American Traditional Tattoo Guide (With 100+ Inspiration Tattoos)

For many old school tattoo lovers, American traditional tattoo style is the only style. A lot of different common elements come to mind, but the old school tattoos were here first and for many the choice as their only tattoo style.

To learn more about the most common tattoo genres, we go into detail about different tattoo styles and here we go down the memory lane and into the history of tattooing.

Among the most significant and acclaimed tattoo genres is American traditional tattoos.

There are some basic characteristics of these tattoo designs that can help someone find their best tattoo artist and tattoo design.

Let’s dive in!

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Classic Americana Tattoo Style – History of Old School Tattoos

After World War II, the tattooed hero, Norman Collins aka Sailor Jerry pioneered this popular style in Hawaii which was the crossroads for millions of American men at the time. Such pieces imbue their bearers with the same ideas from which they were born: a rejection of mainstream culture and the search for a new identity with the revival of traditional style tattoos.

The first to follow the art were those who wanted to escape the limitations of society in search of something else. And they were none but mariners. Captain James Cook and the crew were inspired by their travels in the East and began to tattoo each other to share their travel stories.

With time, tattoos remained within a small section of the spectrum of American culture: Homeless sailors and circus freaks.

And as the various classes of American men united at Honolulu’s intersection during the war, there was a tattoo shop run by a heavily tattooed former Navy man named Sailor Jerry.

He refined his style through sheer mastery of the creative techniques into what we reverence as traditional style today.

American Traditional Tattoo Style Guide

The traditional tattoos can always be recognized by several distinct characteristics:

  • they are highly saturated (which makes them look good on any skin tone)
  • the designs looks simple (as in 2D) but looks can be deceiving
  • less shading is used, usually minimal
  • it is meant to look like a drawing
  • outlines are bold and black
  • colors are generously filled under the skin (which helps them age better)

American Traditional Tattoo Meanings – Common Elements & Symbols

American attoos include all kinds of symbolism from the most ancient to the most recent ones.

At first sight they seem very lucid, almost absurd, but they have a long history that brought these tattoo designs where they currently are.

Most common motifs are:

  • swallow
  • anchor
  • shark
  • dragon
  • skull
  • snake
  • panther
  • lucky 13 tattoos
  • eagle
  • ship (nautical)
  • heart

These common classic americana tattoo motifs can have universal or a completely personal meaning.

Below we will explore the origin of each of these popular motifs with examples.

Swallow Tattoos

Traditional swallow tattoos are one of the most common old school tattoo motifs.

First associated with the sailors tattooing them to indicate they have sailed nautical 5000 miles, they are also associated with the idea of return. Swallows have a migration pattern to return home to San Juan Capistrano once a year, which brings out a strong connection to always coming back.

Additionally, some believed that if a sailor dies at sea, the tattooed swallow will carry his soul home to heaven.

In American old school tattoo culture, it was quite common to see swallows tattooed in pairs. Often, a sailor would get one swallow tattooed and upon his return home, would add the second to represent the successful end of the journey.

Traditional anchor tattoos are of course also tied to the sailor’s life, linking it to an early old school nautical motif.

At sea, the anchor is the most secure object in a sailor’s life.

This security can be metaphorically also applied to important people in our lives, which is why you would commonly see “Mom” on the anchor – hinting back with a mom tattoo to the most secure relationship in our life that keeps you grounded.

The anchor also represented a sailor’s ability to stay grounded and calm during various unforeseen obstacles and challenges the sea would present while they were away.

The traditional anchor tattoo design often has a ribbon along the bottom of the anchor, displaying the name of a family member or loved one, in constant memory while the sailor was away.

In the maritime life, some say anchor tattoos indicate that the sailor has reached the rank of boatswain. Also, wearing an anchor tattoo symbolized having crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Sailor Jerry had a real sailor’s approach to shark tattoos.

You want to hate ’em, but you gotta love ’em.

Getting an animal tattoos for many are about taking on its traits. Strong family ties are depicted with wolves or bears. Powerful personality with tigers.

But getting a shark tattoo is more about what you overcome. A shark on your arm says you’re willing to stand your ground. It says you’re not about to become someone else’s seafood.

Sailors would often get inked with a shark tattoo to protect them from dangers at sea.

Along those lines, the shark also showed others strength and the command of the sea, giving the confidence boost and protecting the sailor, as the shark has no natural predators in the ocean or in nature.

Its the motivator for the sailor to show confidence and control of the sea, while constantly moving forward.

Given sharks can never stop moving, this reference represented the constant journey of a sailor at sea.

The traditional dragon tattoos started thanks to Sailor Jerry.

He was in one of the first contacts with the Japanese tattoo masters. Jerry’s dragon tattoos were oriental and Asian inspired.

For many tattooed sailors, dragons symbolized that they have served in Asia.

Golden dragons on the other hand meant that one has navigated beyond the International Date Line.

Traditional skull tattoos carry a strong memento mori (remember your death in Latin) aspect with them.

Given that we take our tattoos with us to the grave, skulls and other death themes are important in the tattoo world.

On the other hand, in the ancient world and in Jerry’s day, skulls were often the marks of warriors, mercenaries and adventurers – people whose life choices represented coming to terms with death or setting oneself against it.

That said, skulls are commonly represented with daggers – either behind them or stabbing right through the.

Because daggers were weapons easy to hide, they were quite often used by murderers and traitors. The dagger therefore is an ambivalent symbol: it can represent both the hero and the villain.

Snake tattoos represent potency and power, rebirth and new beginnings.

They are typically shown coiled and ready to strike, or already biting the hand.

There is a strong representation of a don’t-tread-on-me mentality, which gives the snake totem a powerful message of warding off evil, misfortune and potential brawls.

Sailor Jerry’s favorite snake to ink was a King Cobra.

Snakes or serpents are believed to be one of the oldest symbols being used in mythology, religion, and art. Accordingly, it appears in Egyptian iconography, it’s one of the most important symbols in the Bible.

Depending on culture, in some places on the Earth snakes can be seen as foe or friend, a symbol of life or death; truly dualistic element.

Traditional panther tattoos are usually done as totems of prowess and virility, with an added element of symbolizing a connectedness to nature.

Sailor Jerry was famous for his panther tattoos, representing these animals particularly ferocious and masculine.  He would draw their claws red, often bloody, open jaws and occasionally in the company of a naked woman.

Among other meanings are guardianship, freedom and courage.

In the traditional tattoo world, there has been a variety of ways the panther was depicted. One of, if not the most popular, is the crawling panther. This is tattooed to give the appearance of the panther crawling across the wearer’s skin.

Panther tattoos were at their highest popularity during the ‘50s and ‘60s, when soldiers and greasers alike got tattoos of the predator during World War II.

It’s likely that so many of them choose the design because of its see-it-a-mile-away, tough-guy aesthetic, but some people think it’s because the dense shading of the design made a perfect cover-up.

Lucky 13 tattoos are heavily tied with the spiteful nature of many tattoo lovers.

Historically on the margins, this subculture of superstitious sailors, prison gangs and outlows liked turning common and traditional symbols on its head.

That’s why Sailor Jerry took the number 13 – infamous for bringing bad luck – and proclaimed it the lucky number in the tattoo world.

The old school tattoo motto of facing your fears and bad luck was sealed for years to come.

This is one of the explanations for the Friday 13th to be commonly known as the tattoo holiday, when tattoo shops will charge $13 (or £13 in the UK) for certain tattoos on this day.

Traditional eagle tattoos were the symbol of an idealized America for the old school tattoo master Sailor Jerry.

A country that stands with the courage of its convictions and backs down for no one. Jerry’s eagle tattoos are fierce and iconic, often depicted in association with the flag.

That said, eagles are a symbol of America, but also the values of honor, prowess and intelligence.

Alternatively, the eagle motif is often shown as a symbol of masculinity, power, dominance, focus, and strength.

Traditional pin-up girl tattoos were done by sailors in the old times to give them the only connection to their old life in their hometowns while out at sea.

The term pin up represents the ideal of femininity, but also subverts the usual ways women are portrayed in art.

From maidenly perfection to vixenish temptation.

Nowadays, both women and men wear pin up girl tattoos.

Popularized in the World War II as a morale booster for airmen, seamen, and the likes of the army, these pin up girls weren’t always representations of a woman that someone knew, but rather a “fantasized” version of a good luck charm for those on duty.

They represented “back home”, where things were more relaxed and fun, instead of the horrors of war.

Traditional ship tattoos displayed the boats as both practical and metaphorical for the sailors.

It’s where you go for work as a sailor – but it also represents danger and adventure.

Sailor Jerry loved ships and held master papers on every major type of vessel. His legendary clipper ship tattoos represent both the call to adventure and the determination to be “Homeward Bound”.

It is said that professional sailors only tattoo a boat with fully deployed sails if they had crossed Cape Horn, one of the toughest sea crossings.

However, some people express this way that they have overcome a great difficulty.

On a more metaphorical level, ships represent the idea of independence, courage and honor.

Still, no matter if a sailor or not, naval themed tattoo do always carry an element of adventure and risk with them. The journey to unknown that no one knows how will end.

A ship is a symbol of strength, determination and the willingness to fight adversity, but still humbled by the weakness of a big enough of a storm that can come by.

In fact, in marine circles the tattoos of ships and anchors are considered a kind of lucky charms that guarantee that the crew will return to their home safe and sound. It is not uncommon to find boat tattoos accompanied by the phrase “Homeward Bound”.

Traditional heart tattoos to some sailors alluded to the risk they were taking in going out to sea.

Sailors were often out at sea for months at a time, with the heart tattoo constantly representing a visual piece of imagery.

The heart was often seen with a banner, displaying a loved one’s name across it.

Traditional VS Neotraditional Tattoo – What’s The Difference?

Neo-traditional tattoos represent a more progressive approach to the old school Sailor Jerry style tattoos.

They provide a more nuanced color palette and modern techniques, but with the bold approach to design of the traditional tattoo masters.

Neo-traditional tattoos include the central elements of the traditional tattoos:

  • clean thick lines
  • bold design
  • bright colors
  • simple 2D designs

However, the differences are clear – the neotraditional tattoo style guides include:

  • a larger color palette (not only the primary colors as in the traditional tattoos)
  • modern techniques such as shading to add more depth and dimension for a more 3D feel
  • more texture
  • broader range of motifs including more flowers and animals
  • lush decorative details

The “New School” of tattoo started in the ’80s, as the traditional American tattooing became popular again.

This time around though, the tattoo artists started including the traditional tattoo elements with the impact of Art Nouveau, art deco, and Japanese art.

Additionally, around this time the tattoo techniques and tattoo equipment started getting better and more advanced, giving the tattoo artists more options for their artistic expression.

The new tattoo machines allowed easier shading, whereas the new ink gave brighter colors.

How Will Old School Tattoos Age?

One big advantage of the traditional American tattoos is that due to their thick lines and using primary colors is that they look well even decades after they have been tattooed.

Having a thick outline helps tattoos stay in place, with less blowout. Also, the simple designs help them remain clear even after years go by.

However, for all tattoos there is a usual tattoo healing timeline that you should be aware of.

Apart from that, there are some other factors to consider, too:

  • the value and tone of the skin. 
  • the skin’s frequency in the sun
  • how well one takes care of their skin.
  • the range of contrast in the tattoo

Finally, the quality in the execution of the tattoo is the most important element. All of these and more play into the longevity of a tattoo.

Traditional Tattoo Designs and Ideas

To help you with your research for your next tattoo design, below you will find our best traditional tattoos from our tattoo guides.

Click on the headline to learn more about each tattoo symbol.

Take a look below to check them out all:

Are you looking for a custom traditional tattoo design? We got you.

Our expert tattoo artists will provide a quick initial draft to get you going.
Happy inking ❤

Milena Petrovic

Milena Petrovic

Co-founder of Tattoo Stylist

About the author

Milena has decided to start an organization that will create a safe environment for everybody to get their first, second or third tattoo and to encourage young people to transform their ideas into tattoos safely, with talent and vision.

You can find her writing about tattoos on Quora or updating our Pinterest profile with awesome tattoo ideas!

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