The History of American Traditional Tattoos – A Deep Dive


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American traditional tattoos, sometimes called Old School, are a classic style that has stood the test of time. They usually stick to more realistic images that reflect real things and people.

Sailor Jerry popularized this style worldwide; motifs like anchors, daggers, eagles, and flags are still common.


When did American traditional tattoos start? Many individuals must be aware of the nuanced history of tattooing in America. Although attitudes against tattoos have changed significantly, they were formerly only acceptable for sailors, people without homes, travelling freak shows, and other outcasts of society. The sailor Captain Cook led his worldwide explorations and was the first Westerner to accept tattooing.

Swallows are a popular American traditional tattoo design choice, often representing themes of hope or goodwill. Likewise, arrow tattoos can be used to symbolize dissension or vengeance. American conventional tattoos also feature patriotic icons like anchors, flags, and eagles. But what defines this style is the limitless options of creativity. Pin-up girls, flowers, and hearts are all common choices, but they can be rendered in a slightly morbid or disturbing way that speaks to the wearer’s cynicism or disdain for authority. Similarly, the octopus can be an image of mysteriousness but also of adaptability and creative problem-solving.


Swallows are one of the most common American traditional tattoo designs. These cheerful birds are said to symbolize hope and goodwill. They also represent the return of spring and rebirth. It was a popular theme for turn-of-the-century sailors, as swallows were known to nest and roost on ships just before landfall.

During the 1940s, America was at war, and many men were shipped out to the far corners of the globe. It was a highly stressful time for soldiers and sailors. They needed something to keep them sane, so they turned to bars, women, and tattoos.

Tattoos popular for sailors and soldiers in this era included pin-up girls, flags, anchors, and eagles. They also favoured dangerous animals like sharks, panthers, and snakes, as they were symbols of strength and courage. Tigers were also very popular as they represented the spirit of adventure and the ferocity of American culture. For soldiers and sailors, tattoos of loved ones kept them connected to their families while they were gone.


Aside from being beautiful to behold, traditional American tattoos have a special place in history. It’s important for those getting these classic designs to understand their significance, where they came from, and where they are headed in the future.

Sailor Jerry and Bert Grimm are the forefathers of this style, but many helped shape its look and philosophies. These men aided the spread of this style through their mail-order flash sheets circulated throughout the United States.

Pin-up girls, anchors, flags, and eagles are popular symbols of this style. However, there are no boundaries to what this style can represent — as long as it has meaning behind it. For instance, a heart with a dagger may symbolize love and betrayal, or it could be seen as a way to accept the natural dichotomies of life.


A tattoo in the American traditional style will have bold lines that form the tattoo’s shapes and colours. The colour palette is limited to highly saturated reds, yellows, and blues. These characteristics make recognizing a tattoo in the American traditional style easy.

Sailor Jerry popularized the style after the 1940s when he began inking veterans returning from World War II. His tattoos were of pin-up girls, flags, and eagles, showing the men’s patriotism and masculinity.

Today, there are many more options for a tattoo in the traditional American style. While the thick black outlines and clearly defined lines remain, there is more room for creativity and self-expression. For example, a traditional tattoo could show a pin-up girl’s face with stylized signs of decay or a skull and crossbones. Even the iconic swallow is now used for more than to mark a sailor’s travels around the globe.

Robert J
Robert J
I have more than 10 years of experience, Various International Advertising Agencies Such as Foote, Cone & Belding, Digital Media, Public Administration and as a Freelancer.


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