American traditional is a popular tattoo style, also known as “old school” tattoo style. When people think of getting a tattoo, this style is usually what first comes to mind. Not just because it’s so common, but because it’s very identifiable. It’s characterized by big, bold black outlines, iconic images, and a limited color palette, and these are things that appeal to everyone.

But how much do you know about traditional American tattoo style? If the answer is “not much”, then we would like to help you with that. If you plan on having something on your skin forever, why not know a bit of its history and understand why you like it so much? Let’s take a look at traditional American tattoo, its origins, and the elements that are most common so you can make an informed decision.

History of Traditional American Tattoo

American traditional tattoos originally pioneered in the late 19th century on the Bowery in NYC. However, this tattoo style didn’t truly became popular worldwide until the 1960’s, and it’s all thanks to Normal Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry. When he opened his tattoo shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, after spending many years in Southeast Asia as a sailor and studying Japanese tattoo from old masters. It’s worth noting that he originally learned from Gib “Tatts” Thomas.

Even though he learned a lot about Japanese tattoo, he still developed his own style and iconography, which is the standard for American tattoo today. You find his style still featured on tattoo parlor flash sheets, which were created to showcase the most common requests from the public. The idea behind flash sheets was to make the tattoo process faster and easier, which is why these tattoos feature a simple color palette and bold outlines. If there’s a word that defines American tattoo style is practicality. However, that doesn’t mean this tattoo style is not meaningful.

Most Common Traditional American Tattoo Elements and What They Mean

American tattoo, just like other tattoo styles out there, has many different elements that are particular to it and they all have different meanings. Let’s take a look at some of the most common elements used in this tattoo style and what each of them mean.

Bald Eagle

When you think of America, one of the first symbols that come to mind is the bald eagle. So, it’s no wonder it’s such a popular element in American traditional tattoo. It symbolizes pride for the nation, but it’s also a symbol of strength, pride, freedom and grace. The image is fierce and iconic, and it’s often the centerpiece of many traditional American tattoo designs.


Swallows are another common element both for the superstition surrounding them and their symbolism. Many legends center around the swallow. In one of them, sailors got a swallow tattooed on their body every time they sailed 5,000 nautical miles, which was quite an accomplishment back in the day. Another legend focuses around the fact that swallows return to the same place every year to mate and nest, so sailors would get a swallow tattoo to symbolize they would always return home. For this reason, many people enjoy the romantic twist of always coming back to the one they love.


Anchors symbolize being grounded and steady. Many people often attribute someone to their anchor tattoo, so that it takes the meaning of a loved one who keeps them grounded and steady. Many people get the word “mom” tattooed on their anchor or the name of someone who’s been that kind of support in their life. Anchor tattoo designs can be incredible and added details often include roses, swallows, and other symbols to make the tattoo even more meaningful.


Skulls are super versatile and they can be stylized in many different ways. This element can have a wide array of meanings, depending on what the artist does with it and what the person wants to attribute to this. Back in the day, skull tattoos were most popular among sailors, adventurers and mercenaries. To them, their skull tattoos symbolized a lack of fear for death and the unknown. It also meant that these people had come to terms with the inevitability of death, especially because of their lifestyles.

Pin-Up Girls

Pin-up girls are another common and popular element in American tattoo style. There was a time where women weren’t allowed to be sailors unless they proved themselves. This is why sailors would go months without seeing women. That’s why many of them would get tattoos of women, more specifically pin-up girls, as a reminder that women were waiting for them when they got back to shore. Many of the pin-up girl designs used today in tattoos are modeled after Sailor Jerry’s designs. In modern times, pin-up girl tattoos are still a thing and people get them with the likeness of their loved one. They’re gorgeous, classic and lovely. Just make sure you won’t regret this decision!


Last but not least, sneaks are another common element in American tattoo style. They represent power and potency, so they’re a popular design for many traditionalist tattoo artists. Snakes are also a symbol of new beginnings because they shed their old skin. However, many people think of it as a symbol of evil because of the role they play in the Christian religion. Other people simply love how snakes look and they think they’re dauntless, so why not get one?

It doesn’t matter what kind of elements you decide to get on your next traditional American tattoo, what’s important is that you’re happy with their meaning and your design is top notch. Take care of your tattoo properly to make sure it looks its best and be prepared to discuss it with people who are interested. Now that you know a bit about traditional American tattoo and its background, I’m sure you’ll be able to appreciate it a lot more and you’ll be happy to carry it on your skin.

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