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Old Traditional Referance

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Ive been told in order to stay original we must copy the original. I've also heard if you're not referencing a traditional design, then you're not doing traditional "right." SO to be a traditional artist then we must have a lot of good reference to put spins on and make unique. I know there's many books out there and lots of legends to look at. I have a Coleman design on my arm that i thought was a Stony and maybe Cap got it from somewhere else. I enjoy tracing this stuff to the roots and always looking for more.

What do you guys reference? Which sources do you go to?

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  • 8 months later...

Awesome topic!! 

Many of the images we consider traditional are rooted in military tradition. Before the days of cyberspace and social media, having a military client base meant that your tattoos would be traveling the globe and reaching a much larger audience than if you just serviced a local clientele. Good examples would be artists such as Sailor Jerry and Ernie Sutton.

As far as style goes, the old saying, "bold will hold," kind of sums up the qualities that give a tattoo that traditional look. Older tattooers had a limited palette also, so there are some colors that don't quite look right in a traditional tattoo.

@briankelly puts out some awesome flash along those lines... perhaps he can add a thing or two to the discussion?

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  • 2 weeks later...

thanks for the mention @ibradley, i think if you want to make traditional tattoos, you should reference older tattoo flash.  for me it gets a little boring to just repaint the older images, though there is nothing wrong with that.  i have been applying the brion gysin/william burroughs technique of cut-ups to try to make something new, while staying very rooted in traditional tattoos.  there is a great book called Milton Zeis: Tattooing As You Like it that you should check out if you haven't already.  I'm including a picture of some of my latest flash, just to give you something to look at.


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A limited palette definitely adds a vintage feel (not that your artwork doesn't already have that). Thank you for the insight man! I'll definitely look into that Zeis book for information and inspiration.

It's almost a year old, but here is a picture of my latest flash sheet to share!


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During my last tattoo session I was discussing how bad the artwork was with older traditional tattoos. She had a book about the Bowery tattooing in NYC. That had pictures of the old flash shops had on their wall. Sailor Jerry style and a lot more. His was actually among the better examples. But there was no reason to be putting out bad artwork by 1920 or 1930.

I believe that true artists were few at the time and most work was copied from existing flash. I find it nice to see traditional flash cleaned up and redrawn.

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  • 1 month later...

I picked up a copy of Lost Love from Yellowbeak last year. 


Totally amazing book, rich with tattoo heritage and full of a gold mine of ideas. Like Brian, I like to redraw the older ones. But, I'm no expert, it's just something I love doing. Here area couple of Doc King pieces I redrew and a Sailor Frank one (although that's more of a straight up repaint).


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