Top 251+ Traditional Tattoos in 2021
Traditional American tattoo originated with the work of Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins.
American traditional tattoo style is as a mix of symbolism, animal totems, nautical imagery, war themes, and nods to tattoo tradition stretching back even before Sailor Jerry’s time, including Japanese tattoos, Polynesian and Native American influences.
Sailor Jerry passed in 1973 but his influence as a tattoo artist lives on through a host of tattoo shop proteges and contemporaries, traditional tattoo flash art, and the neo traditional style, which takes the fundamentals of old school tattoo and adds contemporary color palettes, technical design and application ideas.
See more about - The Top 50+ Tattoo Ideas in 2020
1. Neo Traditional Style Tattoos
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Neo traditional tattoo is a bulked up variation of the traditional American tattoo which has evolved along with the tattoo machine.
Neo traditional tattoos have a wider array of bright, intense color palettes and broader range of style variations including cartoon, comic book, and realistic tattoo imagery.
This body art style is known for vivid, ultra realistic tattoo combined with an old school use of symbolic imagery. Neo traditional artwork tends towards the luridly bold with line and color yet keeps blackwork outline and font elements of old school a focal point of the design array.
The classic look can be overrun by the vivid contemporary flourishes but offer the underpinning technical aspects to these neo traditional tattoo designs.
2. Traditional Rose Tattoos
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The rose has long been a popular tattoo for both men and women. Most tattoo art traditionalists tend to believe the rose, a beautiful, bright flower, symbolizes beauty or is a representation of our love lives.
Sailors would often receive the rose tattoo to honor their loved ones while on a trip to brave the wild oceans. For these individuals, the rose symbolized the peace they so longed for but had to abandon for a time to ply their trade.
3. Traditional Tattooing Sleeve Ideas
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American traditional sleeve tattoos look timeless – designs from the 1940s hold up much the same as some of those etched at any tattoo shop during the past week.
Most traditional sleeve tattoos incorporate a dynamic range of symbolic images tied together only by the authoritative art style, with simple use of filler images and the use of negative space deployed to keep everything flowing.
4. Traditional Tattoo Style Flower Tattoos
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Many floral images have crossed into the traditional ink style lexicon, particularly from Japanese tattoos or tribal tattoo from which American ink has adopted many central tenets.
Blooms such as the lotus, chrysanthemum, cherry blossom, and peony are popular flower tattoo ideas from Japanese design which are used effectively in old school tattoos, while black ink and cool patterns have been adopt from Polynesian tattoos and then reconfigured.
5. American Traditional Eagle Body Art
See more about - 50 Traditional Eagle Tattoos
The eagle is the US national bird, associated with patriotism and freedom and linked to nobility, strength, and bravery since ancient Roman times.
Most eagle tattoo traditions show the bird with its wings flung out in flight and its talons stretching out to grasp something.
It’s fierce nature and proud bearing are emblematic of the American traditional tattoo style.
6. Traditional Skull Tattoos
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The skull is often thought of as a symbol of mortality for many cultures of the world, and every tattoo culture employs a wide variety of skull related concepts.
It is used to bring about themes of death, inevitability, and the cycle of life – ongoing symbols for almost any tattoo lover worldwide.
A skull tattoo represents the idea that life is temporary and precious. In modern representations, the skull is seen in movies, video games, and all sorts of popular culture segments.
7. Vintage American Traditional Tattoos
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Many vintage tattoos depict nautical themes and the sailor’s life. Tattooist Sailor Jerry shaped American traditional ink and is still referenced today despite the evolution fo the tattoo machine, inks, and technology.
Classic Sailor Jerry tattoos include pin-up girls, bottles of booze, the ‘Aloha’ monkey, and a beautifully rich mix of traditional Hawaiian themes and Japanese style techniques.
Vintage tattoos can take on a huge array of symbolic meaning, but each pays homage to the rich history of tattoo traditions.
8. American Traditional Dagger Tattoos
See more about - Top 73 American Traditional Dagger Tattoo Ideas
Daggers are often used to symbolize fighting, danger, and ferocity because the real thing is used in close hand to hand combat. A plain dagger that is done without any other accompanying symbols can show sacrifice, bravery, and loyalty.
When the dagger is combined with other symbols, its meaning can often vary. A dagger stabbed through an animal head is generally a symbol of overcoming a challenge or paired with a heart or flower to symbolize lost love or romantic betrayal.
9. Owls in Traditional Tattooing
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The owl has long been associated with wisdom in tattoo art, as they were once believed to possess a spirit known to guide human beings into the various wonders and mysteries found throughout life.
There are a lot of different styles for an owl tattoo, including realistic tattoo focusing on the creature itself. An owl sitting atop a stack of books can symbolize the wisdom these creatures are so known for.
You tend to see traditional owl tattoos on forearms, calves, and adorning the chest. The owl on the chest is generally caught with its wings spread wide, covering the heart and soaring off into a space we cannot see.
10. Traditional Snake Tattoos
See more about - 70 Traditional Snake Tattoos
Snakes are often viewed through a mixed lens thanks to the role they play in many religious texts, particularly the Christian creation story.
Snakes are well-known for their ability to shed their skin and begin anew, and they’ve been revered as creatures of rebirth and healing.
A common snake tattoo from the past is one of the snake god swallowing its tail. This creates a cycle of repeating life and death, which many ancients believed to be a representation of existence as a whole.
11. Neo Traditional Wolf Tattoos
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Native Americans believed the wolf totem opened one’s sight to the other side, deepening his intuition and ancestral connections.
The neo traditional wolf tattoo is both a work of art and reminder that our ties to the natural world, however obscure, exist to protect and provide for us however far we roam.
12. Traditional Panther Tattoos
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Panthers are mysterious creatures who stalk the jungle by night in with deadly stealth and patience.
The panther has long been used a symbol of force, strength, and stealth in native and European cultures, with royal coats of arms often bearing the panther on their crests.
The panther will wait for as long as it takes to overcome their target–and there’s no overpowering them once they do.
13. American Traditional Bear Tattoos
See more about - 50 Traditional Bear Tattoo Ideas
In different tribal tattoo cultures bears were connected to the spiritual world and linked with strength, ferocity in battle, healing, and bravery.
Norse mythology believed that Odin, the god of healing, knowledge, battle, sorcery, and death, often wandered the world while accompanied by a bear.
The thick coat, wide teeth and shambling roar of a bear works well within the traditional style, and the contrast between dark fur and fang makes for excellent technical shifts in black ink.
14. Old School Tiger Tattoos
See more about - 75 Traditional Tiger Tattoo Ideas
Tiger tattoos are often deployed by the tattoo lover to represent power, protection, and nobility.
Tigers are typically portrayed as positive forces of power in popular culture. They have a connection to royalty and represent dominance, guardianship, and raw magnetism.
Many Chinese citizens still decorate the graves of their loved ones with images of tigers as they are thought to repel evil spirits and bad luck.
15. American Traditional Swallow Tattoos
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Traditional swallow tattoos are inextricably linked with sailors and the sea. A swallow tattoo used to symbolize that a sailor had travelled 5000 nautical miles.
The little bird came to its place of prestige amongst sailors due to the fact that sighting one meant land was near: you were almost at your destination. Swallows also represent the return of Spring and as such are linked with renewal, hope, growth and the start of a new chapter.
Outside of its nautical connections, swallows are known to be monogamous during mating season. Thus swallow tattoos sometimes applied to symbolize love, devotion and loyalty.
16. Traditional Lighthouse Tattoos
See more about - 40 American Traditional Style Lighthouse Tattoos
A highly underappreciated tattoo, the lighthouse has been a long time favorite among fishermen, sailors, and people residing near the ocean.
Its nature is deeply symbolic of home, direction, the correct path, and destiny – the lighthouse appeals to those who frequently find themselves away from home.
A skilled tattooist can manipulate a lighthouse into a multitude of different sizes, shapes, and colors, which gives the design an added ability to take on a variety of meanings.
17. Old School Style Lion Tattoos
See more about - 30 American Traditional Lion Tattoo Designs
The lion is known as an aggressor and protector, with a traditional tattoo seen as protection against all that life is throwing at someone. The meaning, like that of all other tattoos, is entirely up to the individual.
Other individuals are looking to amplify the idea of power, courage, honesty, loyalty, or nobility, or borrow from other cultures. For example, in Egypt, two lions together – back to back – would symbolize the East converging with the West, or sunrise and sunset.
18. Traditional Anchor Tattoo Design
See more about - 70 Traditional Anchor Tattoos
The anchor tattoo represents strength, safety, and stability on the high seas.
Many US Navy officers, fishers, and coastguards use the tattoo to express their affinity to the sea.
Others associate the anchor to Christianity and persecution from Romans after the crucifixion of Jesus. Many Christians who wanted to show that they are steadfast to others would wear jewelry with this symbol or brand themselves with the anchor during these times.
The anchor had the cross, and it also showed that their God kept them grounded, even under such persecution. It was a strong and rebellious symbol at the time, which still holds religious connotations in this day and age.
19. Traditional Bird Tattoo Design Ideas
See more about - 40 Traditional Bird Tattoos
Birds continue to play a large part in traditional tattoo. Eagles are hugely popular, as are ravens and crows.
The swallow, and to a lesser degree the bluebird, have been sacred symbols for hundreds of years, not only representing hope and personal freedom, but also serving as protective emblems for those who make their living at sea.
Sailors have long believed that if one of their own should drown at sea, a swallow will deliver their soul to heaven.
20. American Traditional Shark Tattoos
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Sharks are the ultimate symbol of our worst fears, of depths as black as midnight, and the coldness of the predators that await us.
These terrifying but undeniably awesome creatures of the deep have struck terror in the hearts and imaginations of people since the dawn of time, but have fascinated them as well.
Sharks are creatures of force and dominance, a wild reminder that man was not the first to take to the water. Hollywood films have gleefully piqued our obsession, while older shark lore carries an almost otherworldly, alien-like nature.
Seasoned sailors have long upheld the tradition of inking shark tattoos on their flesh to invoke the blessings of the sea gods and receive protection for the duration of dangerous voyages. The shark has similarly come to represent a badge of honor, a sign that its wearer fears neither death nor the deep.
21. Traditional Compass Tattoo Ideas
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Compass tattoos often include meanings of protection, guidance, and hope, but they can sometimes be used to show more of a sense of adventure or wanderlust.
Some traditional tattoos depict a retro looking compass encased inside a metal circle, while others just show the eight pointed star inside a compass which is called a compass rose.
Adding roses or other flowers with a romantic symbol often shows that a person is guided home by an undying love. Swallows are often a frequent pairing with a compass design because sailors saw swallows when they were close to land.
22. American Traditional Bat Tattoos
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Traditional bat tattoos are a radical phenomenon among today’s tattoo lovers. This creature is innately enticing and immediately recognizable.
Many shamanistic societies connect bats to psychic powers and intuitive abilities. They are also revered for their supersonic capacities, and many mythological tales connect the bat to rebirth.
Most cultures have native depictions of the bat, so traditional tattoos of this daring creature can be derived from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. By applying a mix-and-match approach, clever creators can even arrive at a masterpiece that is one-of-a-kind.
23. Traditional Ink Horse Designs
See more about - 40 Traditional Horse Tattoo Ideas
Free-spirited and independent, the horse is a symbol of passion and strength. A traditional and easily-recognized subject for tattoos, the horse is an excellent piece to expand your tattoo collection.
Strong as iron and fast as quicksilver, the horse’s natural features are a prime choice for those who admire its natural strength and grace, flowing mane and muscular body.
24. Traditional Ship Tattoos
See more about - 60 Traditional Ship Tattoos
In the old days, any form of a nautical tattoo was associated with fishermen or those serving on a ship in the navy. Today, the ship is traditionally worn by men although it is certainly not considered a mainstream design any longer.
The ship tends to mean a journey or a path through life. Some view the ship as freedom, the chance to explore the world and go where one wants to.
Many ship tattoos will include other nautical themes alongside the ship itself, including pirates, swords, anchors, stars, or a compass.
25. American Traditional Spider Tattoos
See more about - 50 Traditional Spider Tattoos
As far as subject matter goes, few are as intimidating or as visceral as the spindly spider, and few tattoo styles are as bold as those drawn in the traditional hand.
When the two are fused together, the results are truly impressive.
The time-honored traditional style of tattooing calls for a strong drawing hand that implements bold, heavily weighted outlines, and a solid but restrained use of color, perfect when co-opted with a spider tattoo idea.
26. Traditional Leg Tattoos
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The lower leg is an accommodating canvas for your sleeve or freestanding tattoo of choice, with a multitude of designs styles and technical applications to choose from.
Leg tattoos have been worn by men and women since the dawn of time, often carrying messages and prayers for speed, strength, and endurance.
People are often drawn to leg tattoos for their versatility and flow: such tattoos are often concealed but impossible to ignore once revealed.
Portrait style tattoos, symbolic animals, tribal emblems, or biblical and literary verses are all traditional leg tattoo choices.
27. Neo Traditional Snake Tattoos
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Powerful symbols of transformation and eternity at large, wearing a snake emblem is a powerful choice of tattoo.
Viewed as a mystery and miracle of birth and renewal, the snake is a spirit animal to those who move with a keen understanding of the life-death-life cycle, and embraces it without fear or hesitation.
The neo traditional snake tattoo honors the animal’s earliest renderings while translating it for a modern age, in an equally modern spirit.
This is no relic or bygone tattoo fodder for bikers and their desert terrain; the nouveau snake represents a different kind of man.
28. Traditional Mom Tattoos
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Legend has it that the first Mom tattoo was on chest of an Irish sailor, who had been inspired by an old sailor’s song that spoke of the excitement of leaving Ireland for the open sea.
The Mom tattoo has come to be something so traditional and eternal because of its sweet message. The vintage heart is sure to stick around as a staple, if for no other reason than the fact that honoring Mom will always be in style.
29. Neo Traditional Shark Tattoos
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One thing the neo-traditional designs seem to all have in common? Blood. The sharks can be swimming in a red sea or have blood dripping from the pointy teeth.
Some have the remnants of their unlucky victims still dangling from their mouth. Others have made the shark the victim with a harpoon in their chest or fisherman posed to kill.
These designs can be a great complement to a full array of art. Perhaps you want to add a giant anchor or ship or match your shark with another deadly sea creature, lurking in dark waters.
30. Traditional Devil Tattoos
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Few images are as immediately recognizable as the devil. Whether drawn in jest or as a threatening sign of menace, the devil tattoo as we know it today has origins as ancient as they are multi-dimensional.
While commonly associated with Lucifer and various religious iconology, the devil is also a nod to the folkloric figure that has spanned centuries and numerous cultures, coming to represent many things to many people.
31. American Traditional Back Tattoos
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The best ideas for a traditional back tattoo will depend heavily on the wearer’s tastes.
When ink enthusiasts think traditional, they think bold, black outlines, a vibrant but restrained color palette, and a hardcore feel that is altogether different from styles such as photo realism or watercolor.
There is a reason this old school style is favored by bikers, sailors, and gypsy wanderers – it isn’t for the meek but for those looking to make a statement.
32. Traditional Grim Reaper Tattoos
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The grim reaper arrives to collect the souls of those who have passed on.
It’s a perfect idea for use in traditional tattoo ideas and is no longer linked purely to 1%ers, the outlaws and the alienated.
Skulls, skeletons, and the reaper’s epic scythe make for interesting, exciting interpretations of traditional ink.
33. Neo Traditional Owl Tattoos
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The neo traditional owl tattoo blends the best of its more classical counterparts with the new perspective of our age.
The owl represents one’s second sight, an ability to see into the dark to detect the truth. Owls are closely linked to the spirit world, and were once believed to be messengers from the other side.
Those who carry a bond with the owl move with quiet wisdom and extraordinary perception; their ability to size others up in an instant can often be unnerving to those who aren’t used to such scrutiny.
33. Traditional Arrow Tattoos
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A range of meanings can be attached to the arrow, whether it’s a solitary shaft or whole whole quiver, based on angle, direction, body placement or whether they’ve been etched alongside a bow or other weapons.
Some common representations of the single arrow include: love, direction, power, physical strength, and manhood. Interestingly, a bow set to fire an arrow is considered a symbol of conflict and tension, which changes to positive momentum if it becomes loosed.
An arrow point down means peace, while one facing left or right can ward off evil or act as protection. Two arrows facing each other equal war, and three arrow pieces are often used to symbolize direction and movement in relation to decisions and major life changes.
34. American Traditional Style Jesus Tattoos
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No matter which Jesus you most love, you can carry him with you for all eternity on your body.
The face of Jesus as he is placed upon the cross, a crown of thorns dripping blood into his pained eyes, a look of devotion and trust in his God as he is slain by the people he has sworn to love are all common tattoo ideas used in American traditional ink.
Common symbols like the cross, a pair of feet with stakes through them, a bloody crown of thorns – these all represent the struggles and pain associated with the man who died to save the sins of all on Earth.
35. Old School Boxer Tattoos
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A particularly memorable boxing motif features a fighting figure accompanied by a banner on which words of encouragement are scrawled.
From top-hatted mustachioed boxers to a symbolic pair of gloves, or even a more light-hearted kangaroo boxing depiction, traditional boxer tattoos mark an undefeated spirit, no matter how many fights life brings your way.
36. Traditional Crown Tattoos
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A traditional crown can symbolize different things to different people. Power. Wealth. Royalty. A Greater Being.
Whether you are paying homage to someone you admire or respect, king of the jungle, or just think you’re king of your own domain, a crown can be a strong and versatile statement to make.
37. Traditional Diamond Tattoos
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Ancient cultures around the world believed that diamonds could protect the wearer from evil forces, and bestow strength to overcome one’s greatest fears.
Diamonds have similarly been linked to potency and insight; in the Middle Ages only priests and royalty were allowed to wear them. European legends abound with tales of Satan not being able to bear the sight of a diamond’s brilliant light.
Arguably the most precious and sought after stone in the world, diamonds are an ideal tattoo choice for those who embody unbreakable grace and beauty under–and because of–pressure.
38. Traditional Horseshoe Tattoos
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Our ancestors believed that the shape of a horseshoe could drive away evil spirits, as well as bring good fortune and fertility.
There are two common ways to wear a horseshoe tattoo. If you are seeking good fortune in your life, the horseshoe should be placed with the feet facing up.
However, if you are working to eradicate bad lucky and difficult situations from your life, place the horseshoe tattoo the opposite way to allow the negative energy to flow from your life.
39. Simple American Traditional Tattoo Ideas
See more about - 50 Simple American Traditional Style Tattoos
Simple traditional tattoos cross borders and are boundless in their artistic expression. Travel the torrid seas with a nautical compass. Welcome Egyptian eyes or the symbol of life called the Ankh. Unleash the deep roots of American culture with a bald eagle or bear.
The imagination is limitless with potential for these epic tattoos, for they all are deeper than just the inscription that meets the eye.
40. Traditional Crow Tattoos
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A spirit animal long associated with the mysteries of life and death, the crow has been revered as a totem and spirit guide since the dawn of humankind.
They are believed to provide insight and understanding into other realms, both spirit and of the flesh, a frequent sign of good luck, or an association with the trickster archetype.
Often mistaken for a simple creature, in reality the crow is a highly clever and intuitive animal that survives by its wits and resourcefulness, which makes it an enticing traditional tattoo design.
41. Traditional Mountain Tattoos
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A traditional mountain tattoo can symbolize a lot of different things. They can simply be a love of nature, the outdoors, and the splendor of these majestic heights.
Perhaps, to you, mountains represent a giant obstacle or feat you have overcome, or are still being faced with. Either way, they can be a beautiful piece of art when etched in traditional design.
42. Neo Traditional Bear Tattoos
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Revered for thousands of years by men all over the world, the bear stands for bravery and ferocious love, even when facing his own predators.
Defined by a look and feel that could be lifted from any number of today’s on-trend illustrations and graphic novels, the neo traditional bear tattoo design is anything but primitive or outdated.
Native Americans believed that the bear represented courage, stubbornness, and above all protectiveness of loved ones, and all of these qualities are honored to this day.
If the bear’s likeness appeals to you, then you are surely an individual with similar principles and strengths.
43. Traditional Neck Tattoos
See more about - 50 American Traditional Style Neck Tattoos
Traditional neck tattoos have been worn by warriors, tribesmen, and sailors for centuries, each carrying their own meaning and correlation.
For some the markings were intended to protect and announce one’s courage and ferocity, while others acted as charms against misfortune. For many, a neck tattoo acted as an inscription of love for one’s family or partner, a prayer for their safety and well-being in times of separation.
Today neck tattoos can carry all or none of these messages; truly it is up to the individual to decide what message he wishes to impart. Tribal symbols, historical crests, and religious iconology are just a few of the traditional neck tattoo designs.
Traditional Tattoo FAQs
American traditional tattoos focus heavily on black as the main pigment, with supporting colors coming in the form of simple yellows, green and red.
With the birth, and now rapid development of the neo-classical style of tattooing new colors are being added to the palette of American Traditional tattoo.
American tattoo themes can cost as little as the shop minimum, which may be as low as $50-$80.
The average is around the $200 mark per hour for an experienced professional artist.
Complex neo-classical themed tattoos can cost as much as $400-$500 per hour when implementing work of the very best artists.
Neo traditional tattoo is a bulked up American traditional tattoo featuring a wider array of bright, intense color palettes and broader styles.
Neo combines vivid ink with old school symbolism. Neo artwork tends bold with line and color yet keeps outline and font elements of old school a focal point.
Swallows are streamlined little flying machines with bright coloring. Sparrows are more rounded and stocky with brown plumage.
In terms of meaning and symbolism the sparrow is still an auspicious omen but has no connection to nautical history. It is not quite as widely or richly admired as the swallow.
Another common design in American traditional work depicts a dagger piercing the skull of a variety of different animals, from panthers and gorillas to spiders.
Many people associate these pieces with overcoming obstacles: the animal represents some challenge or a difficult period in life, and the dagger symbolizes defeating it and moving forward.