American traditional tattoos are one of the most recognizable and iconic style of tattooing, with its bold black lines and saturated color palette, and can date back as early as the 19th century. However, American traditional came into its peak of popularity in the 60s, when the famous and world renowned, Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry, opened his tattoo shop in Honolulu Hawaii, after sailing the seas in Southeast Asia. Although there have many famous American traditional tattoo artists, Sailor Jerry was one of the forefathers and started the wave of its popularity.
Influenced by his travels, Sailor Jerry began his research in Japanese-style tattooing. He was taught primarily by Gib Thomas, a Chicago local resident and a prodigy in the tattooing community. Even though he was trained by legendary tattoo masters, Sailor Jerry created his own style and image, which is very well known to this day and can be seen on various flash sheets in a variety of tattoo studios worldwide. Due to their simplicity, they were easy to tattoo quickly and efficiently, on as many customers as possible and the color palette is fairly simple due to the availability of tattoo inks offered at the time. These colors were usually very bright and pigmented, and contained predominantly primary colors such as red, yellow and blue and, due to its saturation, are known to last longer with minimal fading.
Besides the bright, saturated colours and bold, thick line work, the artwork being tattooed is what gives American Traditional an iconic and timeless image, unlike some of the more recent “tattoo trends.” These are the type of images that come and go throughout the years and can be dated, based not on how faded it is but rather by the iconography itself. For example, tribal tattoos were extremely popular in America in the mid to late 90s, especially for men. Big, bold linework covering large areas of the body was the norm and, although many people still love this type of artwork, it is usually dated to that specific point in time and can easily be identified as a “tattoo trend.”
American traditional tattoos, however, have a timeless and classic image that, no matter how often a certain image is tattooed, will never seem outdated. These images include:
Bald eagle: An honored symbol of America and of its proud, patriotic citizens, the image of a bald eagle in flight, is both fierce and graceful.
Anchor: An iconic symbol for stability and reliability, the anchor is an extremely popular image and is often tattooed with a name of a loved one who “keeps you grounded.”
Swallow: Often tattooed in pairs, this is a symbol that the sailor will always return from the sea to their families and friends. As a swallow always returns to its nest, the sailor will always return to land. Frequently associated with a romantic gesture, it is also a symbol of superstition.
Pin-up girls: Still popular and styled after Sailor Jerry’s own, original designs, a pin-up girl was a reminder to all sailors of what awaited them back at shore, as the men would often go many months without seeing or touching a female.
Skulls: Frequently seen tattooed on the most fearless of adventurers, as a recognition and reminder that death is inevitable and should be embraced.
Ship: An obvious choice for a sailor, the ship was a symbol of freedom and adventure. Their home away from home.
Heart: A non-anatomical heart, usually a bold, bright red colour and often with a banner, containing a loved one’s name (MOM is a popular choice), reminding the sailor of what they left at home and what they can look forward to seeing upon their return. This is a symbol of love, desire and devotion and is a beautiful, life-time keepsake.
There are many symbols that sailors and even soldiers wore to represent their freedom, dedication to their country and their families. These images were later adopted into a popular clothing line by Don Ed Hardy, a tattoo apprentice of Sailor Jerry’s. Ed Hardy took his artistic style of traditional and Japanese tattoos and incorporated the most common designs, such as skulls, snakes and hearts, into his fashion. This was an homage to his roots and gave the public an appreciation for tattoos, when many still felt tattoos were a stigma or a taboo subject.
A survey in USA Today in 2017, showed that 38% of millennials have at least one tattoo and the numbers are on the rise. With the integration of tattoos in todays main-stream media, it is an art form that has been accepted and practiced by many. With that being said, American Traditional tattoos are some of the most well-known and popular styles to date and are a beautiful and long-lasting investment.