American Traditional Tattoo Guide

American Traditional Tattoo Guide

American traditional tattoos are timeless pieces of art that have spanned multiple generations. Instantly recognizable, each tattoo design can be traced back to a particular moment in American history. 

There isn't a tattoo artist unfamiliar with the American traditional tattoo. Traditional American tattoos, with their distinctive color palette and lines, are legendary, from the best tattoo shop to a backroom ink den. 

We'll look at everything you need to know about American traditional tattoos so that you'll know what tattoo should you get  during your next tattoo consultation

American Traditional Tattoo History

Norman Collins (Sailor Jerry) was a pioneer of the american tattoo style. Back then, identities were sought, and mainstream culture was rejected. However, its early followers were seeking something beyond society's limitations. They were sailors and seamen. To tell their traveling tales, sailors like Captain Cook and his crew tattooed each other as a form of documentation on the skin. 

Tattoos were associated mainly with homeless seamen and circus travelers for most of history. However, when many cultures and classes of men merged during World War 2, the artform reemerged and eventually became mainstream. 

The Old School Tattoo Style Guide


Specific characteristics distinguish traditional American tattoos from others. 

  • They are heavily saturated
  • They have seemingly simple yet ultimately intriguing designs
  • They have slight shading and are minimalist
  • Designed like drawing (And not project realism)
  • Bold black outlines are a staple
  • Plenty of robust colors are used

Old Meets New

In contrast to the old-school Sailor Jerry tattoos, neo-traditional tattoos are more progressive. Color palettes and techniques are nuanced, but they retain a bold design approach found in traditional tattoo artists.

As with traditional tattoos, neo-traditional tattoos contain the following elements:

  • Thick and clean lines
  • An eye-catching design
  • Colors that pop
  • Designs in 2D that are simple

Neo-traditional tattoos go a step further to include: 

  • More diverse colors
  • Shading and depth to portray a 3D feel
  • Increased textures
  • More designs and the addition of other characters and animals
  • Expansive and decorative extras

Main Symbols and Meaning in Old School Tattoos


Let's take a look at what exactly defines American Traditional Tattoos.

Sailor Tattoos And Ship Tattoos

A tattoo shop named Sailor Jerry operated near Honolulu's intersection during the war, as various classes of American men converged. By mastering the creative techniques, he developed what we now revere as the traditional style.

  • Ship Tattoos
  • Sailors displayed the boats both literally and metaphorically through traditional ship tattoos. It represents danger and adventure as well as a sailor's duty. A ship represents independence, courage, and honor on a symbolic level.

    Despite its strength, a ship is still humbled by the power of a large storm, which can come along at any moment. It is generally considered lucky for the crew to return home safely to their homes if they have tattoos of ships or anchors. A standard tattoo phrase that appears on boats is "Homeward Bound."

    Animal tattoo

    Animal tattoos play a significant role in the traditional American tattoo catalog. 

  • Swallow Tattoo
  • Old school tattoos featuring swallows are very popular. In addition to being tattooed by sailors to indicate they have sailed nautical 5000 miles, they are also associated with returning home. 

  • Snake Tattoos
  • In addition to potency and power, snake tattoos symbolize rebirth and a new start. The typical representation is of them coiled and ready to strike or bite the hand. As a result, the snake totem conveys a powerful message of protection against evil, misfortune, and possible fights.

  • Eagle Tattoos
  • The old school tattoo master Sailor Jerry viewed traditional eagle tattoos as a patriotic symbol of an ideal America. A country with convictions that never back down. He often depicts eagles with the star-spangled banner. 

    Anchor tattoo

    There is also a link between anchor tattoos and sailors' lives, evoking an old-school nautical motif. Sailors' lives are protected by their anchors at sea.

    Having a mom tattoo refers to the most secure relationship in our lives, which keeps us grounded, which is why "Mom" is commonly seen on anchors.

    Skull tattoo

    Memento mori (remember your death in Latin) is strongly associated with traditional skull tattoos. Tattoos with skulls and death themes are popular because we take them to the grave with us.

    A skull, however, was often the mark of warriors, mercenaries, and adventurers in ancient times - people whose life choices represented either accepting death or fighting it.

    Heart tattoo

    Many sailors wore heart tattoos to symbolize the risk they took when they went to sea. For sailors, the heart tattoo represented a visual piece of imagery constantly during months at sea. In addition, hearts often had banners displaying loved ones' names.

    Girl tattoo

    In the old days, sailors would get pin-up girl tattoos to connect them to their hometowns while out at sea. Pin-up is an interpretation of femininity, subverting the way women were usually portrayed in popular art.

    Pin-up girls were a fantasy version of good luck charms for airmen, sailors, and soldiers during World War II as a morale booster. As opposed to war, they represented a simpler time back home, when things were more relaxed and fun.

    American Traditional Portrait Tattoos


    Another classic American traditional tattoo style was that of the portrait. Again, various characters were used, often with subtle or obvious political and social meanings. Some were also just classic fictional characters that looked great in ink. 

    The classic American tattoo style will live on forever due to the distinctive style and rich history that each design represents.

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