American Traditional Tattoos: History, Meaning & Popular Designs

An American Traditional Tattoo refers to a style of tattooing that became popular in the 1930s in America.

A few pioneering artists in Honolulu, New York City, and Detroit created the distinct style emulated countless times. The tradition has been revitalized in recent years.

The style is so well known that many enthusiasts can tell precisely when someone has gotten a knock-off or ‘fake’ traditional and which ones are based on real traditional flash pieces.

Find out more about this fascinating style of tattoo art!

american traditional tattoo on hands

Read also: 60 Most Popular Tattoo Meanings (With Pictures)

When Did American Traditional Tattoos Start?

Detroit and New York City served as birthplaces of the first popular American tattoos before World War II. Two major developments in the 19th century allowed for this first wave of popularity:

  • The first is the invention of the electric tattoo machine in 1891.
  • The second was the distribution of flash, standard tattoo art sets, through the mail across major cities.

Before these two events, tattoos were more traditional and individual, with less of a distinct style.

The true widespread adoption of tattoos began in the 1930s, depicting a rejection of the American dream and a life outside mainstream society.

Even today, that same heritage remains with tattooing, even as it has become much more popular.

tiger traditional tattoo on knee

- American Traditional Tattoos Today

The revival of traditional style tattoos popular today imbues their wearers with that same pride of rejecting conformity.

The quest for a wanderlust lifestyle has been in the American lifestyle for almost its entire history, rooted in the expanse and opportunity of the West and gorgeous American landscapes. There are also roots in sailing, as the American Navy also has deep roots in traditional tattooing.

Traditional motifs include women, daggers, roses, ships, wolves, skulls, and more.

World War II is the true starting point for popular American Tattoos. Many men got tattoos bridging class and race division during shore leave in Hawaii.

Ironically, this new style of tattooing was inspired by Japanese designs, the very people the Americans were fighting. As a result, the techniques pioneered here are what we’ve come to know as Traditional American Tattooing.

american traditional tattoo chest piece

What are the Rules of American Traditional Tattoos?

American Traditional tattoo design can be recognized by its heavy black outlines and primary colors. They are usually darker in appearance overall.

● Colors are used in blocks with minimal shading
● Very few details overall
● Bold compositional style
● Usually two-dimensional shape without any attempt at three-dimensional illusion
● The majority of motifs are made for navy and army men who were the primary clients
● Animals, military insignia, and basic shapes are some of the most common motifs
● Illustrative look that Polynesian and Native American peoples first pioneered

american traditional tattoo cowgirl

The distinct style of traditional tattoos is so well known at this point that many tattoo enthusiasts can tell very quickly when a tattoo is untrue to the original style.

That’s why it’s important to get an artist that knows the style well to make a piece for you in the style.

Do American Traditional Tattoos Fade Faster?

As all tattoos do, American traditional tattoos undergo some fading over the years, there's nothing we can do about that. However, some factors like the environment or the placement can play a part in your tattoos looking more or less faded. 

- COLORED TATTOOS

Colored tattoos tend to fade quicker, especially light colored pieces. White tattoos fade the quickest out of all tattoos, especially when exposed to the sun.

- BLACK AND GREY TATTOOS

Black and grey tattoos tend to last longer in terms of vibrancy but will still experience fading over time.

* Finding an experienced tattoo artist is crucial because their abilities can make or break the longevity of your tattoo’s appearance.

Read also: Tattoo Fading & How to Prevent It

American Traditional Tattoo: Type of Needles

American Traditional typically uses bigger sizes needles. Round liner is also used for thick outlining, very common in the traditional style. 

The diameter of the needles tells you how wide of an area each needle will be inking. Smaller sizes are best for detail work, which is less common in the traditional American style.

The taper refers to the length of the point of the needle. Different tapers and deposit more of less amounts of ink.

Perhaps most important is the count and configuration of the needle group being used.

american traditional tattoo butterfly

The round shader is used for shading, flats are for geometric shapes and shading, and magnums are for color shading and other versatile uses. Some of the more specific variations have to do with lessening pain in certain body areas.

Most Popular American Traditional Designs

Here are some of the most popular motifs with their meaning:

1. Anchor

A symbol of the sailor, they are an old-school nautical motif. Often you’d see the word ‘mom’ on the anchor to help ground them.

2. Dragon

The traditional dragon comes from Sailor Jerry in Honolulu, inspired by the Japanese tattoo masters. But, for many, it meant they served in Asia.

3. Eagle

An idealized American motif made famous by Sailor Jerry. Eagles tend to symbolize America’s fierce, noble, and patriotic character.

4. Heart

The heart for many sailors symbolized the risk they took out on the seas. Often, it would have their loved one’s name on it, keeping them connected while they were away.

5. Panther

Similar to the dragon and eagle, the panther was another sign of masculine prowess. Often they would be depicted with bloodied claws, sometimes wrapped around a woman.

panther american traditional tattoo

6. Shark

A shark tattoo often meant you had gone through hardship or wanted to be protected at sea. They symbolized a different kind of strength than other animals, focused on the ocean.

7. Skull

Traditional skull tattoos symbolized memento mori - remember you will die. They were a reminder that we only have one life in this world and to live it while we have it. It was almost popular amongst those who saw many deaths, including soldiers and mercenaries.

8. Swallow

The swallow indicated one had sailed 5000 miles and symbolized the idea of returning home. Swallows would migrate in a vast pattern every year.

Summary

American Traditional tattoos are a revived style that first gained popularity in the 1930s from sailors in World War II.

The flash from New York and Detroit combined with this new popular gave American tattoos a distinct style that is still recognizable today.

Many artists are now well-versed in the style and can make excellent replicas of original flash and move the style forward.

Our mission is to inspire and educate the tattoo community. We have combined our many years of experience in the industry and our love for tattoos to create useful and enlightening content. Join us in this exciting journey in the beautiful art of tattooing.
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