online media, you can take your time to deepen their work. And why not test the reactions of friends or relatives to compare your own?
You are probably reading this page to learn more about the neo-traditional school, so keep looking for examples of what different tattoo artists have created under the same rubric. If you like the neo-traditional school as much as we do, then take a close look at your favorite creations to find out why they appeal.
Take a step back and note why the image attracts you. Is it the face or how is it framed? Where do the eyes look? How are colors used? What does that remind you of?
Now take a closer look and examine the details. What models create appeal? How do colors work for you? How are the subjects framed?
And also look at the arrangement on the canvas. Does your skin have a similar tone? How do body contours improve composition? How is the available space used in the scene?
Once you have spent time looking objectively at different models, you will be ready to return to the chosen artist to explain your expectations and interests so that he can create your personal masterpiece.
Neo-traditional tattoos on your body
The stunning designs of modern tattoo artists are likely to be the centerpiece of any ink art on your body. If there is no other competing work on you, have it placed on your shoulder or in another discreet place where you can give it visibility for a better effect when and where you want.
Neo-traditional tattoos can be very intense and self-contained, so they often appear on the calves or entire limbs. When the design uses this body shape, for example, with floral or reptile patterns encircling the back, the effect can be very dramatic.
With your entire back like a canvas, the visual impact can be even more striking. A talented tattoo artist can create impressive scenes with faces, animals and complex abstract elements. Prepare to sit still for a few minutes while the viewers rejoice at the details.
The advantage is that the area can be kept out of sight when you are only doing your daily business. Unless, of course, you have an arm or tentacle sticking out of the collar of your shirt.