American Traditional Tattoo | The First Old School Tattoos

If this is your first time looking at old school tattoos, then welcome to this wonderful world! If you just returned to look at the awesome designs, then we will share lots of stuff with you too! Old school designs aren’t actually the oldest type of tattoo design out there. For that, we look at tattoos on the mummified remains of people who lived thousands of years ago. While those designs look amazing, Old School Tattoos refer to a specific period of time that doesn’t stretch that far back at all, back before tattoo ointment existed to keep your tattoos nice and healthy.

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Strap yourselves in for a wild ride through this image-packed gallery of old school tattoo designs! Not only will we show pictures of old school tattoos, but we will also share all of the symbolism and history that goes with them. Grab some lidocaine cream if you have no pain tolerance, because after looking at all these old school tattoos, you’re going to run out to the nearest tattoo shop!

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Old School Tattoo for Men and Women

American traditional tattoo sleeves harken back to the style of Sailor Jerry, who lived in Hawaii and tattooed many of the sailors passing through. His style was so distinct and fresh that receiving a tattoo from him was almost a rite of passage. In today’s tattoo world, his style of traditional tattoos still fills the skin of people all around the world, although many of them use tattoo numbing cream to ease the process. However, an ‘authentic’ traditional tattoo must follow certain rules.

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American traditional tattoo sleeve rules usually pass from person to person through apprenticeships. The exact rules become a trade secret that way, but we can still take a stab at it. First, the tattoo gun had been invented shortly before the Old School tattoo boom, so you can use them to make an authentic Old School tattoo. However, inks had not progressed so far. Sailor Jerry used bold colors for his time, despite this limit.

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For traditional tattoos, you must use red—after that, you can use red, orange, red-orange, gray-brown, and purple. Combining red-orange with orange makes the orange look yellow; combining gray-brown with red makes the gray appear green; Other color theory tricks made this small palette put in some work. Solid black would also do, either on its own or with color, and the tattoo outline must clearly define the design. Sailor Jerry created his outline style by studying the ink prints of Japan and the heraldry of Europe and mashing them together. You should also study those art styles and play with those colors if you want to create an authentic Old School tattoo design. If you are an artist, grab a seat (literally–a tattoo artist stool) and a tattoo bed and get to work on memorizing this stuff and caring for your client!

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Old School Tattoo Meanings

Old School traditional tattoos are more than just a pretty picture. They carry meaning, symbolism, and to the sailors who wear them, mystical properties. At least, that’s what they would hope. You also had to earn your designs before you could get them tattooed. If you’re interested in authentic tattoos, make sure you meet the prerequisites before getting one! These traditional tattoos are all considered Navy tattoos, so becoming a sailor would be a good start.

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  • Sailor Jerry Anchor – Anchors represent stability and what keeps you rooted in your life. This tattoo had no prerequisite, and what it represented changed depending on the sailor. One sailor might think of his pet dog, another might think of his wife back home, and another might think of his mom.
  • Sailor Jerry Eagle – The eagle represents America, of course. The perfect design, with an olive branch in one leg and arrows in the other, showed an ideal America. Even Jerry knew that America had its faults, so the intelligence and honor represented by the eagle meant even more to him than perhaps the soldiers sailing through.
  • Sailor Jerry Mermaid – Oftentimes, pin-up tattoos were the only thing accompanying sailors. Anyone can guess why a Sailor would want a pretty lady on hand, but mermaids meant something special. As creatures of the water, it meant the sailor fell in love with the sea.

Other Sailor Jerry Symbols

  • Sailor Jerry Nautical Star – Sometimes called a nautical compass tattoo, this simple star design represents Polaris, the North Star. As long as the skies kept clear, sailors would navigate by starlight, and the North Star not only represented north, but also home to sailors of the northern hemisphere.
  • Sailor Jerry Shark – Jerry’s sharks represented conflict, a respect for the sea and the unforeseen, and bravery. Each sailor that went to sea faced an unforgiving and treacherous journey, and they could look at their shark tattoos to remember that.
  • Sailor Jerry Swallow – A swallow represents return. They migrate across whole hemispheres in search of food and often took breaks when they encountered a ship. The birds would carry the souls of fallen sailors to heaven, and sailors had to sail for 5,000 miles before Jerry would ink a swallow for them.

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Old School Traditional American Tattoo Sleeve

If none of the ideas above trigger your thinker, then here come some more. Beyond the style, traditional tattoos represent scenes from the sea and scenes from the life of soldiers. You can design lighthouses, ships, krakens, skeletons, the raging sea, and more in an Old School sleeve or traditional half sleeve tattoo. If none of the nautical stuff is up to snuff, you can consider portraits or banners with quotes. The distinct style guidelines of old school tattoos will still show through in a tattoo that doesn’t depict traditional subject matters.

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Famous Old School Tattoo Shops

When you seek out an artist for your Old School tattoo, make sure that they have a lot of experience in traditional tattoos. Experienced artists know all the rules of traditional tattoos, and they may even offer custom designs instead of showing you a flash book. If your skin itches for a unique tattoo, then these artists might be up your alley. I selected three of the most famous traditional tattoo artists from America, and if you live nearby them, you should stop by and see what they offer.

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  • Old Gold Tattoo specializes in traditional tattoos. Award-winning tattoo artists show off their classic designs, and the store is kept incredibly clean. Located in Bellingham, Washington, they might be the closest you ever get to the real thing. One artist in particular, KC Lange, carries plenty of awards on their own.
  • The OId Skool Tattooing Company sits inside the city of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Well-acquainted with the rules of traditional tattooing, these artists make unique designs that perfectly showcase the old style. They also tattoo in other styles and offer body piercings in-house.
  • Old School Tattoo Parlor’s motto reads ‘If you can think it, we can ink it!’ This award-winning shop stands out from the hustle and bustle in Sacramento, California. The owner, dubbed ‘Ink Pimp,’ does all kinds of old school tattoos as well as permanent makeup.

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New School Tattoo

If you want old school tattoos with a modern twist, I’m happy to say that there is such a thing. Called New School tattoo style or Neo Traditional tattoos, these beautiful tattoos use the Old School ink style and combine it with the innovations of the past century. A Neo Traditional Sleeve might look like an authentic traditional tattoo to the untrained eye, but someone in the know would recognize the new watercolor techniques or the new ink colors used.

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New School tattoos split into three different types of designs. The first type does away with the Japanese style of Sailor Jerry tattoos and draws lines that rest between cartoonish and realistic. The second type keeps the traditional outline style and uses modern inks. The amazing range of colors available to us now dwarfs the four tones available to Sailor Jerry. The last type does away with both outline style and ink restrictions, instead going for a cartoonish look with intricate color schemes. These tattoos barely stay within the range of Neo Traditional because they took inspiration from traditional designs.

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The Best Traditional American Tattoos

Sailor Jerry flash books still exist today and contain many more specific designs, if you want to gain more inspiration or use a bona fide design. While war leaves more bad than good in every situation, we can rejoice that a whole art form sprouted from the hustle and bustle of the 20th century Pacific ocean. Traditional tattoos brought people of all types, races, professions, and nationalities together. An old school tattoo remains a way to bring together people and start a storytelling session. They help us remember the brave sailors, whether they returned by ship or by sparrow. Above all, they show us that in the middle of war and turmoil, something beautiful can still grow and blossom into an international phenomenon.


For more information about Old School tattoos, feel free to explore InkDoneRight! We have specific articles on Traditional Tattoos, Sailor Jerry Tattoos, Neo Traditional Tattoos, and more! If you are looking for even older tattoos, our article on the history of tattoos might interest you as well! The site carries plenty of tattoo galleries, style guides, design advice, and informational features. If you’re ready to learn more about the world of tattooing, then what are you waiting for? Get exploring! If you want updates as they happen, be sure to follow InkDoneRight on Twitter or join our mailing list.



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by @micotattoo

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