From tribal sleeves to finger inkings – here’s how tattoo trends have evolved through history

Today, it seems like most celebrities are sporting some ink somewhere; everyone from Adele and David Beckham, to Helen Mirren have tattoos, and millions more have gone under the needle (often more than once).

While the body-art practice has actually been around for thousands of years, permanently marking our bodies with ink-based designs has only really become mainstream in the past 20-25 years.

Here’s a look at some of the most memorable tattoo trends that have left their mark over the decades…


Slash of Guns N’ Roses with a skull tattoo (Joel Ryan/PA)

Back in the Sixties, Seventies and even into the Eighties, tattooing wasn’t exactly fashionable like it is now. Traditionally, it was favoured by specific segments of society – like those in the army, sailors, counterculture groups like bikers, or prisoners.

Celebrity tattoo artist Kevin Paul, who was behind Ed Sheeran’s huge lion inking on his chest, says: “It was all tigers, dragons, love hearts, black panthers, skulls and Grim Reapers. It was a totally different game altogether back then. It wasn’t trendy, it wasn’t on TV or in the newspapers. Celebrities weren’t getting it done, it was very underground – people were actually very judged for having tattoos then.”

Skulls are traditionally powerful symbols in Spanish and Mexican Aztec culture and play an important role in celebrating the Day of the Dead, but they were a popular choice for tattoos in the Sixties and Seventies among people who didn’t necessarily have anything to do with that culture.

The Celtic Cross and Knots

The image of the Celtic Cross is thousands of years old, originating in Ireland and Scotland, but the trend of using these symbols in tattoos can be traced back to the west coast of the US in the Seventies. It moved over to Europe after that, and also marked the start of the trend for big, black and bold geometrical designs, which often included knotwork and mythical creatures.

“It was the first time people started to think about something a bit more personal to them,” says Kevin.

Barbed wire

Pamela Anderson in 1995 with her barbed wire tattoo (Jeff Gilbert/PA)

In the mid-Nineties, everything changed. Pamela Anderson got a barbed wire tattoo around her bicep, to mark her first cinematic role in the 1996 film Barb Wire – and in the process sparked one of the biggest trends of that decade (she’s since had it removed with laser treatment) .

“It was the first ever real tattoo trend that ever took off,” says Kevin – but wrap-around arm tattoos weren’t consigned to barbed wire. Mel C from the Spice Girls famously had a Celtic arm band, another very popular choice.

Tribal and Maori designs

Decathlete Dean Macey with a tribal tattoo (John Giles/PA)

George Clooney’s character in the 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn, Seth Gecko, sported a large tribal tat, reaching from his forearm all the way to his neck. “That was the biggest trend of all that sort of took over the world,” says Kevin. “No one really had tribal up until that point. Then everyone wanted to look cool and got tribal.”

And lots of people opted for similarly placed designs as Seth Gecko – loads of men started going for tribal inkings on their upper arm and across one side of their chest, while across the lower back was a popular choice for women.

Robbie Williams’ large scale Maori tattoo on his shoulder and bicep caused some controversy though. Traditional Maori tattooing, often on the face, is a sacred art form in New Zealand and the symbols have meanings that reflect the ‘whakapapa’ (family history) of the wearer. The design became popular with sports stars – Mike Tyson of course has a not-very-subtle Maori design on his face.

Clouds and angels

David Beckham in 2008 showing his sleeves including an angel and clouds (Martin Rickett/PA)

Kevin says it was David Beckham who really opened the door for tattoos to go totally mainstream. In 2000, the footballer and fashion icon had a guardian angel tattoo done on his upper back, followed by clouds and a cherub on his arm when Cruz was born in 2008.

“When David Beckham got clouds and angels, it was a game-changer,” says Kevin. “It took it to a household level of being normal. Lots of footballers copied David Beckham’s arm and everyone was getting clouds and angels. People who were negative about tattooing suddenly thought, ‘If David Beckham getting it done, it can’t be that bad’. Then TV picked up on it; that’s when tattooing really became mainstream.”

Finger tattoos


My first tattoo!! Lions rule! Thank you so much @bangbangnyc @badgalriri

A post shared by Cara Delevingne (@caradelevingne) on

Cara Delevingne probably has one of the most recognisable tattoos of recent years – the lion face on her finger that she got done in 2013. Kevin says: “Finger tattoos are a big thing in America, but Cara Delevingne was the biggest celeb to have one and that started off a bit of a trend. [However] I advise against realistic tattoos on fingers because they start to fade, like Cara’s has.”

The finger tat trend may have a shelf-life, but lions are continuing to grow in popularity. “For the last two years, I’ve probably done five or six lions a week,” says Kevin, who inked the huge lion on Ed Sheeran’s chest in 2015 with an oil-painting effect. “Watercolour and oil paint-effect tattoos are quite big now, I’d probably say Ed started that off – he’s really into art, he’s got a lot of paintings in his house.”

Pocket watches and clocks

Liam Payne is the latest celeb to sport the clock tat trend.

Kevin says it’s the biggest trend at the moment – he gets around two to three requests for them a day. “I absolutely detest them,” he admits. “People typically have them inside a sleeve design – they’re the tribal [trend] of today.

“Everyone is having the time that their kid was born, and everyone thinks they’re the first person to come up with that idea. Nine times out of ten, I have to say, ‘That’s a really tacky fashion tattoo, you don’t want that!'”


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