American Traditional Tattoo

American Traditional Tattoos Explained: History, Symbolism & More

How old school tattoos became a mainstay in American culture.

American Traditional Tattoos

Old school is the easiest tattoo style to identify.

Visually, each artist will put their own stamp on an American Traditional piece.

But there are some important guidelines to follow.

Modern tattoo styles are distinct in their own way but open to interpretation.

Fluidity suits some creative types, and they tend to work with modern styles.

Old school artists love to find their creativity within an established aesthetic.

It is a challenge, and it ties the artist back to the original taste-makers in American tattoo.

The Old School Style Guide

Old School tattoos look good on any skin tone because they are highly saturated.

The designs are deceptively simple. Rather than using several shades to create dimension, a Traditional tattoo is 2D.

There may be some shading on certain details, but it is minimal.

The art of an American Traditional design is to make it look like a drawing.

Bold black outlines are complemented by large blocks of saturated reds, blues, and yellows.

These colors are generously filled under the skin, and some say Old School tattoos age better as a result.

It just takes a lot longer for all that ink to break down.

In tattoos with a lot of color variance, some parts will fade faster than others.

Though bold black lines and simple blocks of color look easy, they are anything but.

It takes a skilled artist to pull off these precise designs.

Other styles may be up for interpretation, but an Old School tattoo has to be clean and instantly recognizable.

In more flowing designs, a botched line can be disguised with shading and fine details.

But bold designs look off if they aren’t clean around the edges.

So make sure you find an artist who is as enthusiastic as you are about American Traditional tattoos!

Old Meets New

There are some common themes in Old School Tattoo art, and they each have their own symbolism.

If you like the look of Old School tattoos but not the images, there are some really neat options available.

Some designs take modern characters and references and make them look Old School.

This can be a fun way to bridge the gap between mainstream modern tattoos and the badassery of yesterday’s ink.

The History of American Traditional Tattoos

Tattoos are an ancient art form, but they took longer to take off in America.

Maud Wagner
Maud Wagner (1907)

Maude Wagner, one of the OG names in the game, was the first recorded female tattoo artist in America.

She met Gus Wagner in 1904, and this was the beginning of her tattoo journey.

Maude was working as a circus performer at the time and Gus was a heavily tattooed tattoo artist.

He began teaching Maude his skills and the two became a famous tattoo artist couple.

Even their daughter would one day join the family business.

During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, tattoos were common among people like the Wagners.

They lived on the fringes of society, and in some ways, their tattoos communicated that.

Tattooed people who weren’t vaudeville or circus performers were generally seamen.

Sailors and pirates traveled to islands, so they were privy to tribal tattoos.

British explorer Captain Cook and his gang are credited for popularizing tattoos in the Western world. 

Though other explorers had written about the art, Captain Cook coined the phrase “tattoo.”

This comes from the Polynesian term “tatau.”

For a long time, American tattoo artistry remained on the outskirts, with people who dedicated their lives to not fitting in.

It was during the second world war that tattoo artistry really took off.

Soldiers would tattoo each other with patriotic symbols.

Sailor Jerry, a prominent name in the American Traditional style, had a shop on a popular strip in Honolulu.

This was often where sailors would go on shore leave, and they’d literally stumble upon Sailor Jerry’s shop.

It became commonplace to get “screwed, stewed, and tattooed” while on leave.

It was during this time that the enduring symbols in American Traditional tattoos were popularized and refined.

Traditional Flash for Old School Tattoos

When a tattoo artist talks about “flash” designs, they’re referring to a wall of available artwork.

Modern tattoos are more about customization, and to copy a special piece is a big no-no in the world of tattoos.

Flash art is cool because you can reach back in time and get the very same tattoo as one of your relatives.

They tie you to the history of tattoos in America.

For the longest time, standard Old School flash art didn’t have a name.

It was just the only option. You would walk into a tattoo shop, pick a design, and then go on your merry way with a new piece of ink.

What’s more, you likely only paid $3 for the whole experience.

Once tattooing grew beyond those first shops, different styles began to emerge.

As this happened, it was necessary to have terms like “Old School” and “flash.”

Some modern artists will create their own flash panels for special events.

At these events, people can get inexpensive tattoos if they are willing to have the same design as someone else.

It is a fun way to promote a tattoo shop, get to know a community, or sometimes raise money for charity.

Common Symbols in Old School Tattoos

The original flash designs may have varied from artist to artist, but there were some common themes:


It just isn’t America without eagles.

The bald eagle is the official animal for the United States of America, so it is a very patriotic choice.

Eagles stand for freedom and power.

Norman Collins, the artist behind the now-famous Sailor Jerry monicker, had a famously ideal concept of America.

He was patriotic, but had many issues with the USA, issues he was very vocal about.

Many Americans were feeling disillusioned by the American Dream during Collins time.

The eagle represented the version of America they were sold, and searching for.

In modern times, some have been vocally anti-Sailor Jerry.

While he admired Asian art styles, he also had bigoted views toward Asian people.

He hosted a radio show where he was frank about some opinions that would be considered outdated today.

What is your ideal America?

If you choose to get an Old School eagle tattoo, it may come up in conversation!

Diving Swallow

Have you noticed that most diving swallow tattoos come in pairs?

There are, appropriately, two reasons for this.

A swallow is the traditional symbol for having sailed 5000 miles.

A sailor would often get a swallow tattoo on his way out to sea, and then another upon his safe return.

Swallows can be a romantic notion because they act as a promise to return home.

Many sailors got diving swallow tattoos as a symbol of devotion to their significant others back home.

Alternatively, if a sailor died at sea, sometimes loyal friends would get memorial swallow tattoos.

In legends, the swallow can escort the fallen sailor to heaven.


Sailors would often get anchor tattoos after crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

More than that, it has a symbolic meaning that is pretty easy to define.

Anchors serve to ground a vessel in turbulent waters.

The same can be said for a sailor’s loved ones.

It is common for anchor tattoos to have a name underneath them as a tribute.

Pin-Up Girls

Sailing was a male-dominated field.

For those sailors who liked the company of a woman, it was difficult to go for months without seeing one.

As pin-up magazines gained popularity in America, sailors would pay tribute to these idealized women.

Pin-up tattoos are still one of the more popular styles available.

American Traditional Tattoo Ideas

Old School tattoos with their bold, beautiful designs may be streamlined, but they are not simple.

Got a craving for an Old School tattoo, but stuck on ideas?

Check out our gallery for some new old ideas!

American Traditional Floral Tattoos

American Traditional Panther Tattoos

American Traditional Tiger Tattoos

American Traditional Portrait Tattoos

American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoos
American Traditional Portrait Tattoos
American Traditional Portrait Tattoos
American Traditional Portrait Tattoos
American Traditional Portrait Tattoos
American Traditional Portrait Tattoos
American Traditional Portrait Tattoos
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo
American Traditional Portrait Tattoo

Want to commemorate someone you love, but aren’t a fan of the hyper-realistic portrait look?

Old school portrait tattoos can be a really striking choice.

Giving someone the 2D treatment breaks them down to their simplest form.

This is such a great way to zero in on someone’s best qualities.

Unlike a realistic portrait, there isn’t much risk of getting someone’s features incorrect, or casting them in an unflattering light.

We’ve all seen the results of a realistic portrait tattoo gone wrong.

An American traditional portrait is typically more complex than other designs in the genre, showing a little more shading and attention to detail.

That said, American traditional portraits maintain the spirit of the aesthetic.

Color palettes are generally simple and bold, with clean and simple lines.

Subjects may be paired up with old school imagery, like swallows, anchors, or banners, to enhance the image.

Traditionally, an old school tattoo would likely pay tribute to a lost loved one or a faithful sweetheart.

These days, many people use American traditional portrait tattoos to pay homage to their favorite celebrities.

The style has a romantic quality to it that flatters every face.

Traditional portraits are an appropriate homage to someone with classic appeal.

Some people will choose an image that, rather than honoring a specific person, pays tribute to their love of dapper fashion.

Some spiritual types will even get an old school portrait of Jesus.

This image could mean many things, depending on the wearer.

Likely it stands for the urge to be patient and accepting.

American Traditional Ship Tattoos

The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.

William Arthur Ward

A lot of romantic things have been said about ships.

It makes sense that this nautical image reigns supreme in the world of American traditional tattoos.

After all, the people who popularized tattoos in mainstream America were often sailors returning home from their adventures.

Sailing a ship is often used as a metaphor for moving through life.

At times waters may be turbulent, and sunshine may be scarce, but you need to learn to navigate through it all with grace and courage.

This is how old school ship tattoos went from representing a way of life to symbolizing a philosophy on it.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with an old school ship design, and you can choose something that matches your approach to life.

Are you a grand, showy ship with lots of billowing sails?

Or maybe you’d like something a little ooky and spooky- a Lovecraftian vessel with tentacles creeping up the sides.

Your choice of ship may say a lot about your choice of lifestyle, but it can also be a yearning for adventure.

Life at sea is unconventional and requires a lot of mental fortitude.

Are you seeking an experience that will challenge you and make you feel alive?

Your adventurous spirit may be well represented by an American traditional ship tattoo.

American Traditional Lighthouse Tattoos

Lighthouses are benevolent figures. They exist only to cast light, and to guide people.

There is no way of taxing a lighthouse or paying for its use.

A lighthouse was a hopeful sight to any sailor who’d been on a dark sea for too long.

Lighthouses mean land, and land means fresh food and new company. It may even mean you’re home.

A lighthouse tattoo for a sailor meant guidance and comfort.

These days, with all the attention of mental health, it can mean the same thing.

A lighthouse is a reminder that, at some point, you’re going to reach dry land. It can’t be stormy seas forever.

American traditional lighthouse tattoos may be great for mentors and teachers as well.

If you go through life with the noble intention of inspiring others, you’re likely something of a lighthouse figure yourself.

A lighthouse tattoo may be a reminder to stick to your mission, providing guidance and comfort to those who need it.

This tattoo design is also a nice, nostalgic way to pay homage to a coastal town.

If you grew up near the water, you probably have some charming memories of the shoreline.

Many lighthouses have their own distinct look and become beacons of pride for anyone who lives near them.

Why not immortalize your favorite lighthouse with a nostalgic design?

American Traditional Butterfly Tattoos

Butterflies get a reputation for being cliched in the tattoo world, but they’re a classic design.

Sailor Jerry had several flash pieces of butterflies, each bold and beautiful in its own way.

People often get unnecessarily gender-specific with butterflies.

They are a design that can look amazing on any gender, and their opulent wings make them highly customizable.

American traditional butterflies tend to have almost a stained glass look on their wings.

Highly saturated reds, blues, and yellows contrast each other on beautiful panels.

Sometimes, the butterfly’s body is replaced by a beautiful woman’s face.

Butterflies represent hope, transformation, and renewal.

They are a nice tattoo to have when you are entering a new phase of life, or leaving something negative behind.

In sailor lore, there was a superstition that seeing a butterfly before embarking on your mission meant you would die at sea.

A butterfly tattoo in this case could mean bravely facing your mortality.

Further to that point, some old school tattoos feature a butterfly with a skull’s face on it.

In modern times this may represent the movie Silence of the Lambs, but it has its own meaning beyond pop culture.

With butterflies symbolizing new life and skulls symbolizing death, a butterfly tattoo with a skull can be a reminder of one’s mortality.

Again, this would symbolize bravely facing death, at least intellectually.

American Traditional Dagger Tattoos

Daggers are ruthless weapons, and can sometimes be used stealthily on an unsuspecting victim.

The dagger isn’t noble or sophisticated like the sword, which needs to be drawn and handled a certain way.

Daggers are short, sharp, and used for quick results.

They can be a symbol of brutality, but they can also represent a person’s willingness to fight for what’s right.

An old school dagger tattoo on its own may indicate that the wearer is scrappy, eager for a fight.

But daggers are sometimes paired up with other imagery to take on a new meaning, including:

A Dagger with Rose Tattoos

Indicating that the wearer will defend the vulnerable. It can also symbolize the duality of beauty and life vs pain and death.

A Dagger through a Heart

Often symbolizing heartbreak, or perhaps that the wearer themselves is a heart-breaker.

It can also symbolize betrayal, or the head ruling the heart.

Dagger and Skull Tattoos

It can represent bravely facing one’s own mortality.

It is also sometimes seen as a symbol of protection.

It can also be a reference to the Jolly Roger, the popular skull & crossbones image from pirate ships.

A Dagger with an Eye

A “window to the soul,” eye tattoos often symbolize that a person is honest.

Paired with a dagger, it means this person is against taking cheap shots, and will fight an honest fight til the end.

American Traditional Snake Tattoos

Snakes are incredibly symbolic and have been since we started telling stories.

Look at the story of Adam and Eve, for example, who were tempted by a snake in the Garden of Eden.

An old school snake tattoo can represent a lot of things.

With sailing being a male-dominated profession, it has its obvious phallic symbolism.

A snake may be a symbol of your virility as a strong young man.

They don’t call the penis the “one-eyed snake” for nothing, and no doubt there was a lot of bawdy humor out at sea.

Snakes can take down prey much larger than themselves, so a person who chooses a snake as their familiar may feel they can take on any obstacle life throws at them.

Snakes also shed their skin, so they can be a symbol of transformation.

Maybe you’re dedicating yourself to a new life, or just had some hard work and sacrifice pay off in a big way.

A traditional snake tattoo can be a nice celebration of that milestone.

There’s also the idea of the venomous snake, who won’t attack you unless provoked.

Sometimes an old school design of a coiled-up snake meant “tread lightly,” and would be worn by people with a tough exterior.

American Traditional Eagle Tattoos

The bald eagle is the national symbol of America, and is considered an extremely noble creature.

For many people, this proud and powerful bird represents their ideal version of America.

It is a patriotic symbol, and is often accompanied by an American flag.

Having an American traditional eagle tattoo may mean the wearer is nostalgic for a time before their own.

Eagles are revered because of their amazing eyesight.

They can spot prey from great distances, and move at impressive speeds to hunt.

It is said that eagles can look directly into the sun.

So, if a baby eagle turns its eyes from the bright rays, it is cast out of the nest.

It is partially because of an Eagle’s eyes that it can reach soaring heights, higher than any other bird.

Eagles also have associations with the sun god in ancient Egyptian texts.

In this belief system, eagles are associated with strength and leadership.

Similarly, in Native American belief systems, the Eagle is considered the messenger of the gods.

A traditional eagle tattoo may mean a person has got a good perspective on life, and can see things from many angles.

They aren’t afraid to face obstacles.

They see themselves as a leader, someone who can tackle problems for the good of the group.

They may even be a spiritual guide in the community.

Native Woman Tattoos

One very popular design in old school tattooing seems to be the face of a Native American Woman, usually in silhouette.

Not much is written about this tattoo and its meaning, but American people have a history of romancing Native American people, especially women.

These women are seen as exotic and beautiful with a rich, interesting history.

In these images, a Native American woman is usually in profile.

She may be wearing either a headdress, or two braids with a feather in her hair.

Modern Attitudes toward American Traditional Native Woman Tattoos

While this is a traditional American tattoo style, it is falling out of favor in recent years.

Historically, people outside of the culture enjoy the imagery of Native American spiritual practices, but aren’t very knowledgeable or respectful of the history.

The original Indigenous people in America were colonized and forced out of their traditional practices.

To then take the imagery from that culture for your own purposes can be seen as an insult.

For example, many people at Coachella and other festivals enjoy wearing a headdress, which is also featured prominently in many old school tattoos.

But a headdress is something sacred in Indigenous traditions.

It is something earned, and only worn by esteemed members of the community.

Typically it is worn during very special ceremonies.

People should not get tattoos of Native American iconography without understanding the history behind it.

People are also sensitive to romanticized images of Native American women because they are very vulnerable to this day.

There is currently an urgent call for an investigation into countless missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada and the United States.

Those opposed to these tattoos argue that they make Native American women look like objects, in a time when they need to be taken seriously by the law.

Honoring Heritage

There are those, however, who seek to reclaim these images in a positive light.

Maybe you have a Native American background and want to pay tribute to your culture with an old school tattoo.

In that case, you may want to do some research into the tribe(s) your family belongs to.

You can incorporate colors and symbolism relevant to your background, making the tattoo a point of pride.

If you respectfully approach an Elder or friendship center in your area, you may be able to chat with the people there about your background and ask them how they feel about your tattoo.

Once you have approval from the community, you can wear your old school ink as a point of pride.

American Traditional Gypsy Girl Tattoos

Like Native American women tattoos, the gypsy tattoo has a complicated and somewhat problematic history.

First, an explanation on what gypsy tattoos are and why people get them:

Typically a gypsy woman tattoo features a beautiful dark-haired woman in silhouette, often wearing a headscarf and big hoop earrings.

The term gypsy is, for many people, synonymous with “fortune teller” or “psychic.”

Many people admire gypsy iconography and may choose to get a gypsy tattoo.

For hundreds of years and still today in pop culture, people from all backgrounds call themselves gypsies.

The general assumption is that calling oneself a gypsy means you are free-spirited, nomadic, and someone who connects to the earth.

All good things, in theory, but this is a cartoon version of a real group of people.

And it has, unfortunately, been harmful.

Romani people migrated from India to eighth-century Europe.

The reasons why they left India is a debate among historians, but likely they were facing persecution in their homeland.

When they arrived in Europe, people assumed they were from Egypt because of their dark complexions.

This is where the term “gypsy” comes from.

Romas have faced discrimination for years and continue to do so.

The early Romas were nomadic because they had to be to protect themselves.

But many people have the romantic idea of a mysterious fortune teller who comes into town, takes everyone’s money and then leaves.

This is where the term “gypped” or “what a gyp” comes from.

It is a racial slur.

It is hard to clear up misconceptions about Roma women because of (completely fabricated) shows like “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.”

This show presents as real life, serving only to perpetuate stereotypes.

American traditional gypsy woman tattoos are, undoubtedly, beautiful.

But perhaps it’s time to find a more appropriate way to express a free-spirited nature.

Perhaps you could get an old school portrait of a favorite free spirit in your life.

If divination is your thing and you want to pay tribute to its legacy, there are plenty of other ways to do so.

An image of stars and moons, tarot cards, or a palmistry diagram are all great choices.

American Traditional Swallow Tattoos

Even if you aren’t very familiar with old school tattoos, you’ve likely seen a swallow tattoo.

Swallows are typically drawn as if they’re swooping downward.

They may be holding something in their mouths in some cases, a message for example.

This is usually a love letter.

The swallows in American traditional tattoos are usually colored in a specific way with blue bodies, red breasts and yellow accents.

This design is based on the barn swallow, the most common species of swallow in the world.

Swallows have always had many meanings in the world of ink.

A sailor would often get a swallow tattoo once he had traveled 5000 miles.

Swallows are often a sign of faithfulness and a promise to return home, and there is a reason for that.

Amazingly, swarms of swallows return to the same place every year in March. It is in their DNA.

Swallows make their winter home in San Juan Capistrano California, then fly off to Argentina in October.

Sounds like a nice life!

Swallow tattoos are a cute ode to old school and sailor tattoo culture.

Some people get them for their pure visual appeal, usually in pairs.

But they can also be symbolic for someone who likes to travel.

Or, someone who wants to pledge their faithfulness to a loved one.

American Traditional Wolf Tattoos

Wolves are a highly documented creature in pop culture.

They have a dual nature. To some, a wolf is a fearsome predator. To others, a wolf is a skilled hunter.

Both are true, it just depends on what side of the equation you’re on.

For many people who operate under the “hunt or be hunted” principal, it is better to be a wolf than be attacked by one.

So a wolf tattoo may be a way of trying to invoke those survival characteristics.

Back in the day, the term “wolf” was often used for a love ‘em and leave ‘em type.

Some people wear their heart-breaker status as a badge of honor.

This is likely how the American traditional wolf tattoo became popular.

Wolf tattoos in more realistic styles look more mystical and spiritual.

But the old school wolf often has his mouth hanging open with his tongue sticking out.

This image is evocative of many of the original black and white cartoons.

These were not always for children, and often featured pleasure-seeking wolves.

The American traditional wolf is usually black with yellow eyes and a wavy red tongue.

This is a cartoonish representation of the wolf’s base desires.

Someone who considers himself a wolf may have trouble resisting temptation.

These cartoonish wolves are a fun, expressive way to explore your naughty side.

Or maybe to remind yourself what you do not wish to be seen as!

American Traditional Shark Tattoos

Sharks are a mainstay in tattoo culture, especially in the old school style.

There is no one specific way to draw a shark tattoo, so they depend largely on the artist.

Sharks are sometimes drawn in full, while other times they are rising up from the water, with only their eyes and great toothy mouths visible.

The nautical ties between sharks and sailors are pretty obvious.

A sailor with an American traditional shark tattoo is may adhere to the “hair of the dog” philosophy.

In this tradition, people get tattoos of the things they fear in order to protect themselves.

And it’s easy to assume why a sailor may live in fear of sharks!

A sailor who was afraid of shark attacks may have faced his fear by getting this tattoo.

It may also have been their way of saying they are not afraid to face their death head-on.

Another reason to make acquaintances with this toothy beast is its admirable qualities.

Some people get tattoos of animals they wish to emulate.

A shark is constantly on the move, which represents determination.

Sharks have no natural predators in the wild, so they can stand for superiority and fearlessness.

American Traditional Sleeve Tattoos

Diving Girl Tattoos

You have likely seen this quirky retro tattoo design before.

A woman in a red bathing suit dives down the length of someone’s body, usually their arm or leg.

This is a popular image for American traditional sleeves because of the long, thin design.

It can fill in negative space and add personality to any tattoo collection.

But where does the diving girl come from?

Before the 17th century, it was quite common for people to indulge in nude public bathing.

It wasn’t until the end of the Middle Ages that the idea of modesty entered the picture.

Swimwear, especially for women, was usually large and somewhat formless.

The water would fill a woman’s garments, causing her figure to be obscured.

This can’t have been very comfortable, but the idea was to lounge and bathe in the water, not swim.

In the 1920’s, the Jantzen Swimwear Company changed everything.

They decided to make an active suit, something women could actually swim in.

They very deliberately called their suits “swimsuits” instead of “bathing suits” so they could stand out from larger, more cumbersome suits meant for lounging only.

These suits gave women the freedom to move, and started the trend toward smaller and smaller swimwear.

People must have liked the change, because Jantzen’s diving girl, or variations on their logo design, became a popular retro tattoo.

While to some it may just be a simple pin-up tattoo, it can also stand for something more significant.

The diving girl gave women the freedom to move and show their bodies without shame.

Definitely a moment worth immortalizing!

American Traditional Bear Tattoos

Bear tattoos are a striking choice.

Similar to the wolf, the bear has a lot of folklore dedicated to it.

In more realistic portraits, a bear can look gentle and wise.

In old school tattoo designs, the bear is usually snarling.

The old school bear tattoo looks very similar to wolf designs, though a little more ferocious.

In the wolf design, the animal looks playfully ferocious. In the bear design, it looks like it’s ready to attack.

Old school bears are often drawn with dark black or brown fur and great red mouths, with yellowed teeth.

Bears are revered in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore.

Bear mythology has had a recent upsurge since the popularity of Midsommar, the innovative horror movie from Ari Aster.

The film was made in 2019 and will likely be talked about among horror movie fans for years to come.

But what does a bear symbolize, anyway?

In Norse mythology, the bear is admired because of its similarity to humans.

Bears have personalities, and they live in hierarchical societies.

They are highly intelligent and adaptable.

They are often associated with Thor and Odin, two of the most powerful Norse gods.

There are many shape-shifting myths around bears, and for someone to be represented by this animal means they have a strong sense of integrity.

An American traditional bear tattoo could be a sign of your potential to be ferocious, your mental fortitude, or both.

Large-scale American Traditional Tattoo

Circus Inspired Tattoos

If you are a body modification enthusiast in America, you owe some of your legacy to the Circus.

Circus performers were some of the first visibly tattooed people in America.

They were outcasts from society.

Often circus freak shows were the only place where people with physical limitations and deformities could find acceptance.

Though we shake our heads at the idea of a freak show now and perhaps rightfully so, many people earned a good living as part of circus freak shows when they would not have been employed by anyone else.

The circus tradition continues to this day on both small stages and grand setups like Cirque du Soleil.

In a circus performing group, you may find jugglers, acrobats, contortionists, sword swallowers, and all kinds of folks.

You may get an old school tattoo depicting a freak show act- or you could just become one.

Covering yourself in tattoos was a sure-fire way to get hired by the circus back in the early 20th century.

A simple but effective installment in many freak-show acts was the tattooed man or lady.

It’s funny to think about now, but people would pay just to look at a heavily tattooed person.

They would often make up elaborate backstories about how they got the tattoos.

Many of them involved traveling to exotic lands and being held captive there.

The “captured by foreign tribes” story is one that would be considered problematic now, but it was an effective selling tool on the audiences of the time.

To get an old school circus-inspired tattoo is to assert your individuality.

You love on the fringes of society, and you love to flaunt it.

You may not be ready to run away and join the circus, but you can get a piece of circus life tattooed on you.

American Traditional Nature Tattoos

For a world traveler in a time before technology, the sights and sounds of island life must have been quite the extraordinary sight.

Sailor Jerry himself fell in love with Hawaii and the tropical paradise it provided.

Many of his tattoos are homages to hula girls, palm trees, and beach sunsets.

Old school nature and landscape tattoos are making a comeback.

After the materialistic 80’s and 90’s, people have turned from possessions and toward experiences.

Many people see travel and/or time spent in nature as a necessary life experience.

Landscapes done in the American Traditional style can be really elegant, because they’re so simple.

They’re often done in a circle shape with a banner underneath, or little embellishments around the sides.

Is there somewhere you think of as paradise?

If you can’t figure out what kind of old school tattoo would suit you, this is a natural choice!

You’ll never forget a treasured memory in a beautiful place on earth.

American Traditional Hourglass Tattoos

American Traditional Hourglass Tattoo
American Traditional Hourglass Tattoo
American Traditional Hourglass Tattoo

Go to hourglass tattoos for more!

Other American Traditional Tattoos

American Traditional Compass Tattoo

American Traditional Compass Tattoo
American Traditional Compass Tattoo
American Traditional Compass Tattoo

There’s something so exciting about compass tattoos, isn’t there?

It conjures up images of far off places and treasure maps.

Like many nautical references, the image of a compass has deep connotations beyond the literal.

A compass is a navigational device on the surface.

It was a necessary tool for many people for a long time.

But the idea of having a “true north” is also a philosophical one.

What are your morals, what guides you through life?

A compass can be an ode to those things.

If you have been a bit of a wanderer, this can be a fitting tattoo when you reach a stable place in life.

Or it can be a reminder that “not all who wander are lost.”

American Traditional Tattoo Artists

American Traditional tattoos may not be the only style on the block anymore, but they are not going anywhere.

For tattoo enthusiasts, this one is here to stay.

Have you decided you’d like an old school tattoo, but aren’t sure where to go?

Choosing an artist for your tattoo is the most important part of the process.

Especially when it comes to something with a specific aesthetic like the old school style.

What Should I Look For in an Old School Tattoo Artist?

First, it’s important to see how they tackle an old school tattoo.

Many artists are multi-disciplinary, but you want to be sure they have the right stuff for this historic style.

Because of the thick, bold lines, saturated colors, and familiar aesthetic, when an old school tattoo looks off, it’s easy to spot the mistakes.

These images are notorious and even an un-tattooed person will probably recognize them.

See how your artist attacks outlines, coloring, and shading.

Are they bold and generous with their color, or more romantic and wispy?

Finally, just ask if they do old school tattoos! If your favorite artist doesn’t feel up to it, they likely know someone who is.

The Legends of Old School Tattooing

We would be remiss to write an article about American traditional tattoos without naming some American traditional legends.

There’s more to this style than Sailor Jerry- a lot more!

In your search for the perfect artist, it’s helpful to know the greats.

If you can’t afford to travel to a titan of the scene, you can at least use them as a standard of excellence for your next piece.

Ed Hardy

In the early 2000’s, Ed Hardy got a bit of a bad reputation.

The legendary tattoo artist, who trained with Sailor Jerry and has been working since the 1960’s, was approached by a Japanese fashion line.

They had some of his old school flash designs and wanted to put them on clothing.

Initially Hardy said no, but ultimately decided to give the fashion line a try.

The brand exploded when Christian Audigier got hold of it.

Audigier had just enjoyed massive success with the Von Dutch brand.

Soon, Ed Hardy designs became just as quintessentially 2000’s as trucker hats and Paris Hilton.

The brand was not well-liked, mainly because of the people who wore it.

Ed Hardy designs eventually went the way of fedoras or Macklemore haircuts.

Cool look at first, but adopted by ‘douchebags’ as the early 2000’s internet would call them.

At the heart of this was Ed Hardy, a talented and hard-working artist who really didn’t have much to do with the brand that now bears his name.

Though he’s not too upset about any of it in the end.

He’s worth about 250 million.

He has retired from the art form, but at the peak of his success, he was charging $1500/hour.

Not bad, considering when he first started he had trouble getting any clients at all.

Back in Hardy’s day, people just didn’t understand tattoos.

Those were for military men and circus folk.

Ed Hardy recently redeemed his artistic reputation with a gallery exhibition.

The artist showed off his stunning work from the mid-60’s till 2019, when the exhibition opened in San Francisco.

Though Hardy is known for his old school flash designs, he also dabbles in Japanese tattoo artwork and more experimental styles.

Tattoo Tony

In Montreal, Canada, you can get an old school tattoo from a man less glamorous than Hardy, but equally as iconic.

Tony D’Annessa, born Henry D’Annessa, is Canada’s oldest working tattoo artist.

He has been working since the 1950’s and, though he works slower now, he doesn’t feel like retiring anytime soon.

D’Annessa moved from Connecticut to New York City to go to art school.

In 1958, when he gave his first tattoo, D’Annessa had never even been inside a tattoo shop.

The owner was looking for artists and told young Henry it would be easy to pick up.

Though it proved to be much more challenging than he expected, he came to see it as his calling.

Purists go see D’Annessa because when they say old school, they mean it.

He sticks to the flash style he learned when he started.

At his tattoo parlor, Point St. Charles Tattoo, D’Annessa works alongside a team of younger artists.

Cloak and Dagger Tattoo

In London, there is a legendary tattoo shop called Cloak and Dagger.

In their words, they do “tattoos that look like tattoos.”

Their site features a ‘menu’ of styles, including traditional.

The most modern tattoo style they offer is Neo-traditional, but they stick to classic looks for the most part.

The owner of Cloak and Dagger, Stefan Getty, has been tattooing since he was 13 or 14 years old.

He grew up in an artistic family and always loved to draw.

When the opportunity came to go on a solo field trip for school, Getty went to a local tattoo shop.

The owner helped him fudge the information for the shop, saying it was a gallery.

After seeing the young lad’s enthusiasm for tattooing, a family friend bought little Stefan a tattoo kit, and he began practicing on his legs.

Not the way most people practice tattooing, but it sure makes for a great story!

Some people just know their life’s purpose from the start, and Getty is one of those people.

He specializes in American traditional tattoos, and his own take on traditional Japanese styles.

Rose Hardy

Not related to Ed by blood, but just as talented!

Rose Hardy has been called a ‘Jane of all Trades’ in the industry.

She can pull off any style, but even her most intricate portraits have a hint of old school charm.

Originally from Auckland New Zealand, these days Hardy tattoos out of Kings Avenue Tattoo in New York.

She got her start at the age of 19, when she was about to shell out the big bucks on an art school education.

Lucky for her, a tattoo artist took her under his wing and helped her cultivate her skills- tuition-free!

If you aren’t ready for a permanent commitment, this old school soul also designs clothing and jewelry.


If you’re committing to something forever, it had better be done well.

American traditional tattoos are a beautiful part of the art-form’s history.

You can say a lot with a simple image, and you’re bound to turn some heads.

What’s your favorite old school design?

Related Posts: