An American traditional tattoo is a beautiful piece of art to grace your body. Bold lines, select colors, and unique designs create some wonderful artwork. In this guide, you’ll find out what American traditional tattoos are all about, including their history, as well as our favorite 15 most inspiring American tatts.
Get ready for a healthy dose of patriotism! These are the American traditional tattoos you need to know about. We’ve included the hidden meanings of these tattoos and provided some help with placement in this guide too.
All you need to do now is pick your favorite design and head to the tattoo shop.
American Traditional Tattoo History – Summarized
American traditional tattoos didn’t just evolve into existence; they were created by one remarkable man. Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry, was a remarkable American that created this distinctive style.
When you get a traditional, old-school tatt on your arm, we hope you spare a minute to learn about Sailor Jerry!
It all started in Chicago, where Collins first learned to use a tattoo gun. From there, with a passion for the Navy, he went on to develop one of the most well-known tattoo styles in the world. By combining the Japanese technique for shading and tracing with his artistic style, the result was a bold and bright tattoo design.
Symbols and Meaning
The simple yet bold style of American traditional tattoos is very appropriate. Norman Collins used his tattoos to cut straight to the truth of the matter. The meanings of his tattoos were obvious and undeniable, which is part of why they are so darn compelling.
For example, the knife through a heart accompanied by the words “Death Before Dishonor” clearly shows the passion, devotion, and pain of service during World War Two.
Normal Collins was also passionate about high-quality tattoos, using the best practices and used the latest techniques. He actually refused to tattoo large pieces on people with tattoos by artists he didn’t respect.
We think you should honor this wish of Sailor Jerry when you’re choosing a tattoo artist for your American traditional tattoo. Read our 101 Guide to Getting a Tattoo to find out what you should look for in a tattoo artist and parlor before you get inked. It’s important!
15 Inspiring American Traditional Tattoo Designs
This is just a foundation course on what American traditional tattoos can be. While these 15 are classics, you can take these ideas and run with them. Incorporate that distinctive style with whatever symbol, emblem, or design you want!
Anchor tattoos are drowning in meaning. No matter what language you speak or the country you are from, it’s obvious that an anchor is for grounding. It ties you down to Earth and stops you from floating off course. That’s why anchor tattoos are so popular – they are reminders of what keeps you grounded.
Maybe it’s a person, a place, or a motto that brings you back down to Earth. You can have these words tattooed on or across the anchor for extra meaning.
The typical American traditional anchor tattoo style has plenty of black shading to give the impression of dark metal. It also usually has red tips and a rope that loops through a hole at the top of the anchor, rather than a metal chain.
Wording can be embedded as if it’s part of the metal, or over the top of the anchor image on a scroll, or even above/below the design entirely.
Dragon tattoos are immensely popular, but if you want the traditional American style you should pick the Asian design for dragons. Long, thin, and snake-like with four clawed hands – not necessarily with wings! This is the style that Sailor Jerry loved, stemming from his admiration of Japanese tattoo artists.
A dragon tattoo can just be for aesthetical purposes. It looks so cool!
Interestingly, dragons are considered good beings in Eastern culture. They are noble, wise, and kind. They can symbolize luck too, especially when combined with a lucky emblem tattoo (see below). Western-style dragon tattoos tend to be darker, meaner, with fangs, flames, and death around them. That’s not what American traditional dragon tattoos are about.
Inside the bold black outline, red, purple, and yellow colors are great for shading the dragon tatt. These colors represent bravery, nobility, and fierceness! Of course, you can use any colors you like. As for placement, these tattoos are great on legs as well as arms.
The eagle is fierce, loyal and a symbol of all that America stands for. The land of the free, the new world. An eagle tattoo can be a symbol of your patriotism, or it could be a sign of your dedication to the country, especially if you’ve served in the special forces.
But an eagle can also represent what America could be. So, there’s a lot of hope behind this symbol too.
The traditional American eagle tattoo is usually front-facing, with wings spread and the face of the eagle looking to one side. It’s often combined with stars and stripes, flags, and shields. This tattoo looks good on your arm, shoulder, chest, and neck. Placements high up on your body, where your “wings” would be, are great for eagle tattoos.
Just like the dragon tattoo, this design is quite fierce with a sometimes-intimidating face and sharp talons. An eagle tatt shows your honor and integrity.
In the American traditional tattoo style, heart tattoos are plush, red, and bright rather than anatomical. For sailors, in particular, the heart tatt is a way to remember a loved one. They’ve pinned their heart to you and their love follows you wherever you go.
This is possibly the most popular American traditional tattoo design. The scroll printed words on top of the heart, often pierced by an arrow or sword, is a very common tattoo across the world. Many have “Mom” tattooed in the heart, but your partner’s name also looks great here.
The arrow, knife, or sword that pieces the heart shows how that person has broken down your walls and made their way into your heart. It’s also showing how you’ve pinned them to your heart, or how your service (the sword) for your country is also something you love.
Love and adoration are a huge part of this tattoo’s symbolism, but it also shows devotion and vitality. You can’t live without your heart!
Lucky Emblem Tattoo
This one is self-explanatory! A tattoo for good luck in general life, for a trip, for your career, or even for your love life. A lucky emblem is often thought of as something traditionally lucky, like a four-leaf clover.
But Sailor Jerry turned this around when he created the American traditional style. He used the number 13, black cats, and other inherently unlucky symbols instead. It’s like how tattoo fanatics get skulls and death-themed tattoos – they take the bad thing, and make it cool by inking it on their bodies. It’s defiant and badass.
Having the number 13 tattooed by your ankle or wrist is a cool idea. Black cats, horseshoes, broken mirrors, etc. All of these are appropriate “lucky” emblems when it comes to the American traditional style.
You can combine lucky emblems with the eagle, heart, snake, or phrase to add further meaning and symbolize your luck in these areas of your life.
Nautical Star Tattoo
The nautical star was originally popular with sailors in the navy around WWII when Sailor Jerry was developing the American traditional tattoo style, but it’s now popular with so many people. The nautical star was once used for navigating, so it often represents a guiding force on long journeys, especially over the sea.
It symbolizes travel, guidance, fate, and/or service in the navy.
The style is always the same – half black, half color/clear points of a star. Sometimes the star is doubled up, sometimes it’s alone. It can also easily be combined with other tattoo designs, with scrolls over the top to add phrases.
We love how simple yet iconic this tattoo is. As a result, it’s very versatile and can fit in with other tattoo designs you have. You can use it to cover up old tattoos too, as it’s a very bold and solid shape.
Ferocious panthers with sharp claws, blood-red mouths, and angry eyes are a cool traditional style tattoo. Typically, these black panther tattoos show just the head of the panther or the full panther. Ready to strike, the design is purposefully full of life – as if it’s about to pounce off your arm and take someone down.
The panther American traditional tattoo symbolizes a ferocious, brave, and aggressive nature. It also shows power and agility. Don’t get a panther tattoo unless you can live up to it!
If you are looking for a traditional tattoo that you can scale up to cover your entire back or chest, this is a good choice. Panthers look just as good crawling up your arm or as part of a sleeve, as they do roaring proudly from your shoulders.
Above all, the teeth and claws should be visibly sharp, and the eyes need to have that spark that draws you in. It takes a skilled tattoo artist to create an amazing panther tattoo.
Pin-Up Girl Tattoo
This style of pin-up girl tattoo is incredibly popular with both men and women. Equal parts elegant and sexy, these pin-up girls are great tattoos and are easily adapted to look like the woman you love.
Originally, these pin-up girls were mostly covered up with short dresses or at least underwear. The key was flowing hair (perfectly curled), long legs, and a good pair of heels on dainty feet. Things have changed a bit over the decades and it’s not unusual to see pin-up girl tattoos completely nude.
But it’s impressive how that original style and womanly shape has persevered. Blush cheeks and a full figure are very alluring!
The idea of the pin-up girl tattoo is to create an exaggerated expression of femininity. Anatomical correctness is not the aim here. This bold sexuality was purposefully designed for the sailors who would get these tattoos before leaving American shores for months at a time.
These tattoos vary most in design and content. We’ve found some general army or navy tattoos to give you an idea of what they can look like. These tatts represent your service, your commitment, your family away from home, and the duty you have to your country. This duty often brings up strong, patriotic feelings so it’s no surprise that many want to get tattoos to ink this ideal on their skin permanently.
Furthermore, these tattoos can also represent comrades you’ve lost and the people you’ve worked with. Whether you lost a member of your team or a fellow soldier saved your life, the tattoo can commemorate that.
Swords, scorpions, pin-up girls, hearts, guns, and skulls in combination with military emblems and phrases can create endless meanings. These tattoos can get very personal, so think carefully about the placement. If you pick a very publicly visible spot (forearm, for example) then be prepared to answer frequent questions about what your tattoo means and why you got it.
For more private areas, consider your back, chest, upper thigh, or even your foot.
It seems like a strange tattoo design choice, especially for the sailors that originally got this tattoo when the traditional American style came about. But when you think about it, it makes sense. The idea is less about liking the animals (we all love to hate and fear sharks) and more about taking on their characteristics.
A strong predator of the ocean. You’re not to be messed with and you stand your ground. Your attack is fierce! That’s why sharks are so popular as tattoos. In typical Sailor Jerry style, these shark tattoos tend to be more comical than scary. Sure, they have pointed teeth and sharp fins, but they also have a toothy grin and cartoon face.
Arms are the most common placement for sharks, usually in a sleeve on the forearm. They also look good on your legs. Shark tattoos tend to be more common on men than women too, but they’re certainly not exclusive to one gender.
Often combined with shark tattoos and tropical scenes (see above and below), ship tattoos were extremely popular and continue to be today. The typical Sailor Jerry ship tatt is a galleon-style ship with billowing sails and a flag right at the top.
Think Pirates of the Caribbean meets Looney Tunes – it’s that mix of cartoonish style with historical accuracy that creates a sense of adventure.
Of course, no one has sailed these ships since the age of sail in the 18th century. But modern warfare ships and boats aren’t so aesthetically pleasing, so it makes sense that sailors would opt for the original pirate boat design to show their love for the sea. It’s a romanticized depiction of life at sea, away from home.
It was important to Sailor Jerry that his ship tattoos were as accurate as possible, so choose a tattoo artist skilled at drawing ships and pick a placement that allows for a large tattoo with plenty of detail.
The skull represents death, that much is obvious. But this classic, timeless, and immensely popular tattoo design can mean much more. For a start, it’s a reminder of death, not necessarily a celebration of it. A skull to remind you to live life to the fullest.
Back in Sailor Jerry’s time, the original skull tattoos often symbolized adventure and warriors – strength and vitality when you’re traveling the world. It can also be about commitment. It’s a symbol to say I will commit until I’m no more than bones.
Skulls are great as simple tattoos (think Norman Reedus’ Big Bald Head design), but they can also be dressed up. A skull with a snake wrapped around it, or roses entwined through it, or even a dagger pierced through the top. All of these are popular tattoo designs. As for placement, the skull looks great anywhere but is most popular on arms or the side of your neck.
You don’t fight snakes, you back away slowly. The bite will kill!
That’s the meaning behind these original snake tattoos. Essentially, the snake must be coiled ready to strike with an open mouth, so you can see those venomous fangs. So, Sailor Jerry’s snakes aren’t so great for curling or spiraling around your wrist or arm. Instead, they look great as part of a sleeve or enlarged in a long vertical space. Your thigh, side of your calf, or upper arm are all good placements as they offer a decent vertical canvas.
When it comes to colors, the traditional snake tattoo incorporates green scales with black, yellow, and a gaping red mouth.
Did you know that swallows are a symbol that a sailor has traveled more than 5000 miles?
Of course, you don’t need to have traveled that far to get a swallow tattoo. You don’t even need to be a sailor.
The key theme with these swallow tattoos is the idea of return. Like the swallows’ migratory patterns, you’ll always return home after venturing far away. This could have a very literal meaning – a promise to your loved one that you’ll always come home if your work requires travel. It can also be more metaphorical – a reminder to always return to your core beliefs and values.
Traditionally, the swallow should be soaring through the air but more modern tattoos show the swallow (or similar small bird) perched on a branch or incorporated into a tropical scene. Red, yellow and black are the main colors that make up the swallow tattoo, but you can customize this. Blues and greens look particularly lovely!
Tropical Scene Tattoo
Last on our list is the tropical scene. We can almost hear the birds chirping and the waves crashing onto the beach. A tropical paradise is a popular scene for arm tattoos, on both the upper arm and lower arm.
Originally, Sailor Jerry made all his tropical scenes depict Hawaii. It’s no surprise that he lived in Hawaii permanently after the end of the way – you can feel his love for the island in all his tropical Hawaii designs.
Your tattoo doesn’t need to be Hawaiian though.
Palm trees, tropical flowers, beaches, waves, coconuts, and mountains are all popular features. Ships, sharks, and swallows are also easily incorporated into these designs. This tattoo also allows you to add a wider range of colors compared to the other original designs.
Other Popular Ideas
You can let your imagination fly, as long as you stick to the authentic limited color scheme and distinctive bold cartoon style!
Finding American Traditional Tattoo Artists
Tattoo artists aren’t magic! It takes skill, talent, and years of practice to become a great tattoo artist, which is why many artists have a specialty. If you want the best traditional American tattoo, you’d best find a tattoo artist who specializes in that style.
To help you get started, check out our guide to the 30 best tattoo artists for 2021.