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A Guide on Traditional American Tattoos

Want to try a bold and striking tattoo on your body? The traditional American tattoo style is a great choice for you!  

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Also known as ‘old school’ tattoos, this art style has become popular around the world for its impressive concepts, such as patriotism, nature, and animal designs. 

Let’s take a look at the origin and fascinating designs of the traditional American tattoo technique. 

History of Traditional American Tattoos

eagle traditional american tattoo

Traditional American tattoos were popularized worldwide in the 1960s. It started when Norman Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry, built his tattoo shop in Honolulu, Hawaii. He spent years learning Japanese tattoo techniques from masters and innovated tattoo art according to his style, which became the standard for American tattoos. 

During the 1950s and 1960s, Americans, especially convicts and outlaw biker gangs, chose to be inked with aggressive elements. In the late 70s and early 80s, some decided to have tattoos to express different sentiments or beliefs, such as disdain for conformity. 

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Nowadays, traditional American tattoos continue to improve, and new techniques are being introduced. The old-school style has been combined with different detailing and high-quality design. No wonder this tattoo style is still popular in the modern days. 

Characteristics of a Traditional American Tattoo 

eagle tattoo
Photo courtesy of Szoszek 1. 

There are tattoo styles that originated from different parts of the world, and these have characteristics that make it possible to distinguish them from one another. Here are the characteristics that make a traditional American tattoo unique: 

1. Dark and Intense Theme and Subjects 

Traditional American tattoos are not for those who lack boldness. These tattoo designs are distinctive, vivid, and eye-catching. The ideal representations of the American traditional tattoos are an eagle and a skull, or a snake and a skull

In American tattoos, a human skull is emphasized by adding blood or other details, such as daggers or arrows, to make it appear darker and more frightening. As the theme is intense, you can’t help but recognize a skull as soon as you see it.  

However, the idea is that anything could become acceptable after you have one: death, love, and rage. 

2. Realistic Themes that Reflect Real Things 

American tattoos typically stick to images that are more accurate representations of reality, and professional tattoo artists produce imaginative and exotic designs. Because of this, objects like flowers, snakes, and faces frequently appear in non-abstract forms. 

3. Sharpness and Fine Detailing 

A typical American tattoo will be very distinct and simple, with sharpness and fine detailing on the design. It may be created using stark contrasts and lines, and each image has amazing details.  

4. Creative and Impressive Color Scheme 

Traditional American tattoos typically stick to a palette of red, green, yellow, and a ton of black. As long as the tattoo maintains its natural aesthetics, there are virtually no limitations on how colorful it can be.  

5. Rich Historical Representation 

You can grasp the significance of the traditional American tattoo once you look closer at that historical context. The milestone of Sailor Jerry serves as a representative of American culture, including patriotism.  

Traditional American Tattoo Designs and Their Symbolisms 

American traditional tattoos combine maritime themes, military images, and tributes to tattoo history that dates back even further than Sailor Jerry’s era. These include Native American and Japanese influences. 

1. Anchor Tattoo 

anchor tattoo
Photo courtesy of Piercing Models. 

As it represents staying anchored or enduring a storm, an anchor is a sign of strength, stability, and resilience. It is a well-known design that sailors have long preferred in the classic American tattoo style. It might be inked to wish them luck as they set out on their travels or when they return from a trip.  

Frequently, the anchor tattoo design has a banner with a loved one’s name on it to serve as a consolation or a reminder of what is waiting for them back home. It is a pattern that also complements other nautical images like a ship or a swallow. 

However, sailors are not the only people who can have an anchor tattoo. The anchor represents stability, security, a strong foundation, and safety. It honors the first Westerners to sail across the seas and leave their communities behind in search of something new.  

During World War II, it was a common practice for Naval personnel to advise sailors and marines on how to identify the service brand to which they were firmly loyal. 

2. Swallow Tattoo 

arm swallow tattoo
Photo courtesy of Piercing Models.

When someone has finished a journey, they may like to get inked with the swallow, a bird connected to sailors. It can also be permanently inked on the body at intervals of 5000 nautical miles to mark the distance traveled and the experiences gained along the journey. The bird stands for going back home and symbolizes luck and wealth on your journey.  

As the swallow is said to take the deceased’s spirit to the afterlife, it can also have a negative connotation and is occasionally used to refer to someone who has perished at sea. This design is frequently used on the hand, chest, and neck. 

According to different mythologies, sailors would acquire a tattoo of a swallow to represent their unwavering commitment to returning home because swallows breed and raise their young in the same location every year. Because of this, a lot of people appreciate the romantic undertone of returning to their beloved. If you want to give it even more significance, you can add a banner with a meaningful message or quote or the initials of a loved one. 

3. Compass Tattoo 

compass tattoo
Photo courtesy of Bettie Tattoos.

Travelers are guided by a compass, which serves as a sign of safety and protection and helps them stay on track and avoid getting lost. It is also evidence of the sailors’ expertise in navigating the seas and returning home. It may also signify a desire to follow a moral course. 

The traditional American style compass has a bold and vibrant overall design, and to further emphasize its meaning, it is usually accompanied by roses or other marine images. This design is widely sought after for this type of tattooing because of its symmetry and attractiveness. 

4. Eagle Tattoo 

The bald eagle is one of the first images that spring to mind when you think of America. It stands for national pride, but it also represents strength, pride, independence, and grace. Many classic American tattoo designs feature fierce and recognizable pictures as their focal point. 

The eagle is frequently linked to strength, spirituality, and independence. Additionally, it has come to represent American nationalism. It’s a subject that looks especially spectacular when inked in the Old School tattoo style.  

Both men and women, who cherish the American dream or wish to pay tribute to their country, or those who have fought for it find an eagle tattoo appealing. 

5. Pin-Up Girl Tattoo 

pin-up girl tattoo
Photo courtesy of Niko Tattoo Artist.

The pin-up girl can be interpreted in a variety of ways. To some, the image conjures up feelings of passion and temptation, but to others, it is a celebration of the female form, a display of femininity and beauty. The name refers to hanging up a poster or portrait of a woman, who was frequently attractive, on the wall. When men couldn’t see ladies or their loved ones because they were away at war or on the sea for months or years at a time, this provided some solace.  

Today’s tattoos frequently feature pin-up lady designs that were inspired by Sailor Jerry’s artwork. People still acquire pin-up girl tattoos in the present era, often in the likeness of a loved one. They are stunning, elegant, and wonderful. 

6. Skull Tattoo 

The human skull is frequently interpreted as a death emblem or a bad omen. Because of its intimidating aspect, the skull can make for an intriguing tattoo. It can represent thinking about death and how fleeting life is. It can also be interpreted as a statement indicating you are not afraid of dying or reminding you to make the most of each day.  

Skulls are incredibly adaptable and can be stylized in a variety of ways. Depending on how the artist uses it and what the viewer wants to assign to it, this element can have a wide range of meanings. In the Old School, a flower, a flag with text, or a dagger are some examples of popular images to ink next to the skull. 

7. Flower Tattoo 

rose tattoo
Photo courtesy of Osvaldo.Orsini.

The rose is a fundamental element in traditional tattoo designs, sometimes paired with various representations of skulls, daggers, and names. Usually painted red, the rose was applied to servicemen during World War II, along with the word “Mom” or “Mother.” It was used to signify grace, affection, and fidelity to those who had given birth to them.  

Even now, roses are a common motif in traditional American tattoos. They are a common representation of love, just like our hearts. Other flowers are also a great option for both men and women, whether as a solitary piece or a filler because it generally represents beauty, growth, and vitality. 

8. Snake Tattoo 

snake tattoo
Photo courtesy of NextWaveTattoo.

Because of their symbolism, snakes are a common tattoo design. Others see them as a symbol of wisdom, rebirth, and metamorphosis. However, due to their symbolism in the Christian religion, many people view them as a representation of evil that leads us down a destructive path.  

In the conventional American style, snakes are frequently seen coiling up, occasionally holding a blade or a flower, and baring their teeth. It could indicate that you should be avoided or serve as a reminder of the good and bad in everyone. Snakes, which lose their old skin, are also a representation of fresh starts.  

9. Ship Tattoo 

A ship is significant to sailors because they could spend months or even years at sea. It was not just a place to call home, but it also stood for direction and a way of life. While the symbolism of a ship tattoo varies, travel is the main one. It’s a great option if you want to pay tribute to an ancestor who was a sailor or want a visual representation of how you are navigating the waters of your own life.  

Ship tattoos are seen as a symbol of freedom and adventure. They also stand for a desire to explore the unknown and represent wanderlust. It was a common example of a tattoo applied to many sailors during World War II and sometimes included other designs, like mermaids, nautical stars, or sailor-related designs. 

10. Dice Tattoo 

dice tattoo
Photo courtesy of Seoul Ink Tattoo.

Traditional American tattoos frequently feature dice, which represent luck. The dice’s numbers will be crucial in determining whether the dice are signaling a good or unfavorable chance.  

The dice tattoo also represents one of the sought-after diversions while on board a ship for American sailors in the 1940s: gambling.  

On the battlefield, dice also represented luck. Even though people today acquire them in a variety of situations, they have a similar connotation to gambling in terms of luck and ills. 

Wrapping Up 

Whatever design you choose for your traditional American tattoo, what matters is that you find its symbolism meaningful and its design captivating. This way, you’ll be able to appreciate it much more and be proud to have it on your body. 

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.