American Traditional Tattoo

American Traditional Tattoos: History, Meanings, Artists & Designs

How old school tattoos became a mainstay in American culture.

American Traditional Tattoos

American traditional tattoo style, also called Old School, is the easiest tattoo style to identify.

Visually, each tattoo 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 tattooing.

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 & Meanings in Old School Tattoos

When exploring the world of American traditional tattoos, it’s crucial to recognize that the meaning of these tattoos is often deeply personal, and it can vary among individuals.

While these tattoos traditionally hold specific meanings, individuals frequently use them to express their unique stories and experiences.

The significance of American traditional tattoos is intrinsically tied to the specific design chosen.

Here, we delve into some common themes and meanings associated with the elements of this iconic tattoo style.

Understanding the rich symbolism behind American traditional tattoos adds depth and significance to your body art.

Pin-Up Tattoos

Pin-up Tattoo

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.

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

Traditional Nautical Tattoos

Traditional Ship Tattoo

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

These timeless symbols pay tribute to their original wearers and the rich maritime symbolism they carry.

American Traditional Anchor Tattoos: Sailors often got anchor tattoos upon crossing the Atlantic, symbolizing stability in turbulent seas and love for those ashore.

American Traditional Lighthouse Tattoos: Lighthouses, guiding ships to safety, represent hope and the promise of land, making them a comforting beacon for sailors and a metaphor for life’s challenges.

American Traditional Ship Tattoos: Ships, popular among sailors, signify life’s journey, resilience, and the call of adventure. Your choice of ship reflects your spirit, whether grand and majestic or eerily mysterious.

American Traditional Shark Tattoos: Sharks, associated with sailors, represent bravery and admiration for this apex predator. Some wear them as a symbol of fearlessness.

American Traditional Octopus Tattoos: The octopus, a marine mystery, symbolizes adaptability and creative problem-solving. Its resilience and enigmatic nature inspire many.

American Traditional Compass Tattoos: A compass evokes images of exploration and self-guidance. It symbolizes finding one’s moral “true north” and can serve as a reminder that wandering is not always a sign of being lost.

American Traditional Bottle Tattoos: While not strictly traditional, bottle tattoos incorporate diverse themes and emotions. They pay tribute to the tradition of messages in bottles, conveying cherished memories and emotions.

American Traditional Zoomorphic Tattoos

American Traditional Tiger Tattoo

These tattoos draw inspiration from the animal kingdom, reflecting personal traits and values.

Predatory animals in tattoos symbolize strength and virility, and modern variations introduce unique creatures into the mix.

American Traditional Bear Tattoos: Bears, often depicted snarling in old-school designs, signify strength and wisdom, with roots in Norse mythology.

American Traditional Wolf Tattoos: Wolves embody both bold predation and skilled hunting, appealing to those who embrace a “hunt or be hunted” mentality. Cartoonish wolves evoke playfulness.

American Traditional Butterfly Tattoos: These timeless tattoos represent hope, transformation, and renewal. They are suitable for any gender and may symbolize embracing mortality.

American Traditional Tiger Tattoos: Tigers symbolize wildness and independence, making them ideal for those who consider themselves leaders or pioneers.

American Traditional Lion Tattoos: Lions represent bravery, leadership, and teamwork, with the potential to symbolize a formidable team.

American Traditional Elephant Tattoos: These tattoos draw inspiration from Eastern influences, symbolizing good luck, prosperity, and agility in balancing life’s demands.

American Traditional Horse Tattoos: Horses, reflecting strength, freedom, and the challenge of taming the wild, are suitable for those who appreciate free-spirited nature or desire to symbolize superiority.

American Traditional Deer Tattoos: Deers symbolize quiet strength, serenity, and maternal instincts. Stags, representing virility and masculinity, appeal to skilled hunters.

American Traditional Bird Tattoos: Bird tattoos, especially when seen in pairs, symbolize the proximity of land, offering hope to weary sailors.

American Traditional Eagle Tattoos: Bald eagles, representing freedom and power, resonate with patriotism and personal ideals.

American Traditional Swallow Tattoos: Swallows signify long journeys and a return home, often seen in pairs as a promise or memorial tribute to sailors.

American Traditional Hummingbird Tattoos: These tattoos capture the joyful energy and creativity associated with the agile hummingbird.

American Traditional Portrait Tattoos

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.

These 2D aesthetics focus on a person’s best qualities, avoiding the risks of inaccuracies seen in hyper-realistic portraits.

American traditional portraits maintain the essence of the style with bolder color palettes, simple lines, and attention to detail.

They often incorporate old-school imagery like swallows, anchors, or banners to enhance the design.

American Traditional Jesus Tattoos

American Traditional Jesus Tattoo

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

He often stands for unconditional love and altruism.

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.

Traditional Circus-Inspired Tattoos

Traditional Circus Tattoo

Traditional Circus-Inspired Tattoos have their roots in American circus culture.

Circus performers were some of the earliest visibly tattooed individuals in the country.

These outcasts often found acceptance and employment within the circus, where their physical limitations were embraced.

While the concept of freak shows is now viewed critically, many earned a living through these circus acts.

Circus traditions persist today, from small performances to grand productions like Cirque du Soleil, featuring jugglers, acrobats, and contortionists.

Old-school circus tattoos often depict these show acts, paying homage to a bygone era.

In the early 20th century, heavily tattooed individuals were popular attractions in circus shows.

Audiences paid to see them and heard elaborate tales about how they acquired their tattoos, often involving exotic travels and being held by foreign tribes.

Getting a circus-inspired tattoo is a statement of individuality, celebrating life on the fringes of society, even if you’re not ready to join the circus.

American Traditional Cross Tattoos

American Traditional Cross Tattoo

Most commonly, American traditional cross tattoos are in Memoriam.

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

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

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

American Traditional Flower Tattoos

American Traditional Flower Tattoo

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.

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.

American Traditional Dagger Tattoos

American Traditional Dagger Tattoo

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

Dagger tattoos 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 Arrow Tattoos

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

American Traditional Arrow Tattoo

These tattoos have a more romantic design, differentiating them from the 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.”

American Traditional Arrow Tattoo

If arrows point in opposite directions, it represents vengeance.

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.

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!

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.

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.

American Traditional Tree Tattoo

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

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.

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 has come, 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.

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

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.

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.

American Traditional Hourglass Tattoo

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.

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

American traditional hourglass tattoos represent life and transience.

American Traditional Hourglass Tattoo

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.

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

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.

American Traditional Hourglass Tattoo

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

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.

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 is 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.

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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