American Traditional Tattoo Guide (With 100+ Inspiration Tattoos) - Tattoo Stylist (2024)

American Traditional Tattoo Meanings – Common Elements & Symbols

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

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

Most common motifs are:

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

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

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

Swallow Tattoos

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

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

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

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

Anchor Tattoos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shark Tattoos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragon Tattoos

The traditional dragon tattoos started thanks to Sailor Jerry.

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

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

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

Skull Tattoos

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

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

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

That said, skulls are commonly represented with daggers – either behind them or stabbing right through the or through other animate objects like in the example of butterfly skull tattoos.

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

Snake Tattoos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panther Tattoos

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

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

Among other meanings are guardianship, freedom and courage.

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

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

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

Lucky 13 Tattoos

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

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

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

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

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

Eagle Tattoos

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

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

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

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

Pin up Girl Tattoos

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

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

From maidenly perfection to vixenish temptation.

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

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

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

Ship Tattoos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart Tattoos

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

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

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

American Traditional Tattoo Guide (With 100+ Inspiration Tattoos) - Tattoo Stylist (2024)


What are the fundamentals of American traditional tattoo? ›

What Are the Characteristics of an American Traditional Tattoo?
  • Bold and clean black outlines in a 2D finish (looks like a drawing)
  • Highly saturated colors of red, green, yellow, and lots of black.
  • Minimal shading.
  • Nautical themes (classically)
Feb 8, 2022

How do I choose an American traditional tattoo? ›

If you're thinking about getting an American traditional tattoo, you might want to consider picking a design with classic appeal. That way, you can be sure that your tattoo will always look amazing, no matter how trends might change. Plus, a timeless design is more likely to stay in style for years to come.

What is the American traditional tattoo color? ›

American Traditional design styles use heavy black outlines with minimal color and a lot of black shades. They are usually darker in appearance and the color choice is limited to simple colors such as average blue, green, red and yellow. Colors are used in blocks with very few details.

What kind of people get American traditional tattoos? ›

Such pieces imbue their bearers with the same ideas from which they were born: a rejection of mainstream culture and the search for a new identity with the revival of traditional style tattoos. The first to follow the art were those who wanted to escape the limitations of society in search of something else.

Do American traditional tattoos age well? ›

Certain tattoo styles that use black and/or grey ink, such as Tribal tattoos, Greyscale tattoos, and American Traditional tattoos (as well as bold lettering or Zodiac tattoos) are known to age well. These different tattoo styles feature bold, detailed linework that is deeply injected into the skin.

What makes American traditional tattoos different? ›

Traditional tattoos, also known as American, Western, or Old School are characterized by its clean black outlines, vivid colors, and minimal shading. These are fundamental to traditional style and make it one of the most bold and iconic tattoo styles there is.

How much does the average American traditional tattoo cost? ›

Tiny TattoosUnder 2 inches$50 - $100
Small Tattoos2-4 inches$50 - $250
Medium Sized Tattoos4-6 inches$150 - $450
Large Single-Piece Tattoos4-6 inches$500 - $5,000
1 more row
Jan 29, 2022

How much do you tip a tattoo artist? ›

How much should you tip your tattoo artist? "In general, 20 percent is typical, just like other service industry standards," shares tattoo artist Lina Shuliar.

Can you mix American traditional and realistic tattoos? ›

Mixing traditional and realistic tattoos allows individuals to unearth new ways to express themselves through body art while honoring past cultural influences at the same time—allowing them to create something beautiful that's truly all their own!

Is American traditional hard to tattoo? ›

Simple American Traditional Tattoo

While it has undoubtedly become more complex in the past decades, simple American traditional tattoos continue to be a hallmark of the style, and for a good reason. The bold lines, limited palette, and simplified designs make American traditional excellent for straightforward tattoos.

What is the most common tattoo in America? ›

Butterflies are the most popular tattoos in the USA

Again, whether you opt for a large or small design, with vibrant colors or intense shading, flower tattoos are extremely versatile.

Can American traditional be black and GREY? ›

A: Yes, traditional tattoos can be black and grey, although they are commonly known for their bold colors.

What are the tattoo fundamentals? ›

There are four basic skills that every tattoo artist should master. You need to learn lining, shading, coloring, and lettering.

What defines traditional tattoo style? ›

Often based off old flash designs from the legends of the field, traditional tattoo designs depict simple imagery with clean, bold line work and use a limited colour palette. By getting a traditional tattoo you are paying homage to the art form and keeping tradition alive.

What do tattoos symbolize in American culture? ›

In America, tattoos have often been associated with rebellion and counterculture, as well as with certain subcultures such as sailors and bikers. However, tattoos have also been used as a form of self-expression and personal identification.

What are the traditional practices of tattooing? ›

Traditional tattooing

Some cultures create tattooed marks by hand-tapping the ink into the skin using sharpened sticks or animal bones (made like needles) with clay formed disks or, in modern times, needles.


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