Do you want body art that’s bound to get attention and make a statement? The American Traditional tattoo is a technique that has been popular for several decades and is defined by its bold appearance. The style relies on heavy black outlines and a limited color palette of red, green, yellow, and blue. These pieces have a very distinct appearance and are inspired by several themes, including nautical and animal designs. If you want to celebrate the female form, you can opt for a pinup or diving girl inking; or show your experience at sea with swallow artwork. You can also instill fear in others or proudly display your patriotism with this impressive approach. Keeping reading to find out the perfect American Traditional tattoo for you.
1. Anchor Tattoo
An anchor is associated with strength, stability, and resilience, as it is symbolic of staying grounded or weathering the storm. In the traditional American style of tattoos, it is a popular image that sailors have favored for decades. It could be inked after returning from a voyage or to bring them good luck when embarking on their travels. Often the anchor tattoo design includes a banner with the name of a loved one, reminding them of what is waiting at home for them, or bringing them comfort on their journey. It is also a design that works well with other nautical images such as a swallow or a ship.
2. Octopus Tattoo
The octopus is an interesting creature but one that is also feared and the subject of many tales at sea. When deciding to get a tattoo of this animal, it is often associated with deception, intelligence, and even mystery. Your design can take various meanings depending on the images you choose to include with it, such as a ship. The Kraken is a gigantic sea monster squid that is believed to have terrorized sailors. It is a symbol of strength and instills fear in others, so it could be inked to intimate or show that you are not to be messed with.
3. Ship Tattoo
Spending months and even years at sea on a ship made the vessel incredibly important to a sailor. Not only was it home, but it also symbolized direction and a way of life. The meaning behind a ship tattoo varies, but it is often associated with a journey. If you love to travel, wish to honor a relative who was a sailor, or want a symbol of how you are navigating the waters of your own life, then this is a fantastic choice for your next body art design. You can add to your tattoo’s meaning by including other images, such as an anchor, swallow, or octopus.
4. Compass Tattoo
A compass symbolizes safety and protection and guides travelers, keeping them on course and not getting lost. The meaning associated with the navigational instrument makes it a trendy choice for a tattoo. It can represent a desire to stay on a righteous path. As well as being able to b strong and determined during turbulent and unpredictable times in your life. The traditional American style compass’s overall appearance is bold and bright, and it is often accompanied by roses or other nautical imagery to enhance the meaning.
RELATED: 20 Cool Compass Tattoos For Men
5. Swallow Tattoo
The swallow is a bird associated with sailors and is often inked once someone has completed a journey. It can also be tattooed after every 5000 nautical miles and is a way to show how far you have traveled and the experience that has come with it. The bird can represent the return home, which can bring good luck and fortune during your voyage. It can also have a darker meaning; it is sometimes associated with someone lost at sea, as the bird is believed to carry the spirit to the afterlife. Popular placements for this ink include the hand, chest, and neck. If you want even more meaning, you can add the initials of a loved one or a banner with a word or quote that holds importance to you.
6. Eagle Tattoo
The eagle is a bird that is often associated with power, spirituality, and freedom. It has also become a symbol of American patriotism. It is a subject that looks particularly striking when created using the Old School tattoo style; and can be inked by servicemen to show their pride. An eagle tattoo appeals s to both men and women who believe in the American dream or want to honor their country or those who fight for it.
7. Cat Tattoo
A cat is a popular image to get tattooed in the American traditional style, and more often than not, it is depicted as a black cat. For some, this coloring is thought to be bad luck or a bad omen. That said, a cat tattoo design is created to ward off evil and offer the wearer protection. The animal is often associated with good luck, mystery, grace, and intelligence. There are many different variations to choose from; you could even recreate an image of your beloved pet using this technique, making your design even more unique to you.
8. Snake Tattoo
Snakes are a popular tattoo choice because of the symbolism attached to them. For some, they represent evil and lead us down a path of destruction; for others, they are an image of knowledge, rebirth, and transformation. In the traditional American technique, they are often portrayed coiled up, sometimes with a dagger or a flower, and with their fangs displayed. This creates an intimidating appearance. It may signal that you are a person to be wary of or serve as a reminder of the good and bad in everyone.
RELATED: 25 Unique Snake Tattoos for Men
9. Deer Tattoo
If you want a tattoo that represents kindness and gentleness, then a deer is a good choice. Unlike many other animals representing danger or power, the deer signals serenity, fertility, and motherhood. This particular technique makes it quite striking. The boldness of the design makes an interesting contrast with the meaning associated with the animal. You can create your ink as a standalone image or choose to incorporate various other things, such as a flower or lettering, to add to the overall meaning.
10. Wolf Tattoo
Few animals represent family, close bonds, and unity in the way that the wolf does. It is a popular choice to get inked to represent the important role your loved ones play in your life, as well as struggle and leadership. The traditional American approach does not opt for a hyper-realistic portrayal of the animal, though, instead of creating the canine in an almost cartoonish way, its teeth bared. The design often has red or yellow eyes and a red tongue sticking out, potentially instilling fear in others and serving as a warning for people to back off.
RELATED: 25 Wild Wolf Tattoos for Men
11. Tiger Tattoo
If you want a piece that symbolizes power and strength, then the tiger tattoo is a great choice. The big cat is a skilled hunter and, in its natural habitat, is the top predator, earning it respect but also instilling fear. Choosing to get inked with this animal can be an incredibly meaningful tattoo option. The traditional American technique also makes it a very noticeable body art piece thanks to the rich colors and bold lines. The animal is shown baring its teeth more often than not, giving it a compelling and even scary appearance.
12. Bear Tattoo
The bear is an animal that is important to many cultures, including the Native Americans, who viewed it as a symbol of strength, wisdom, and healing. Plus, it held spiritual importance. The animal also is a symbol of courage, endurance, and protection. The traditional American technique is often designed with its mouth open to bare its teeth, reminding its power and the danger associated with this magnificent creature.
13. Bee Tattoo
The bee is a beautiful insect to get tattooed but also one that is rich in symbolism. It is often associated with hard work, loyalty, and a sense of community. The honey bee works for the good of the hive, and this can also be interpreted as being selfless or as a commitment to family. It can be a reminder to work hard for what you want in life and that your efforts will be rewarded. Or a way to honor your relationships because, without each other, we could not succeed. If any of these ideas appeal to you, then getting a bee inked onto your skin is a wonderful choice.
14. Lion Tattoo
The lion is a mighty and fearsome beast, a creature of beauty that is feard and deserves respect. It is a popular choice for both men and women to get inked and is rich in symbolism. The lion is associated with power, nobility, and courage. The traditional American technique often features the big cat with its mouth open, giving a very ferocious and intimidating appearance.
RELATED: 20 Fierce Lion Tattoos for Men
15. Butterfly Tattoo
Butterflies are a wonderful option to get tattooed for both men and women and are often associated with metamorphosis and freedom. It is often inked by someone who wants to indicate change and represent a period of transformation or new beginnings. Unsurprisingly, these insects are also associated with beauty. Although there are many different types of butterflies to get inked, the traditional American style is limited to a small range of colors and uses heavy black outlines. The style is bold and bright and is definitely something that gets noticed. It is thus even more special when you get inked with something meaningful. You can opt for a small design or something large that covers a significant area of your skin. The choice is yours!
16. Portrait Tattoo
The traditional American approach to portraits is an interesting one, relying heavily on dark shades, heavy lines, and limited color. It is a piece that makes a statement and often requires a placement like an arm or thigh that is large enough to really let it stand out. The beauty of portrait tattoos is that they can be of anyone, whether that is a celebrity or a loved one, but traditionally, it was used to honor a romantic partner or the deceased. These designs often feature a woman’s face and can therefore be a celebration of femininity and fertility.
17. Pin-Up Tattoo
There are many different interpretations of the pin-up girl, and the designs vary. It is a celebration of the female form, a show of femininity and beauty, while to others, the image is one of temptation and lust. The name comes from the idea of pinning up an image of a woman’s photo or poster on your wall, and she was often beautiful. This brought men some comfort when they were away at war or sea for months or years at a time, unable to see women or their loved ones. Your own sweetheart or a wife could also inspire the artwork, and using her face and body in this technique is a way to honor and celebrate her.
18. Lettering Tattoo
Lettering tattoos are a great way to send a message. Maybe you want a tattoo that honors a loved one? Perhaps you want to tell people to back off? Or it could be a message to yourself that you are strong, to remain on the right path, or as a symbol of good luck. The beauty of lettering artwork is that there are so many options to choose from, including words, meaningful quotes, and phrases. The traditional American technique has a very clear look, with each letter in black ink. They are easy to read, featuring straight up and down block letters. They are often written across a banner and include various other images depending on what the message is. For example, “good luck” can be accompanied by a horseshoe, while “back off” could feature a ferocious wolf.
19. Diving Girl Tattoo
The traditional American approach with its bright colors and thick, black outlines makes the diving girl tattoo eye-catching and a real conversation starter. This is a good thing because there is a powerful meaning associated with the design. Similar to the pin-up girls, which can be a celebration of the female form, this piece can be interpreted as a symbol of femininity and female power. Most of the tattoos are very retro in appearance, featuring a woman wearing a very modest swimsuit.
20. Gypsy Girl Tattoo
The gypsy girl tattoo features a beautiful woman with flowers in her hair, large jewelry, and a headscarf. The design is rich in color and heavy outlines. It is a popular image to get inked in the traditional American technique and can represent wanderlust, good fortune, freedom, mystery, and prophecy. The meaning will be slightly different to each individual; you can choose which symbols you wish to include and interpret what it stands for in an important way. This piece works best when tattooed on a large area of skin, such as a thigh, to allow for enough detailing and really make a statement.
21. Religious Tattoo
If you want to celebrate your faith and beliefs, you can do so with a religious tattoo. In the traditional American technique, it is popular to get a tattoo of Jesus Christ. This is the ultimate symbol of Christianity and is associated with unconditional love, compassion, and sacrifice as Jesus is believed to have died for humanity’s good. The design will often feature a halo above his head and perhaps include a heart or flower. Your body art could also be a way to explore the relationship you have with God. Or represent a balance between good and evil and a reminder to stay on the right path.
22. Circus Tattoo
Before the Old School technique of tattooing gained popularity, it was something that was inked on those who were not part of mainstream society, such as individuals who were part of circuses. Your design will depend on which act interests you the most. Options include a strong man or knife throwing. The symbolism associated with each piece will vary, but this is a wonderful way to celebrate uniqueness or show that you are not afraid to be different from the norm.
23. Cactus Tattoo
The cactus is a relatively simple design, but it makes for an interesting and fantastic tattoo when done well. The traditional American technique works fantastically with basic images like this and makes it pop against the skin. The symbolism associated with the plant is one of endurance and protection. For some, it also represents healing. The meaning can differ slightly, telling a unique story depending on what other images you choose to incorporate with it.
24. Flower Tattoo
When choosing a traditional American tattoo, you will notice that many designs have a flower accompanying them. The plants are simple but completed in bright colors and heavy lines, which make them interesting to look at, and they have a wonderful effect when there are multiple blooms. In general, the flower is symbolic of beauty, growth, and life, and it makes for a fantastic choice for both men and women, as a standalone piece or a filler.
25. Arrow Tattoo
If you want a tattoo with purpose, a reminder of the direction you want your life to go in, and a symbol of power, then an arrow tattoo is exactly what you need. It was used both for hunting and as a weapon by Native American tribes and is one of the most popular body art designs. You can get it inked, so it looks like it pierces your skin, or include animals like a bear or wolf in your tat for added symbolism.
26. Heart Tattoo
The heart is a universally recognized symbol of love, and in tattoo form, it is one of the easiest ways to show the world what is important to you. The Old School technique was a wonderful way for sailors to have those they cared about close to them when they were away from home. The image is simple but often includes lettering. It is a popular choice to include words in a banner-type style in these designs, with common themes including “mom” or “family.” It could also feature the name of your sweetheart or spouse.
27. Skull Tattoo
The human skull is often seen as a symbol of death or a bad omen. The skull can have quite an intimidating appearance and therefore makes for an interesting tattoo. It could be inked by a warrior or someone interested in the concept of mortality and how fragile our existence is. It can also be used to indicate that death does not scare you. Or to live each day to its fullest because death is inevitable. In the Old School, traditional technique popular images to ink alongside the skull include a dagger, a banner with lettering, or a flower.
RELATED: 30 Badass Skull Tattoos for Men
28. Sun and Palm Tree Tattoo
Few designs can make you think of happy, relaxing times in the way that a sun and palm tree tattoo can. These two images are often tattooed together and represent warmth, vacations, and paradise. It is a reminder of the better, easier times in life and could act as a way to inspire you to work hard to enjoy them. Alternatively, it could be a celebration of simple things and not getting caught up with stress.
29. Hot Air Balloon Tattoo
If you have an adventurous spirit, then you will be drawn to a hot air balloon tattoo. The design is simple and bright and is associated with travel, freedom, independence, and happiness. There is also something magical and romantic about the aircraft. It is a wonderful piece to get inked on an arm or leg, as this long and narrow placement can really show off your body art.
30. Hourglass Tattoo
As you watch the grains of sand in the hourglass run out, you are reminded not only of the importance of time but just how little we have of it. This is one of the most beautiful symbols to get tattooed if you want to represent life and its impermanence. It can also be inked as a memorial piece to honor a loved one. Or act as a reminder of how we should live each day to its fullest and embrace each moment.
What is a traditional American tattoo?
American Traditional tattoos can be defined by their use of bold lines and bright colors. The shades used were often green, red, blue, yellow, and black. They have a very distinct appearance and usually involve limited subject matter, like nautical-inspired artwork or animal designs. The American approach to tattooing first started in the 1930s. It tended to be popular among those who were not part of mainstream society, like circus performers and often sailors. During World War II and after, it became increasingly popular for individuals to ink themselves with symbols representing good luck and showing their patriotism.
What are the rules for American traditional tattoos?
To achieve the American Traditional tattoo style, the artist needs to focus on heavy black outlines, minimal color, and distinct shading. There is often little detail in these inkings, but they are bold and striking in appearance.
What are traditional style tattoos?
It is not only the use of limited color and thick black outlines and shading that makes the traditional style tattoo stand out but also the themes that are typically inked. These are often nautical, such as a swallow of anchor, or zoomorphic, with popular images including black cats and serpents. The technique means that the result is a body art that is incredibly bold and bright.
Who is the best American Traditional tattoo artist?
One of the most well-known tattoo artists for this technique was Sailor Jerry, who set up a Hawaii shop. In modern times, artists such as Blake Owens and Matt Howse are considered the best in the business.
What is an American Traditional tattoo flash?
An American Traditional tattoo flash refers to the designs created on paper or cardboard. When you enter the tattoo studio, it can be seen either displayed on the walls or in a lookbook. It is used to help customers get inspired and even choose one of the available pieces. It was common to choose from one of these pre-created looks, and the process was often quick and cheap. The thing is, you were likely to have a tattoo that was the same as many other people. These days it is more common to customize your own body art, personalizing it to have meaning unique to you and your circumstances. You can use the Internet as a reference, draw your own design, or work with a tattooist.
Cailyn Cox holds a degree in journalism and has been working with The Trend Spotter as a writer for over ten years. She has worked with some of the most prestigious women’s and men's lifestyle publications. For her, writing is not just a job; it’s a passion, which is why each article she writes is approached with such enthusiasm and dedication. She has extensive knowledge of hairstyles, tattoos, and beauty and has made a career out of creating informative articles that appeal to women and men of all ages.
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