American Traditional Tattoo Styles and Designs

Although people made tattoo machines starting in 1872, we already consider them a traditional tattoo method. It’s been over one hundred years, after all, so why wouldn’t that be the case? Dedicated scientists even gave us tattoo lotions, lidocaine cream, and numbing cream to encourage and support the tattoo art form. After the tattoo machine changed the industry, several types of tattoos sprung into favor. However, let’s look at American-style traditional tattoos today.

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Definition of Traditional Tattoos

When referring to classic tattoos, most people speak of designs and styles that filled display books. When demand for tattoos spiked after the invention of the tattoo machine, artists needed books of designs to help them. Simple and with a small color palette, these designs allowed artists to easily mimic them and quickly tattoo. At this crucial time, people wanted tattoos so frequently that artists barely kept up with the amount of clients! If your shop wasn’t able to take in clients, another shop filled the gap, and you lost sales.


Around this time, Flash tattoos supported the American tattoo shop. Flash tattoos contained many pre-made, simple, and fast tattoo designs. These designs catered to common customer requests, so displaying them to customers and asking them to choose from the portfolio ensured they wanted something simple for their tattoo. Artists practiced and perfected these designs, making the tattoo process very fast.


During this time, higher quality tattoo artists rose to meet demand. Percy Waters, who maintained a mail-order catalog of designs, warned of artists who would steal designs or sell designs full of mistakes. His pamphlets prevented that, he proposed. Today, many tattoo artists share that feeling, and along with that, reputable and costly artists need to ensure the quality of your tattoo. A lot of artists’ money goes to professional tattoo chairs and portable tattoo tables for helping more clients. The method works, in any case.

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Traditional Tattoo History

So we know how this style spread, and we know why it appears simple. But who made most of these designs? Well, if you read InkDoneRight often enough, you know already. But let’s go over him again, anyways. When WWII struck, the Navy sent many sailors to Honolulu, Hawaii, prior to entering the high seas. A man named Norman Keith Collins—also called Sailor Jerry—hosted his tattoo shop there. His unique tattoos focused on new techniques and patriotism. For sailors who wanted a souvenir of their service, they all flocked to Sailor Jerry.


While part of his popularity rests with his lucky shop location, he used his success to create complex and creative techniques for his tattoos. He created his own inks and colors, ensuring his tattoos stood out from other tattoo shops. He created his own designs based on the requests of sailors—which, as you can imagine, ranged from weapons to sexy ladies. Anchors, stars, tools for sailing, fish, ladies, ships, eagles, and mermaids all made up Sailor Jerry’s specialties, and his drawings influenced the style that Americans expect of a tattoo shop. With thick lines, bold colors, and soft shading, his style remains easy to recognize, even today! It even influenced other forms of art, with clothing and shoe design often bearing tattoos inspired by him.

Traditional Tattoo Designs

Most classic tattoos show off patriotism. Artists filled old Flash books to the brim with designs of the Statue of Liberty and ladies with flags. Eagles race across their pages, along with star-spangled shields and emblems. We all know what these tattoos mean—they show patriotism. In a time of war, sailors valued patriotism, since it showed teamwork with the sailors who served America and gave up their lives for their country. Support for the troops often came in the form of these classic patriotic tattoos, since they showed both dedication and unity to the soldiers who also wore them.

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Meanings of Traditional Tattoos

Along with Sailor Jerry’s sea-themed tattoos, many designs caught the gaze of the masses in this great time for tattoos. Hearts, swallows, roses, knives, and flags all associate with traditional tattoos. Artists still use them in tattoos today, thanks to their broad meaning and relevance to just about anyone. Let’s take a look at the common meanings of each type of non-nautical traditional tattoo:

  • Hearts: Love, of course. A heart that bleeds or breaks just shows the world that its wearer traveled. Of course, hearts can be fixed as well, and designs with stitches show the grit and spunk of true love.
  • Swallows: Swallows would often live in ports and sometimes stow away on ships. They meant home, freedom, and faith. They meant all that was left behind and all that the sailors would meet in the future. In a world where their lives were governed by their superiors constantly, the freedom of swallows and starlings encouraged many sailors.
  • Roses: The traditional symbol of love, this flower managed to find its way onto skin, even in a time filled with overflowing patriotism. Having a soldier or sailor leave for the last time was a real possibility to those who were left behind. These roses represent an undying hope of seeing their loved one again.

Traditional Tattoos for Men and Women

As you can see, despite being non-nautical, their popularity and traditional tattoo meanings can still be tied to the war time effort. It was a trying time for nations everywhere, and America wasn’t shy enough to keep that pent up worry and emotion from influencing their tattoo designs. This flurry of patriotism and lucky location of Sailor Jerry’s tattoo shop combined to create the traditional tattoos that we know and love today. The traditional tattoo style, while not realistic or very detailed, is recognized and respected today.

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If you liked this article, check out our other articles on InkDoneRight! We even wrote an article all about Sailor Jerry tattoos! As always, thanks for reading.


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