The art of tattooing dates back nearly 5,000 years, but American traditional tattoo designs – also known as ‘western’ or ‘old school’ – weren’t invented until the 1930s. At the time, they were reserved for those living outside of the constraints and expectations of mainstream society.
In fact, it was the sailors that are credited with introducing the art of tattooing to Western culture. They viewed the world differently and weren’t scared to go against the norm, even if it meant inking their body with art. By World War II, it was increasingly popular among servicemen.
That’s around the time when American traditional tattoo designs gained prominence. Norman Collins, more commonly known as Sailor Jerry, is known as the father of American traditional tattoo designs, combining his own, unique vision with that of early Japanese tattoo masters.
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Are You Considering an American Traditional Tattoo?
American traditional tattoos are reserved for a certain type of individual – those that aren’t confined to rules and like to take their own path in life. That’s why you’ll see these types of tattoos on a lot of bikers, hobos, sailors, servicemen, and those testing the society ‘norm.’
An American traditional tattoo is distinguished by its clean lines, dark black outlines, vivid and bright colors, and lack of shading – many would say they’re bold, but we like to call them iconic. This is how Sailor Jerry envisioned it, it’s how he executed it, and it’s how we reciprocated it.
While you can turn any tattoo into an American traditional tattoo (with the right artist, of course), there are certain themes that are common with this style – including anchors, ships, daggers, women, skulls, wolves, and roses. Let’s take a look at some incredible examples below!
25. Scream Tattoo
We’re going to start things off with a modernized American traditional tattoo. The scream tattoo is perfect for anyone who loves a good horror film, the Halloween season, or just the Scream series specifically. The only catch with this tattoo is that it has all the features commonly found in American traditional tattoos – the dagger, the bold colors, the flowers, it’s all there.
24. America Tattoo
We just got done celebrating Independence Day and while July 4th won’t be back for another 12 months, that doesn’t mean you can’t show off your love for your country. With a tattoo like this, you can celebrate the United States of America in the best way possible – a tribute to the tattoo enthusiasts that came before us, more specifically Sailor Jerry and his favorite designs.
23. Doggy Tattoo
How much do you love your dog? Is it enough to get a tattoo commemorating that love? If so, then you should consider getting an American traditional tattoo style. All your tattoo artist needs is a picture of your dog and they can work their magic. With the bold colors and dark lines, it’s sure to be a tattoo that everyone notices and asks about – making your furry friend famous!
22. Pin-Up Tattoo
The pin-up tattoo is a classic design for an American traditional tattoo – though there are a wide variety of styles and reasons for getting it. For example, some women get the pin-up tattoo as a way of celebrating the female form, while some men get it as a sign of lust or temptation. The specific tattoo displayed above is a more modern vision with a Venom (movie) reference.
21. Religious Tattoo
There’s no better way to celebrate your religion than with a tattoo – though some religious followers might frown on it. When getting an American traditional tattoo, it’s commonplace to use Jesus Christ as the focal point. Artists will often tie in a halo, flowers, roses, and more to give the tattoo some substance and content. Of course, you can do whatever you want with yours!
20. Gypsy Tattoo
The gypsy tattoo is a popular one among American traditional tattoo artists. It usually features a woman with a headscarf, flowers in her hair, and some rather large jewelry on her ears, neck, and wrist. To ensure you do this tattoo justice, make sure you have a lot of space for detail – making this is a good tattoo for the thigh, back, shoulder, or calf. Then again, it’ll look good no matter what.
19. Native American Girl Tattoo
If you want to celebrate your native heritage in style, why not get yourself an American traditional tattoo of a native american man or woman? You can use a photo of yourself, a loved one, or a role model – so long as they’re someone worth getting a tattoo of! You can also add other Native American elements to the tattoo, such as a dreamcatcher or arrowheads.
18. Buddy Holly Tattoo
Buddy Holly was one of the pioneers of rock and roll music. While his influence on the music industry is larger than most, his career was cut short when he and his bandmates were involved in a tragic plane crash – killing them all. Holly was just 22 years old at the time. Even if you’re not a Buddy Holly fan, which you should be, you can get a similar tattoo of anyone else!
17. Lion Tattoo
There are a lot of people that can relate to a lion tattoo. For example, my astrology sign is Leo, so it would make perfect sense for me to get something lion-related. Not only that, but the lion is known to symbolize majesty, strength, courage, justice, and might. It’s a beautiful creature with its fluffy mane, but is one of the most feared animals on the planet and doesn’t play around.
16. Bear Tattoo
If you’re not a lion person, then maybe you’re a bear person. It often represents strength, courage and protection, nobility, and patience. While they might appear to be cuddly and fluffy, they’re far from it and won’t hesitate to inflict danger. If you’re planning on getting an American traditional tattoo of a bear, consider getting one with its mouth open – showing its fierceness.
15. Tiger Tattoo
The tiger is one of the most fierce big cats in the world. Native to Asia, these cats look adorable, but aren’t very friendly. They represent strength, cunning, majesty, independence, and immortality. Tigers are skilled hunters and have some incredible looking stripes – the orange and black colors are also perfect for an American traditional tattoo design, if you catch my drift!
14. Wolf Tattoo
The wolf is a very popular tattoo idea, especially those that are one with nature. Not only that, but wolves travel in packs and are very loyal to that pack – which is something many people can relate to. Most American traditional tattoo artists go for more of a cartoon-like wolf, opposed to a realistic wolf. They also like to color in the eyes (red, yellow, etc.) for dramatic effect.
13. Snake Tattoo
There’s nothing that screams ‘biker gang’ more than a tattoo with a dagger and snake. It’s a classic design among American traditional tattoo artists and is at the top of many people’s list when getting a tattoo. There are a lot of different snake species that you can portray and while there’s a lot of different symbolism that comes with a snake, they mostly represent evil and/or temptation.
12. Black Cat Tattoo
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a black cat – it can be a domestic cat or bobcat – but let’s be honest, there’s nothing more fierce and mysterious than a black panther. It doesn’t matter where they are, they always look like a shadow with yellow eyes, which is extremely eerie when you think about it. You can also get it if you want to commemorate the Black Panther Party.
11. Eagle Tattoo
The bald eagle has been the United States’ national bird for the past 250 years, making it the perfect American traditional tattoo idea for anyone that loves their country. Other than that, the eagle represents honesty, truth, leadership, freedom, justice, and strength. It’s a beautiful bird that loves to fly high – hence, the symbolization of freedom – in the sky as they seek food.
10. Cactus Tattoo
Getting a cactus tattoo might sound random, but not to someone that grew up in a desert-like environment – such as Nevada or Arizona. Cacti are also known to represent endurance, healing, and protection due to its ability to survive conditions that most plants would die in. In fact, some people associate the cactus with motherly love for the same exact reason.
9. Dagger and Heart Tattoo
There is so much you can do with a heart tattoo, but perhaps the best American traditional tattoo design of a heart involves the addition of a dagger. Then again, you can also go without a dagger and keep the tattoo a little more focused on the love and trust aspect. Many people like to use the heart to symbolize lost loved ones, significant others, or family members in general.
8. Flower Tattoo
Whether it’s used as the focal point of the tattoo or a background element to a larger tattoo, the flower is frequently used among American traditional tattoo artists. Perhaps the most popular flower in this style of tattoo is the rose, but everyone has their personal favorite flower – so go with whatever your heart desires! With the vibrant colors of the tattoo, flowers are perfect!
7. Skull Tattoo
The skull tattoo is best reserved for the bad boys that want to let those around them know that they mean business. It’s often used to represent death and destruction, but also makes for a good Halloween tattoo, if you’re interested. Of course, it can also be a reminder to live each day like it’s your last – especially considering we have no idea how long we have on this planet.
6. Hot Air Balloon Tattoo
To some people, they’ll only see a hot air balloon. To others, they’ll see the freedom, happiness, independence, and control over one’s own life that hot air balloons represent. It can also be a way of celebrating a special memory that took place in a hot air balloon – maybe a first date or proposal. Then again, maybe you’re someone who enjoys flying in a hot air balloon for fun!
5. Hourglass Tattoo
Are you fascinated with the concept of time? It’s a weird concept due to the fact that we act like we don’t have long on this planet and while that’s true in the grand scheme of things, most of us will live a long and fruitful life. How do we achieve it? By not taking time for granted and there’s no better way to symbolize that than with an hourglass tattoo in American traditional style.
4. Compass Tattoo
If it’s not time that you’re fascinated with, then maybe you’re fascinated with direction. There’s a lot of symbolism in that, as well, and can even be depicted alongside the hourglass for double the meaning. It’s a great tattoo idea for hunters, travel guides, survivalists, and adventurers. You can also have the compass read a specific direction that means something to you.
3. Ship Tattoo
For these last three American traditional tattoo ideas, we’re going to stick with the three most symbolic, iconic, and classic tattoos for this type of style – starting with the ship. It represents a home away from home for so many people, but also represents direction, freedom, adventure, and a way of life. For those that spend most of their life on a ship, a tattoo only makes sense.
2. Sailor Tattoo
The sailors were the ones who popularized the American traditional tattoo, so it’s only right that sailor-related tattoos find their way on this list. Whether you’re commemorating a legendary tattoo artist like Sailor Jerry or a fictional sailor like Popeye, there are a million different things you can do with a sailor tattoo. The real question is which one are you going to go with?
1. Anchor Tattoo
Which brings us to our final American traditional tattoo idea – the anchor. It’s something your tattoo artist will recommend if you’re interested in this style of tattoo, representing stability, salvation, hope, faith, and sustainability. If you need a lifelong reminder to keep yourself grounded and on-track with your goals and dreams, then get yourself an anchor tattoo!
Which American Traditional Tattoo Design is Your Favorite?
The American traditional tattoo has seen its fair share of evolution and modernization through the years, but the primary features remain true to this day. They’re still as bright and vivid as ever, as bold and iconic as we remember, and as fun and exciting as they’re hyped up to be.
If you’re interested in getting an American traditional tattoo, then you’re going to want to find a tattoo artist that specializes in that style of tattoo. To ensure you’re working with an artist that you trust, make sure you take a look at examples of their work and read any past customer reviews.
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Perhaps the best thing about American traditional tattoos is you can do whatever you want with them – especially if you have a talented artist that can bring anything to life. Once they see your vision, they’ll put it down on paper and eventually etch it into your skin – making you unique!
If you enjoyed these traditional-style tattoos, you might also like to learn about neo-traditional tattooing which takes elements of old-school tattoo design and updates them for today. The result is a balance between old and new that looks both timeless and on-trend. Enjoy some of our favorite examples!
Learn More About Neo-Traditional Tattooing By Looking at These Stunning Tattoos!
We find many elements from traditional tattooing harnessed here along with radical color that’s been blended in a more contemporary style. Also notable is the use of black ink to create dimension and texture in the background of the design.
Rose and Snake
What a showstopper! We find a snake wrapped around a glorious rose in this energetic design. Notice how there is a black outline around every shape in this design? That’s a hallmark of traditional and neo-traditional tattoos.
Mushrooms From a Shell
Here’s an interesting design that finds some handsome mushroom springing from a shell. There is so much texture produced from hatching and movement lines.
Sacred heart tattoos are and have been extremely popular for decades. We find a new interpretation in this design that has a pleasing ombré that brings so much color and life to the design.
Horseshoe tattoos have been popular for a very long time as well. We find an update to the old design with the inclusion of the “sparkle” or “confetti” effect which is simply a bunch of dots used to fill various shapes.
Mum’s the Word
Chrysanthemum designs are well-represented among neo-traditional tattoos today. A cotton candy pink meets baby blue in the petals of this stunner.
Blue Flame, Black Bird
Take a look at this black bird’s plumage and you will see tons of little lines added to give the feathers texture. Despite all of it, the tattoo still reads as flat and 2D which makes the blue element really pop.
The black nails on the hand holding these flowers contrast beautifully with the orange rose in the foreground. Roses have been tattooed like this for decades.
Isn’t this lantern tattoo magical? Note the way the color intensity seems to radiate from the flame in the center and fades the further the tattoo moves away from it. It produces a very interesting effect.
Cute characters from nature are a big part of both traditional and neo-traditional tattoos. We find a sweet raccoon holding onto a pinecone here. Notice how green has been applied to the raccoon to make the golden-orange of the pinecone stand out? That’s money.
Eye Heart U
A heart with an eye in it is a classic symbol that’s been tattooed thousands of times. We find it improved here with a heart that’s full of spikes and has dramatic, black shading.
Lady faces are very popular among neo-traditional tattoos. We find a rather sinister one in the above example with a fresh-looking thorn or flame element.
Death’s-head hawkmoths are another popular design these days. When researching tattoos, we encounter tons of these done in a variety of styles. We must say it translates well for neo-traditional tattoos.
We find a rather poetic neo-traditional tattoo here that finds a broken arrow wrapped in a ribbon and some beads. What an attractive entry.
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As we mentioned, lady faces are wildly popular and they have been for a very long time. What’s new in the above design is the shading on the face and its freckles. It’s very close to what you would find among traditional tattoos from decades ago.
Here’s a rather intense-looking rooster in this design which has used some incredibly warm colors that contrast well with the black elements of the design.
How daring is this little bird on a planchette? Botanical elements are popular additions to any design that sweeten the deal.
This flamingo tattoo looks positively electric in neon color. Pink, orange, and olive green all play well together in this big tattoo.
Pretty as a Peach
Go ahead and get your favorite fruit inked on you! Fruits make excellent neo-traditional tattoo designs because they put focus on shape and texture.
A black candle looks mesmerizing with bits of the “wax” picking up some of the warm golden colors that surround it. It makes it look as if the flame is being reflected from it.
What do you think of this neo-traditional bat tattoo? It’s fantastic. We find many elements of traditional tattooing here with a. few surprises for a look that feels both vintage and contemporary.
A True Gent
A gentleman cat? Why not! We think this furry fellow looks rather dapper in his green getup. Despite the whimsical subject matter, this tattoo is very close to the traditional tattooing style.
A Dagger of Love
We find dynamic color throughout this design from the handle to the delicately shaded tip of the dagger. “love dagger” feels like an oxymoron but it totally works for this design.
Neo-traditional tattooing is best when it harkens back to classic flash. An hourglass is a popular thing to get tattooed and it’s taken to brand new heights in this design that offers so much visual interest and plenty of imagination.
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We told you fruit is popular among neo-traditional tattoos. These blueberries are the perfect little celebration of the fruit.
Her Father’s Hand
This is a tribute tattoo for her father who was a carpenter. We find a very interesting perspective with a hand seeming to float in front of the tools of the trade. What a sweet, meaningful design.
A Splendid Mystery
In this deceptively simple design, we find all sorts of popular elements married together. A classic rose, a vase, and a sacred heart are all connected in this inspired design that’s been applied to perfection.
Do you have a better sense of the neo-traditional tattoo style? We hope we’ve given you a good idea of the hallmarks of this style and just how astonishing and cool these designs can be. In general, “traditional” is not something most of us are into but for tattoos, it brings the past to life in fresh, new ways. Happy tattooing!
- 1 Are You Considering an American Traditional Tattoo?
- 2 25. Scream Tattoo
- 2.1 24. America Tattoo
- 2.2 23. Doggy Tattoo
- 2.3 22. Pin-Up Tattoo
- 2.4 21. Religious Tattoo
- 2.5 20. Gypsy Tattoo
- 2.6 19. Native American Girl Tattoo
- 2.7 18. Buddy Holly Tattoo
- 2.8 17. Lion Tattoo
- 2.9 16. Bear Tattoo
- 2.10 15. Tiger Tattoo
- 2.11 14. Wolf Tattoo
- 2.12 13. Snake Tattoo
- 2.13 12. Black Cat Tattoo
- 2.14 11. Eagle Tattoo
- 2.15 10. Cactus Tattoo
- 2.16 9. Dagger and Heart Tattoo
- 2.17 8. Flower Tattoo
- 2.18 7. Skull Tattoo
- 2.19 6. Hot Air Balloon Tattoo
- 2.20 5. Hourglass Tattoo
- 2.21 4. Compass Tattoo
- 2.22 3. Ship Tattoo
- 2.23 2. Sailor Tattoo
- 2.24 1. Anchor Tattoo
- 3 Which American Traditional Tattoo Design is Your Favorite?
- 4 Learn More About Neo-Traditional Tattooing By Looking at These Stunning Tattoos!
- 4.1 Lucky Fish
- 4.2 Rose and Snake
- 4.3 Mushrooms From a Shell
- 4.4 Sacred Heart
- 4.5 Good Luck
- 4.6 Mum’s the Word
- 4.7 Blue Flame, Black Bird
- 4.8 A Bouquet
- 4.9 That’s Hot
- 4.10 Rad Raccoon
- 4.11 Eye Heart U
- 4.12 She-Devil
- 4.13 Death Moth
- 4.14 Broken Arrow
- 4.15 Cowgirl
- 4.16 The Clucker
- 4.17 Cute Chick
- 4.18 Flamingo-Go
- 4.19 Pretty as a Peach
- 4.20 Light Up
- 4.21 Beautifully Batty
- 4.22 A True Gent
- 4.23 A Dagger of Love
- 4.24 On-Time
- 4.25 Berry Special
- 4.26 Her Father’s Hand
- 4.27 A Splendid Mystery
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