American Traditional Tattoo

American Traditional Tattoos: History, Meanings, Artists & Designs

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.

Traditional Tattoo Sleeve

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 tattoo 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 Tattoo Style Guide

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

The designs are so 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.

Aged Traditional Tattoo
1 year aged – tattoo by Florian Santus

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.

3 years healed traditional tattoo
3 years healed – tattoo by Boeus

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.

Healed American Traditional Tattoo
Few years healed – tattoo by Bobeus

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 boldness 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 1900s, 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.

Circus Lady tattooed
Circus performer, 1938

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 ’40s that tattoo artistry really took off.

World War 2 Soldier Tattooed

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.

Sailor Jerry tattooing on a client
Sailor Jerry, circa 1970

It was during this time that the 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.

Main Themes & Symbols in Old School Tattoos

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

Pin-Up Tattoos

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

Sailing was a male-dominated field.

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

Traditional Pin-Up Tattoo

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

Traditional Diving Girl Tattoos

You have likely seen this retro tattoo design before.

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

Diving Girl Tattoo

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 public bathing.

American Traditional Diving Girl Tattoo

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 1920s, the Jantzen Swimwear Company changed everything.

American Traditional Diving Girl Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Diving Girl Tattoo

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.

Diving Girl 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 Lettering Tattoos

In American traditional tattoos, some elements are crucial for that old-school look.

If you and your artist choose to skip these details, your tattoo may fall into a new category.

American Traditional Lettering Tattoo

One of these distinct features is the American traditional lettering tattoo.

In these traditional tattoos, the lettering is clean and straight up and down.

American Traditional Lettering Tattoo

There are serifs on the letters’ edges, drawn with plain lines or in a “block” style.

Some artists choose to shade the bottom half of the block letters for a stylish look in the latter case.

It’s not that there isn’t room to have some fun with American traditional lettering tattoos.

American Traditional Lettering Tattoo

It’s just that you have to stick to a particular set of rules.

Traditional Nautical Tattoos

Due to their inextricable connection with adventure on the high seas, many American Traditional tattoo designs have a nautical theme.

Many of these symbols have lived on in the present day.

Nautical tattoos act as an homage to the OG wearers of the designs and, of course, the imagery’s symbolism.

  • American Traditional Anchor Tattoos

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

More than that, an American traditional anchor tattoo has a symbolic meaning that is pretty easy to define.

American Traditional Anchor Tattoo

Anchors serve to ground a vessel in turbulent waters.

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

American Traditional Anchor Tattoo

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

  • 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.

American Traditional Lighthouse Tattoo

Lighthouses mean land, and land means fresh food and new company.

It may even mean you’re home.

An American traditional lighthouse tattoo for a sailor meant guidance and comfort.

A lighthouse tattoo is a reminder that, at some point, you’re going to reach dry land.

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

American Traditional Lighthouse Tattoo

It can’t be windy 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.

American Traditional Lighthouse Tattoo

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 Ship Tattoos

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.

American Traditional Lighthouse and Ship Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Ship Tattoo

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 tattoo design, and you can choose something that matches your approach to life.

American Traditional Ship Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Ship Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Ship Tattoo

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 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.

American Traditional Shark Tattoo

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 revere in order to protect themselves.

And it’s easy to assume why a sailor may revere sharks!

American Traditional Shark Tattoo

A sailor who was averse to sharks may have faced his frailty by getting a shark tattoo.

It may also have been their way of saying they are unafraid.

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

American Traditional Shark Tattoo

Some people get tattoos of animals they wish to emulate.

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

American Traditional Shark Tattoo

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

  • American Traditional Octopus Tattoos

Working as a sailor, the mysteries of the sea would have an undeniable allure.

One of the greatest aquatic mysteries is the octopus.

American Traditional Octopus Tattoo

Can you imagine seeing an octopus without having any prior knowledge of the creature?

It would be an otherworldly experience, so it’s no wonder, so many sailors chose to immortalize these eight-legged wonders.

American Traditional Octopus Tattoo

American traditional octopus tattoos can represent mysteriousness.

But they can also speak to adaptability and creative problem-solving.

American Traditional Octopus Tattoo

The octopus is a rather tenacious creature despite its jelly-like exterior, so that alone speaks volumes.

  • American Traditional Compass Tattoos

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

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

American Traditional Compass Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Compass Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Compass Tattoo

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

  • American Traditional Bottle Tattoos

American traditional bottle designs are not considered canon in the old-school universe.

That is, it may not be an actual traditional design.

That said, it’s a fun way to incorporate many themes and symbols in one tattoo.

American Traditional Bottle Tattoo

The bottle tattoo design idea comes from the concept of a “message in a bottle.”

The oldest known message in a bottle washed up in 2018 on Australia’s shores.

American Traditional Bottle Tattoo

This was one of many bottles put into the sea by marine scientists from 1886.

The aim was to study the ocean’s currents by asking bottle finders to write with their location.

American Traditional Bottle Tattoo

Of course, the more popular version of a message in the bottle is usually a story of lost love.

People would hurl their most profound emotions into the water, hoping it would make them feel less alone.

Thus, many people design American traditional bottle tattoos as an homage to treasured memories, people, or emotions.

American Traditional Bottle Tattoo

It’s a unique way to put your spin on a traditional design while keeping the nautical aesthetic.

American Traditional Zoomorphic Tattoos

Humans have often drawn inspiration from the animal kingdom.

An animal tattoo can show the world who you consider yourself to be and the traits you value in yourself.

In the old school tattoo world, it’s no different.

American traditional zoomorphic tattoos often depicted predatory animals as a way for the wearer to boast about their strength and virility.

In the modern-day, some unconventional animals join the mix for a greater sense of variety.

  • 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.

American Traditional Bear Tattoo

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

The old school bear tattoo looks very similar to wolf tattoo designs, though it’s a little wilder.

In the wolf design, the animal looks playfully wild.

In the bear tattoo design, it looks like it’s ready to strike.

American Traditional Bear Tattoo

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 movie from Ari Aster.

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

But what does a bear tattoo symbolize, anyway?

American Traditional Bear Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Bear Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Bear Tattoo

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

  • American Traditional Wolf Tattoos

Wolves are a highly documented creature in pop culture.

They have a dual nature.

To some, a wolf is a bold predator.

American Traditional Wolf Tattoo

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” principle, it is better to be a wolf than to be roughed up by one.

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

Traditional Wolf Tattoo

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 symbolic.

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

Traditional Wolf Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Wolf Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Wolf Head Tattoo and Traditional Dagger Tattoo

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

  • 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.

American Traditional Snake Tattoo

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

A snake tattoo 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.

American Traditional Snake Tattoo

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 pay off in a big way.

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

American Traditional Snake Head Tattoo

There’s also the idea of the venomous snake, who won’t set on 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 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.

Traditional Butterfly Tattoo

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

American traditional butterfly tattoos 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.

Butterfly tattoos represent hope, transformation, and renewal.

Traditional Butterfly Tattoo on the Neck

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

Many people view butterfly tattoos as feminine.

Despite this, these tattoos aren’t gender-specific.

Anyone can choose to display butterflies on their body.

Traditional Butterfly Tattoo

Traditional butterfly tattoos capture a distinct style within intricate and soft designs.

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

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

Traditional Butterfly Tattoo

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 skull tattoos symbolizing impermanency, a butterfly tattoo with a skull can be a reminder of one’s mortality.

American Traditional Butterfly Skull Tattoo

Again, this would symbolize bravely facing the end, at least intellectually.

While butterflies are dainty, the Old School tattoo style depicts them boldly and full of life.

  • American Traditional Panther Tattoos

The American traditional panther tattoo is a classic in the Sailor Jerry universe.

The panther is an untamed animal with rippling muscles, impressive hunting abilities, and sharp imposing teeth.

American Traditional Panther Tattoo

A panther tattoo serves as a badge of masculinity.

The panther is often paired with a coiling snake- doubling down on the sensual prowess implied.

  • American Traditional Tiger Tattoos

Tigers are solitary animals and often the top predators in the areas they inhabit.

American Traditional Tiger Tattoo

American traditional tiger tattoos often celebrate that sense of wildness and independence.

American Traditional Tiger Tattoo

A tiger tattoo design may be well suited to someone who considers themself a leader or pioneer.

American Traditional Tiger Tattoo
  • American Traditional Cat Tattoos

Though the black cat can often symbolize bad luck, the meaning is reversed in an American traditional cat tattoo.

This is similar to wearing a demon’s image (popular in Japanese tattoo art) to ward off.

If you stare down your lousy luck, maybe you’ll be able to avoid it.

American Traditional Cat Tattoo

The black cat tattoo also ties into the individuality nature of the ink.

If everyone says black cats are bad luck, it’s a cheeky act to have one tattooed on your body.

At times, an American traditional style pairs with a more personalized cat tattoo design.

American Traditional Cat Tattoo

This is usually to pay homage to a particular feline.

  • American Traditional Dragon Tattoos

Dragon tattoo designs are associated with many qualities that make old school tattoos sing: Strength, protection, and masculinity.

The American traditional dragon has Asian elements in the design.

American Traditional Dragon Tattoo

This is due to Sailor Jerry’s fascination with Asian art and, more specifically, Japanese tattoo designs.

According to the official Sailor Jerry website, Jerry corresponded with Japanese tattoo masters and wanted to out-do them in the ink department.

American Traditional Dragon Tattoo

These designs have their own distinct, Americanized flair!

  • American Traditional Lion Tattoos

Lions are often associated with bravery.

A lion asserts itself socially, giving off a kind of mystical confidence.

American Traditional Lion Tattoo

Many people choose lion tattoos to take a piece of that self-assuredness for themselves.

Similar to tigers, they symbolize strength.

But a lion hunts both alone and with their pride, so an American traditional lion tattoo may represent being part of a formidable team.

American Traditional Lion Tattoo
  • American Traditional Fox Tattoos

Have you ever been out-foxed, or are you the trickster in your group?

The fox is a cunning and intelligent creature.

American Traditional Fox Tattoo

It knows what it wants and will use brains, not brawn, to get it.

A person who wears an American traditional fox tattoo is innovative and adaptable.

American Traditional Fox Tattoo

Or at least, they’d like people to think they are.

They may be an essential member of their team, or they may stick to themselves, only joining the crowd to stir up a little trouble.

American Traditional Fox Tattoo
  • American Traditional Elephant Tattoos

Our friend elephant has mystical symbolism across the world.

The adorned elephants in these American traditional designs are, like the dragons above, inspired by the Eastern world.

In India, elephants are divine creatures.

American Traditional Elephant Tattoo

These decorations and adornments serve to celebrate that divine nature.

In American traditional tattoos, elephants symbolize good luck, great memories, and prosperity.

American Traditional Elephant Tattoo

The elephant balancing on a ball has a unique interpretation.

It represents the idea of finding balance and agility, even when you have a lot going on.

  • American Traditional Horse Tattoos

Horses are strong, wild, and free.

American Traditional Horse Tattoo

It takes some effort to tame a horse, but you have a partner for life when you succeed.

American Traditional Horse Tattoo

An American traditional horse tattoo may represent a free-spirited nature or the desire for one.

American Traditional Horse Tattoo

It may also symbolize a person’s sense of superiority and dominion over the animal kingdom.

American Traditional Horse Tattoo
  • American Traditional Deer Tattoos

Similar to horse tattoos, an American traditional deer tattoo can symbolize dominion over the animal kingdom.

Deer are often a badge of honor for skilled hunters, and they may choose to immortalize that with some ink.

A deer itself represents a quiet strength, serenity, and maternal instincts.

The stag (a male deer) represents competition, virility, and masculinity.

American Traditional Deer Tattoo
American Traditional Deer Tattoo
  • American Traditional Bat Tattoos

Bats can “see” in the dark with their unique sonar abilities.

American Traditional Bat Tattoo

They’re nocturnal creatures, often representing the more shadowy side of life.

An American traditional bat tattoo may represent triumph over obstacles.

This tattoo design may also express a love for all things ooky and spooky.

American Traditional Bat Tattoo
  • American Traditional Bee Tattoos

A bee may not have been part of the original old school universe, but it’s become a famous muse in the world of ink.

American traditional bee tattoos represent all the things a good bee is about: Teamwork, a dedication to the good of the whole, and putting in a little elbow grease.

American Traditional Bee Tattoo

These days, the bee may also be a calling card for environmentalists.

With many bee populations on a mysterious decline, earth-lovers everywhere call for people to protect their local pollinators.

American Traditional Bird Tattoos

Birds are especially symbolic for people who spend a lot of time at sea.

Two or more birds usually indicate that land is nearby, which can be a hopeful sign to a weary sailor.

American Traditional Bird Tattoo

Many birds have made their way into the American traditional style.

  • American Traditional Eagle Tattoos

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.

Traditional eagle tattoos capture the essence of these fascinating creatures. 

The majestic, stunning wingspan of the eagle is a spectacle worthy of being inked, especially on a larger scale.

Traditional Eagle Tattoo

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.

Traditional Eagle Tattoo

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.

Traditional Eagle Tattoo

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

What is your ideal America?

Traditional eagle tattoo designs are plentiful.

From the large-scale spectacle of the eagle in action to the petite version which pays respect to the animal’s nature, you will find a tattoo design that feeds into meanings that are most important to you. 

Traditional eagle tattoos bring a true level of depth and meaning to their design, demonstrating that even work rooted in tradition can be personal and varied.

As a creature with many admirable qualities, there is no doubt that the traditional eagle tattoo will continue to be a firm favorite choice.

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

  • Eagle Tattoo Meanings

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.

A bald eagle tattoo is a patriotic symbol and is often accompanied by an American flag.

Traditional Eagle Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Eagle Tattoo and Traditional Snake Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Eagle Tattoo

They aren’t hesitant 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 symbolic guide in the community.

American Traditional Eagle Tattoo
  • American Traditional Owl Tattoos

As most people are aware, owls represent wisdom.

But the symbolism goes deeper than that.

In many cultures, owls represent a kind of mystical knowledge- the ability to see the unseen.

In some traditions, an owl is a supernatural creature with shape-shifting abilities.

In American traditional tattoos, owls represent wisdom, mystical knowledge, and the afterlife.

American Traditional Owl Tattoo
American Traditional Owl Tattoo
  • American Traditional Swallow Tattoos

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.

American Traditional Swallow Tattoo

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

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

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

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 and yellow accents.

American Traditional Swallow Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Swallow Tattoo

Sounds like a nice life!

Swallow tattoos are a de 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 Swallow Tattoo
  • American Traditional Hummingbird Tattoos

The hummingbird is a beautiful, jewel-like creature that can move in any direction at impressive speeds.

American Traditional Hummingbird Tattoo

An American traditional hummingbird tattoo represents that joyful energy.

It can also be a symbol for someone who is a creative thinker with a charming personality.

American Traditional Hummingbird Tattoo

American Traditional Portrait Tattoos

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 aesthetics breaks them down to their simplest form.

American Traditional Portrait Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Portrait Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Portrait Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Portrait Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Portrait Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Portrait Tattoo

Some 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 indulgent and accepting.

Native American Woman Tattoos

While this is a classic American traditional tattoo design, it has become a discussion point in recent years.

Some may disapprove of the Native American woman’s tattoo design, because of the cultural appropriation.

Others may think it is a sign of respect to have the tattoo design.

Somewhere between those two opinions are people who believe it is alright for some to have this tattoo, but not others.

If, for example, you come from a Native American background, this may be seen as a suitable homage.

Cultural appropriation is defined as an act when people outside of a culture enjoy that culture’s imagery and symbolical practices but aren’t very knowledgeable or respectful of the history.

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 holy ceremonies.

As a general rule, people should understand the history behind the images in their tattoos.

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

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

Try researching the area you live in and its history with the Native American tribes who originated there.

If you’ve reflected on the issues and feel this tattoo is an appropriate choice for you- no one can tell you not to get one.

But you may start some interesting discussions, so it’s best to know where you stand.

Native American Woman Tattoo
Native American Woman Tattoo
Native American Woman Tattoo
Native American Woman Tattoo
Native American Woman Tattoo

American Traditional Gypsy Girl Tattoos

Like Native American women tattoos, the gypsy girl tattoo has a complicated and hotly debated history.

You may find people from all different backgrounds who feel differently about traditional Gypsy Girl tattoos.

First, an explanation of 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 this 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.

In theory, all good things, but this is a somewhat fabricated version of an entire group of people.

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 smear 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.

The early Romas were nomadic because they had to be to protect themselves, not because of wanderlust.

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

American traditional gypsy woman tattoos are, undoubtedly, beautiful.

And you may even run into some Roma people who seek to reclaim the term gypsy.

Again, it’s something worth reflecting on before getting your new tattoo.

If you are looking for a fun, free-spirited tattoo and have decided against the Gypsy Girl, 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 Gypsy Girl Tattoo
American Traditional Gypsy Girl Tattoo
American Traditional Gypsy Girl Tattoo
American Traditional Gypsy Girl Tattoo

American Traditional Jesus Tattoos

Many people admire Jesus’s loving and non-judgemental attitude.

He often stands for unconditional love and altruism.

American Traditional Jesus Tattoo

As the son of God, Jesus tattoos also represent the idea of divinity on earth.

An American traditional Jesus tattoo may represent your divine nature or a willingness to forgo for the people you love.

American Traditional Jesus Tattoo

Traditional Circus Inspired Tattoos

Contortionist Lady Tattoo

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.

Magician's Assistant Tattoo

They were outcasts from society.

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

Magician's Assistant Tattoo

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

Contortionist Lady Tattoo

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, and all kinds of folks.

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

Magician's Assistant Tattoo

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

A simple but effective installment in many circus shows 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.

Magician's Assistant Tattoo

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

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

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

Magician's Assistant Tattoo

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.

Magician's Assistant Tattoo

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 Cross Tattoos

Most commonly, American traditional cross tattoos are in Memoriam.

American Traditional Cross Tattoo

The blocky cross design depicted is reminiscent of the cross on a gravestone.

American Traditional Cross Tattoo and Traditional Horse Tattoo

Other interpretations may be a willingness to face challenges, faith in the afterlife, or belief in God.

American Traditional Cross Tattoo

The cross tattoo is not exclusively Christian, but it is a natural choice for people who grew up in the Christian church.

American Traditional Cross Tattoo

American Traditional Tattoo Designs

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 Flower Tattoos

Flower tattoo designs are among the most distinctly recognizable tattoos in the American traditional genre.

Each with its own meaning, a traditional flower tattoo can say a lot about a person.

Although these tattoos may seem simple at first glance, they attract attention with their striking appearances.

American Traditional Flower Tattoo

For anyone enthusiastic about classic American tattoos, flowers make for beautiful artworks with endless design options and symbolism.

Supplying an ideal mix of femininity and attitude, American traditional flower tattoos will never go out of style.

Here are some of the most widely recognized American traditional floral tattoos.

  • American Traditional Rose Tattoos

The American traditional rose tattoo is sometimes the first design an aspiring tattoo artist will work on.

It’s a simple tattoo.

American Traditional Rose Tattoo

The tattoo design is basic enough, but most people know what this rose is supposed to look like.

If even one element is off, it won’t look right.

In tattoo form, a rose symbolizes beauty, passion, and love.

American Traditional Rose Tattoo

Wearing a rose tattoo is often a symbol of devotion or loyalty.

A classic symbol of love, passion, beauty, and romance, these flowers are regularly requested to show off a person’s loyalty and devotion.

With so many sub-styles and color options to alter meanings, traditional rose tattoos are easily personalized and flexible for nearly any part of the body.

  • American Traditional Peony Tattoos

The peony is likely part of the American traditional tattoo style book because Sailor Jerry was fascinated with the Japanese masters.

Peonies are common in Chinese and Japanese art, and you’ll see a lot of them in Japanese tattoo designs.

American Traditional Peony Tattoo

The peony is a many-petaled flower.

As a result of its lush blossoms, a peony tattoo generally symbolizes abundance, beauty, and good fortune.

Peonies are known for their multitude of ruffled petals providing large, gorgeous blossoms that are delicate for a traditional style.

For an old-school tattoo design with a feminine, romantic touch, peony tattoos are an exquisite choice.

American Traditional Peony Tattoo

Although they have various meanings across many cultures, they are typically known for being a symbol of beauty, abundance, and good fortune.

They can also represent life and longevity thanks to their ability to flower for years and years.

  • Traditional Columbine Flower Tattoos

If you’re looking for something a little different, the columbine flower is a unique choice.

It is not seen as often in old-school tattoo art, but it is a striking design with gorgeous purples and blues.

Columbine Flower American Traditional Tattoo

An American traditional Columbine flower tattoo most commonly symbolizes hope and faith, specifically within the Christian belief system.

The flower also has a shape similar to a Jester’s hat, representing someone with a playful spirit.

  • American Traditional Sunflower Tattoos

The sunflower tattoo symbolism is apparent just by looking at it.

With the flower’s golden fringe of petals and strong stem stretching to the sky, it has an optimistic air to it that’s hard to resist.

Traditional Sunflower Tattoo

The sunflower has many agricultural purposes, making it a common symbol of abundance.

A person with an American traditional sunflower tattoo probably has a sunny outlook on life and believes their needs are taken care of by the universe.

That, or they’re hoping to cultivate a more optimistic attitude.

Traditional sunflower tattoos obviously allude to optimism and positivity, with their sunny petals emitting a warm, golden outlook on life.

American Traditional Sunflower Tattoo

With their ability to soak up radiation and toxins they may also be used as a symbol of hope and longevity.

As a reminder to always look on the bright side, sunflower tattoos inspire happiness whether you already have a bubbly personality or are looking to draw positivity from your ink.

These flowers are an immaculate choice for a traditional tattoo, with the bright golden colors, shading, and bold lines making the image really pop against your skin.

  • Traditional Hibiscus Tattoos

These tropical blooms are not only gorgeous with their trumpet-like appearance, but also a symbol of beauty, femininity, love, and lust.

The meanings vary across cultures, with it symbolizing fame, prosperity, and wealth in China, but representing the perfect woman in North America.

Traditional Hibiscus Tattoo

The hibiscus is the official flower of Malaysia and also Hawaii’s state flower, so you may wish for hibiscus tattoos as a nod to Malaysian or Hawaiian roots.

The color of the hibiscus tattoo can have additional meanings as well:

  • Yellow hibiscus tattoo: Friendship, happiness, good omens
  • Red hibiscus tattoo: Passion, love, desire
  • Purple hibiscus tattoo: Wealth, richness, regality
  • Blue hibiscus tattoo: Fertility, calmness
  • White hibiscus tattoo: Enlightenment, purity, innocence
  • Pink hibiscus tattoo: Rare beauty, youth
  • Traditional Lotus Tattoos

The lotus flower is another popular choice for tattoos, with the most commonly known meanings being self-control, relaxation, peace, enlightenment, regeneration, and spirituality.

Traditional Lotus Tattoo

For yoga lovers or followers of Buddhism, the petals in bloom represent opening up your heart or a spiritual awakening.

Another popular take on the lotus tattoo is the idea of resilience, overcoming obstacles, or finding beauty in the darkest of places, as the lotus grows in mud and blossoms into an astonishingly gorgeous plant.

  • Traditional Poppy Tattoos

Popular amongst veterans, their family members, and significant others, poppies are often tattooed as a tribute to combat or soldiers lost to them and freedom.

Traditional Poppy Tattoo

However, they also were offerings for the past souls in ancient times, so they may signify the loss of a loved one, too.

  • Traditional Mandala Flower Tattoos

In Sanskrit, mandala means “circle”, and thus, mandala flower tattoos consist of overlapping circles of florals or a series of shapes forming a flower.

Traditional Mandala Tattoo

These visually pleasing, inspiring tattoo pieces often represent wholeness or the blossoming of life.

The most popular choice for this type of tattoo is a lotus, although you could incorporate virtually any flower into this design.

Traditional Mandala Tattoo

Because of their geometric nature, you should avoid placing these tattoos in an area with folds that can distort the shape.

The back along the spine, inner limb, forearm, or low chest are great options for placement.

  • American Traditional Cactus Tattoos

A cactus has a pointy exterior with a watery center.

People with a tough disposition are often referred to as “prickly,” conjuring images of this desert plant.

American Traditional Cactus Tattoo

American traditional cactus tattoos can represent that “tough guy act” in a playful way.

The cactus design commonly represents survival instincts because of the plant’s ability to withstand harsh weather conditions.

It also symbolizes protection and sometimes maternal love.

American Traditional Cactus Tattoo

It can also be a popular tattoo for people with an appreciation for desert landscapes.

  • Black and Grey Traditional Flower Tattoos

If you’re not the biggest fan of brightly colored tattoos, you can always opt for black and grey traditional flowers.

Black and Grey Traditional Flower Tattoo

These tattoos may not be as lively as their colored counterparts, but they can be just as gorgeous and spectacular with more detail.

  • Traditional Hand Holding Flower Tattoos

A traditional hand-holding flower tattoo is often used to provide the wearer with guidance or encouragement.

These tattoos are captivating while also enhancing the meaning behind them, commemorating a special bond or connection, or even a reminder to hold onto something.

Traditional Hand Holding Flower Tattoo

For instance, a hand holding a rose could signify you offering your love to someone, or holding a lotus could represent you trying to hang onto your innocence or inner peace.

Traditional Hand Holding Flower Tattoo

While a hand holding a flower is usually a tribute to a loved one or symbolizes an offering, a skeleton hand can represent eternal beauty or impermanency of life and love at the same time.

  • Traditional Flower Vase Tattoos

Another twist on traditional flower tattoos is to place the flowers in a vase and increase the meaning that much more.

The vase tames the wildness of the flowers while being a work of art all on its own.

Traditional Flower Vase Tattoo

It may just be a decorative vessel or a memento for a certain place or person, or you could add a chip or crack in it to represent imperfection or a broken relationship – the possibilities are endless.

Traditional Flower Vase Tattoo
  • Traditional Flower Bouquet Tattoos

If you’re unable to decide on just one flower, you might opt for an entire bouquet with various shapes and sizes of florals.

Traditional Flower Bouquet Tattoo

This gives you the opportunity to choose multiple flowers with various meanings and contrasting appearances for a beautiful, unique tattoo with significant personal connections.

American Traditional Dagger Tattoos

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

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

American Traditional Dagger Tattoo

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

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

American Traditional Dagger Tattoo

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

  • Traditional Dagger and Traditional Rose Tattoos

Indicating that the wearer will defend the vulnerable.

Dagger and Rose Tattoo

A dagger and a rose tattoo design can also symbolize the duality of beauty and life vs pain and temporality.

  • Traditional Dagger through Heart Tattoo

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

Traditional Dagger through Heart Tattoo

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

  • Traditional Dagger and Traditional Skull Tattoos

It can represent bravely facing one’s own mortality.

It is also sometimes seen as a symbol of protection.

Dagger and Skull Tattoo

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 remarks and will resist honestly until the end.

American Traditional Arrow Tattoos

In a modern context, arrows have become a symbol of hope for many people who deals with various issues.

These tattoos have a more romantic design, differentiating them from the American traditional arrow tattoo.

American Traditional Arrow Tattoo

An American traditional arrow tattoo design can represent dissension or peace, depending on the design.

Crossed arrows represent an alliance, while a broken arrow represents the end to a quarrel or “burying the hatchet.”

If arrows point in opposite directions, it represents vengeance.

American Traditional Arrow Tattoo

American Traditional Heart Tattoos

Hearts are another classic in the American traditional universe.

They may represent someone the wearer has a soft spot for, making “mom” a popular choice.

American Traditional Heart Tattoo

It may also be indicative of someone emotional who wears their heart on their sleeve.

An American traditional heart tattoo with a dagger could represent a betrayal, but it may also symbolize the natural dichotomies in life.

American Traditional Heart Tattoo

The heart is tender while the dagger is hard.

Most people will experience both romance and hardship in their time on earth, and this tattoo speaks to that inevitability.

American Traditional Skull Tattoos

The American traditional skull tattoo would have been especially relevant to the sailors and soldiers who wore them.

Traditional Skull Tattoo

The American traditional skull tattoo is about accepting the ephemerality of life.

Traditional Skull Tattoo

It tells the world that you choose to have a light-hearted attitude about it.

American Traditional Nature Tattoos

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

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

American Traditional Nature Tattoo

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

American Traditional Nature Tattoo

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.

American Traditional Nature Tattoo

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?

American Traditional Nature Tattoo

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

American Traditional Nature Tattoo

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

  • American Traditional Sunset Tattoos

American Traditional tattoos often depict sunset tattoos in tropical locales.

American Traditional Sunset Tattoo

These tattoo designs soothe the soul reminding a person that there are pieces of paradise on earth.

American Traditional Sunset Tattoo

An American traditional sunset tattoo may symbolize a newfound sense of peace, transitioning to a new way of life.

Or just a pure love of tropical places.

  • American Traditional Palm Tree Tattoos

Another homage to tropical landscapes, these palm tree tattoos were the influence of Sailor Jerry and others who spent time in Hawaii.

American Traditional Tree Tattoo

Thought to be paradise on earth, many old-school tattoos celebrate Hawaii’s lush landscapes.

An American traditional palm tree represents a love of, or desire for, leisure time in beautiful vacation settings.

American Traditional Tree Tattoo

Traditional Travel Inspired Tattoos

Circus performers, soldiers, and sailors are responsible for bringing American traditional tattoos to the mainstream.

Traditional Travel Tattoo

It’s no surprise, then, that this is the go-to aesthetic for a design that speaks to travel and adventure.

The following designs may not be true to the era, but they have that yesteryear spirit.

  • Traditional Hot Air Balloon Tattoos

Hot air balloons are a cheerful image.

Usually painted with bright, attention-grabbing colors, they are hard to miss.

Traditional Hot Air Balloon Tattoo

The hot air balloon is a novel way to travel, so it has a sense of whimsy to it.

Someone with an American traditional hot air balloon tattoo may be trying to embrace an optimistic view of the world.

Traditional Hot Air Balloon Tattoo

They may also want to see the world from a different angle.

  • Traditional Photo Camera Tattoos

Photos are a way to hold onto treasured memories long term.

A camera tattoo is an obvious choice for a photographer, but it may also belong to someone with a nostalgic streak.

Traditional Camera Tattoo

The Polaroid camera continues to be a desired object in the present day and has many tattoo pieces dedicated to its memory.

Despite how far technology comes, there’s something fascinating about watching a photo develop before your very eyes.

Traditional Camera Tattoo

An American traditional camera tattoo symbolizes a romantic personality, someone who wants to celebrate the good times and have something to reflect on.

  • Traditional Globe Tattoos

Have you ever spun a globe, closed your eyes, and vowed to travel to wherever your finger lands?

Traditional Globe Tattoo

It’s a fun childhood game, but it’s also the way some people live their lives.

The American traditional globe tattoo symbolizes world travel.

Traditional Globe Tattoo

It may represent places you’ve been, yearn to go, or a little of both.

Traditional Globe Tattoo

American Traditional Geisha Tattoos

The Geisha design is yet another one that speaks to Sailor Jerry’s fascination with Japanese tattoo designs.

In general, Americans have had a fixation with Japanese women for some time in history.

Traditional Geisha Tattoo

The role of a Geisha is to be a skilled host.

She will know about a variety of topics and be able to charm her guests with relevant conversation.

Traditional Geisha Tattoo

She is also skilled at conducting tea ceremonies, playing instruments, and performing traditional dances.

Since there is no American equivalent to the Geisha, she’s become a beguiling subject in the Western world.

Traditional Geisha Tattoo

Like other cultural tattoos, this one is a subject of debate.

Some say it celebrates the Japanese culture, and others say it is appropriative.

Traditional Geisha Tattoo

If you are not Japanese but like the Geisha tattoo aesthetic, ask yourself how you feel about getting this symbol.

It may help to reflect on what you are trying to represent.

American Traditional Geisha Tattoo

Is it the dedication of a Geisha, the well-roundedness, the artistry, the beauty?

There may be another way to pay homage to those traits.

American Traditional Geisha Tattoo

That said, the choice is yours to get whatever tattoo you like.

And there are undoubtedly some

Traditional Geisha Tattoo

American traditional Geisha tattoos represent beauty, master abilities, and mystery.

American Traditional Hourglass Tattoos

American traditional hourglass tattoos are stunning pieces that allow for creative interpretation in your own individual design.

Though the hourglass is a simple tool, when represented in a tattoo, it may hold a certain level of symbolism and mystery, unique to the owner of the tattoo.

American Traditional Hourglass Tattoo

The simple, bold art style of traditional tattoos emphasizes the symbolic nature of the hourglass, allowing any viewer to reflect on the deep meaning they hold.

Traditional hourglass tattoos can hold multiple meanings but widely relate to the passage of time.

Like the skull tattoos, hourglass tattoos represent the inevitable passing of time.

When an hourglass tips, the sand must spill out.

American Traditional Hourglass Tattoo

These tattoos may also serve as a reminder of the limited time we have on earth and the need to use your time to the fullest.

American traditional hourglass tattoos represent life and transience.

They can be a memorial tattoo or a representation of one’s own mortality.

There are many unique and creative designs for traditional hourglass tattoos.

They may incorporate different items throughout for a larger tattoo piece, or stand on their own.

Traditional hourglass tattoos are meaningful pieces that recall the shortness and fragility of life.

Main themes in traditional hourglass tattoos include pieces related to the passage of time.

American Traditional Hourglass Tattoo

Many of these tattoos include different items that emphasize the meaning of the tattoo or the overall design.

Traditional tattoos incorporate dark lines, lots of black coloring, and solid bold colors throughout their designs.

Deep reds, yellows, blues, grays, and greens are common in these tattoos, with little to no shading.

There are many interpretations these tattoos take on, but like all traditional tattoos, they have lots of dark and full colors and thick lining throughout.

They are classic tattoo designs that have been around for a long time and are still used very often today.

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 approach an old school tattoo.

Many traditional tattoo 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 creates 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 increased in popularity 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

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.

American Traditional Tattoo Ideas

Still not sure what to get for your American traditional tattoo?

Here are a few of our favorite tattoo ideas.

Small American Traditional Tattoos

American traditional tattoos are so bold, they look so cool even as a small tattoo piece.

If you’re just getting started with tattoos, it’s best to start small.

Here are some great examples of small old-school tattoos that pack a punch.

Small American Traditional Tattoo
Small American Traditional Tattoo
Small American Traditional Tattoo
Small American Traditional Tattoo
Small American Traditional Tattoo
Small American Traditional Tattoo

American Traditional Tattoo Sleeve

Sleeves are a great way to tell a story.

If you can’t decide on your American traditional piece, why not bring together a few designs?

With the distinct design elements, it’s easy to blend ideas and create something unique to you.

American Traditional Tattoo Sleeve
American Traditional Tattoo Sleeve
American Traditional Tattoo Sleeve
American Traditional Tattoo Sleeve
American Traditional Tattoo Sleeve
American Traditional Tattoo Sleeve
American Traditional Tattoo Sleeve
American Traditional Tattoo Sleeve
American Traditional Tattoo Sleeve

Black & Grey American Traditional Tattoos

Not a color tattoo fan? No problem.

American traditional designs look amazing in black and grey.

We love how the details come alive with bold black ink.

Black and Grey American Traditional Tattoo
Black and Grey American Traditional Tattoo
Black and Grey American Traditional Tattoo
Black and Grey American Traditional Tattoo
Black and Grey American Traditional Tattoo
Black and Grey American Traditional Tattoo

Simple American Traditional Tattoos

Sometimes one image is worth 1000 words.

You don’t need an elaborate design to make a statement with old school ink.

Sometimes simple American traditional tattoos say it best.

This way, there’s no room for interpretation- it’s all crystal clear.

Simple American Traditional Tattoo
Simple American Traditional Tattoo
Simple American Traditional Tattoo

Large American Traditional Tattoos

If you want a step up from a sleeve, try a large American traditional piece on your back or chest.

When your artist has that much room to work with, they can develop a genuinely dazzling design.

Large American Traditional Tattoo
Large American Traditional Tattoo

American Traditional Tattoo Placement

The nice thing about American traditional tattoos is they can take up as much or as little space as you’d like them to.

They are versatile in that they can be fun mini tattoos or large chest and back pieces.

Check out our American traditional tattoo placement gallery below to see some examples.

  • American Traditional Forearm Tattoos

Are you looking to portray a showstopping design, and you’re not reluctant to show it?

American Traditional Tattoo on Forearm

Your forearm is a great space to tattoo your cascading flowers or your vicious leaping tiger.

American Traditional Tattoo on Forearm

No matter what traditional Old School tattoo design you choose, your forearm is an excellent choice for a mid-size canvas.

American Traditional Tattoo on Forearm
  • American Traditional Chest Tattoos

A chest tattoo is for someone who wants to make a bold statement, especially if it something of the likes of a malicious bear or a streaming flow of flowers.

American Traditional Tattoo on Chest

Choosing your chest for your tattoo placement will only enhance the prominence of the design.

American Traditional Tattoo on Chest

A chest tattoo comes with the perks of having the option to conceal it or let it out for the world to see.

American Traditional Tattoo on Chest
  • American Traditional Back-piece Tattoos

American traditional tattoos usually come in vibrant and bold colors.

Back-piece American Traditional Tattoo

There is no lack of striking features when you choose this style of tattoo.

Why not pair this eye-catching tattoo style with a large canvas to properly showcase it!

Back-piece American Traditional Tattoo

Your back is the most significant part of your body that can give the justice that these tattoos deserve.


If you’re giving into something forever, it had better be done well.

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

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

What’s your favorite old-school tattoo design?

American Traditional Tattoo FAQ

When did American traditional tattoos start?

America’s unique way of tattooing started as early as the American Civil War and has come forward all the way to the present day. This is according to Martin Hildebrant, who opened New York City’s first tattoo shop in 1846. In 1891, Samuel O’Reilly invented the electric tattoo machine, revolutionizing the industry and rocking it to its core. Also, Maude Wagner (1877-1961), one of the OG names in the game, was the first recorded female tattoo artist in America. 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 ’40s that tattoo artistry really took off.

Where did American traditional tattoos originate?

What we now consider a traditional tattoo style, was brought on by Sailor Jerry in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Who invented American traditional tattoos?

Working out of Honolulu, this is where Sailor Jerry came into play. This was a ‘first wave,’ of what we now think of as an American traditional tattoo style, which was brought on by artists Sailor Jerry (considered the ‘father of Old School’) and Bert Grimm.

What are American traditional tattoos?

Simple in nature, these tattoos are only for a highly professional artist to perform because of one mistake with the line surrounding an object, and the entire tattoo could be ruined. The lines on these tattoos are bold and outline shapes in thick black ink– there’s no hiding the linework in this style. Lines in an American traditional tattoo do not only serve to outline but form the entire shape of the tattoo inside and out. Equally as important as the line is the use of color in traditional tattoos. Solid colors are incorporated into the image along with black and white, but as we’ve mentioned, when the colors are used they are always highly saturated. That’s not all– there’s a specific color palette used in this tattoo style that dare not be altered. Reds, yellows, and blues are used with minimal use of other colors. This creates a unique tattoo that will most definitely stand out as being an Old School tattoo. 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. Although many early tattoos in the style were pin-up girls, anchors, flags, and eagles, there are no longer any boundaries to where an American traditional tattoo design can go. They can represent anything from a horse to a geisha. The art of an American traditional tattoo style is to make it look like a drawing.

Why do American traditional tattoos last longer?

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

Do different American traditional tattoos have different meanings?

Yes. Depending on the tattoo subject, different American traditional tattoos have different meanings. For example, an American traditional wolf tattoo has different meanings than an American traditional rose tattoo.

Can American traditional tattoos be black and grey?

Yes.Black and Grey American Traditional Tattoo

What are some examples of common American traditional tattoos?

Although many early tattoos in the style were pin-up girls, anchors, flags, and eagles, there are no longer any boundaries to where an American traditional tattoo design can go. When talking about an American traditional tattoo motif, the sky’s the limit. Here are some examples of how an American traditional tattoo look:
American Traditional Tattoo

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