The American traditional tattoo is still the most infamous phenomenon in tattoo history. To this day, the Western art style is inducting chivalrous chaps into the wondrous world of modest body modifications.
Colonial charm is boldly embedded into the American traditional tattoo techniques that we explore up ahead.
This genre always features in the 50+ best tattoo ideas and sincerely represents the unfettered basis that spurred all other ink jobs in its wake. Western pomp is a cornerstone of these perfect little pin-ups. Of course, Sailor Jerry proudly originated the first designs as sea-faring tokens of the prized femininity being left upon the shore.
Because of the unavoidable association with rum productions, avid alcohol enthusiasts often get these girls tattooed in honor of their favorite drink. There are hundreds of perky babes to choose from, and these buxom broads all stem from the mid-20th century. You simply cannot beat this kind of bombastic old-school wit.
Take a gander at the vintage appeal that lies in waiting. All you have to do is look ahead. We’ve done the dirty work of collecting these pretty ladies for your enjoyment! In the past, these gals were reserved for swarthy pirates and the like. Now, they can be flaunted by urbane gentlemen. We can all agree that this is a serious improvement!
American Traditional Tattoo Ideas
This is a classic old school black panther beastie. It features minimal color but an almost over the top cartoonish quality. In traditional tattoo circles the black cat signifies strength, honor and valor, which is why they are popular with servicemen. In the deftly drawn hand tattoo the red of the flesh creates a nice counterpoint to the heavy black featured through the rest of the tattoo.
A very cool traditional piece utilizing popular motifs the serpent and dagger. For service men the dagger tattoo is a symbol of life and death. The serpent here represents potency and power, which makes the tattoo symbolize the power over life and death. The piece melds heavy black in with yellow and red to give the image balance, while some negative space is also employed to provide depth in the dagger image.
Nothing symbolizes freedom like the American Eagle, whether it’s the patriot way or a 1%ers love for a Harley Davidson. This piece is a great neo-traditional take on the American Eagle through use of wide ranging colors and elaborate shading of feathers. The brown ruffles are reminiscent of Irezumi style scales found on koi, and it has that classic larger than life quality.
Unlike a traditional Sailor Jerry tattoo this piece is a nod to Mexican inspired neo classical tattoo found primarily in Southern California and along the Southern border. Mexican traditional tattoo art can lean heavily on religious iconography as most Mexicans are devout Catholics. This is an epic tattoo featuring popular totems such as Jesus and the cross, family, the rose for love, and the scorpion’s symbolism of fear and intimidation.
The Compass Star in traditional tattoo helped superstitious seafarers find their way home or get their bearings while out to sea. These days it’s developed into a symbol of good luck and safe travels. This classical tattoo is a beautiful expression of the compass star, using mostly traditional colors and deft shading to create a work of genuine top quality. The flower and leaf added to the compass is a nice touch.
This compass star is very much a new school version, illustrated by the much wider use of bright color and different artistic flourishes such as the heavily detailed compass case and accompanying rope.
Black color is often utilized in conjunction with traditional American tattoo style. This is an almost simple, classic black and gray rose that emphasizes excellent grades of shading to strengthen the image, well supported by the deployment of wide gauge needle work to supplement the crisp black lines.
This man’s tattoos feature a wide array of traditional symbols, such as the dagger, skull, twin shoulder serpents, and pin up (wearing a cool panther’s head). The strangest of these images is the well-defined black beast on his belly – it’s almost an absurdist take on a traditional dragon.
This traditional style devil and head combo piece draws on the links between Irezumi and traditional American tattoo to create an over the top image. Rather than use gray for shading the artist effectively uses a light blue, adding an extra layer of menace and ferocity both the beast and the severed head.
This is a fantastic mix of traditional tattoo blended up into a new school tatt. There’s an old school coiled snake between the sharp teeth of the epic Jaguar tattooed with an electric bright blue ink. The features of the big cat when looked at closely almost mirror those of a Japanese dragon. This chaotic piece is quite mesmerizing to look at.
Sensing a bit of a popular theme here with American Eagle neck tattoos.
Wow. This is an impressive traditional piece. It’s a brilliantly realized mix of old school portraiture elements with traditional motifs such as the swallow, flowers, and the classic color scheme favored by Sailor Jerry. The factor making it most unique is the swallow morphing across his eye – it makes a great modern touch.
In traditional tattooing the ship represents freedom. Oftentimes sailors only felt free when on the open water, so the use of a ship tattoo meant they always have that symbol with them. This is a small hand tattoo done in the classical style.
This is brilliant. The subject must have rolled into an old school tattoo specialist and told them to not stop until he was covered in all the classics. There are so many great traditional pieces here done purely in black. The stand-out piece is of this group is the ‘gypsy woman’ in the centre of his chest. Unlike other female traditional tattoos this doesn’t represent a sweetheart or separation from a loved one but is a reflection of the sailor’s unmoored way of life and elements of luck, freedom and independence.
Double full sleeves filled with old school flash art. Love it! This is like a Where’s Waldo for different versions of old school tattoos. There are many different ones to focus on and admire, including spider webs on the elbows and various hearts, dice, skulls, and even a playboy bunny. Once upon a time spider web tattoos symbolized doing time in prison, but mostly these days they are an effective traditional tattoo design for difficult areas such as the elbows, knees, and even feet.
This is a bad ass neo-classical tattoo. It uses the techniques in color and form of an American classic tattoo but delivers a medieval archer instead. This is another indicator of how closely aligned old school and Japanese techniques can be.
The teeth on this classical style gorilla are excellent. The negative space created is well supported by using clean, thick black lines in the design balanced out by solid color work. There isn’t a huge amount of shading in the piece, but what’s done uses thick gauge needlework to give it that strong, dark fuzz.
Another upper body teeming with awesome traditional work. The skull is the classic representation of the rebel, but there’s also a smaller skull with a dagger through it on the upper left arm. This means bravery and protection. A fully unfurled 3 or 4 mast ship is meant to symbolize sailors who have rounded the Cape of Good Hope. This is one of the secret pleasures of Sailor Jerry flash tattoos and traditional ink, trying to decipher what they mean!
If you’re rocking the straight razor tattoo in the Sailor Jerry style, you better be old school buddy! This tattoo is a cool application of the classic – it’s a clean design, well supported by solid use of muted traditional colors. It fits in well with the other traditional elements that take up more of the real estate on the subject’s arm.
The American classic tattoo takes on the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
A lot of American old school tattoos feature ships, sparrows and swallows. For the average tattoo enthusiast there’s not much difference between the birds, but they are quite unique from each other. Swallows are usually tattooed in blue, have a forked tail and curved pointed wings, while sparrows, such as this one, have straighter wings, plumper bodies, and are lacking in blue plumage.
This is a well-balanced black and gray pirate ship. It’s complemented by a nicely shaded rose and some simple birds and clouds done in black to fill out the full image.
The symmetry of this traditional piece makes it interesting. The artwork is very much traditional, bar the central image of the door with steps leading elsewhere. The series of tattoos are cleverly drawn, and they are expertly spaced. The outside spider web patterns are nicely done, with solid linework giving the web images a border to work within.
The ace of spades as a frame for dice. Not sure, but the image could be about gambling and taking risks… The strength of this piece lies in the different colored execution of clear, crisp, line work – the tattoo could have almost been drawn freehand by the artist.
Another classical ship interpretation. The neo-classical tinges in the blood red orb behind and sea foam green ink for the wave caps are funky touches to technically perfect bit of art.
These flash fests are so cool to look at. Just being able to find a whole bunch of classical tattoos to look at in the one image is good fun! There are themes we’ve described previously, but also slightly different stuff like barbed wire, simple crosses and tears. The eye is used in traditional tattoo to represent authenticity and honesty.
This is an interesting new school tattoo of a spider and webs. It’s clear in this image that the spider has been around a while and that the webs are newly added to give the thigh artwork more balance and a better mix with his other ink.
This alligator tattoo is a stylistic mash up of traditional classic and the Japanese larger than life method to create a cartoon/weird quality piece. It’s very well detailed, using traditional coloring, and exceptional use of line work and shading in the image. The snail pattern fleshing out the upper arm part of the tattoo and big goofy eyes are wicked too.
This is a beautiful traditionally forged dagger. It’s luxurious, but by using traditional muted inks it doesn’t get gaudy and frivolous at any time. The wide gauge use of shading makes it a very clean, fresh tattoo that will look just like this for the next 50 years.
This massive, traditional stylized beast piece is hectic. Given the level of detail and size contained in it – and the obvious skill level of the artist – it would be surprising if the price tag for the piece ran under $5k for this fully furnished chest piece.
This is a next level take on something important from US history. It’s an almost absurdist style of neo-classical artwork, but brilliantly delivered. The gold ink is an excellent touch, giving the slightly strange image some much needed solidity.
Another funky flash fest, but this time check out the left arm’s naked lady entwined in a serpent. In traditional terms this image represents the seductive qualities of women, and their role as temptresses and catalysts for the committing of rash acts.
This is a beautiful, precise, old school tattoo of a dagger piercing the head of a snake. The degree of detail in the snake’s bright but intense color and sharp features is balanced by using two different black and gray blades to play the patterns and colors off against each other.
A severed hand wrapped up by a serpent. It looks interesting, although the nails could use some work with an emery board.
This traditional raven tattooed in black and gray is a clever piece. The artist has put in white ink highlights to really create a captivating chest piece supplemented by expert shading in the feathers.
This is top drawer neo-classical tattooing. The griffin is a wonderful central figure shading epically in different shapes and style of black and gray to give it personality. This feature allows the other interesting images to move somewhat apart from the main piece in a more traditional color and pattern scheme for traditional ink. The use of roses, skulls, and the scimitar are classic motifs, while the blood drops make for good link up work and a nice eye-bending shape here and there.
This is a precision drawn American Eagle, mixing realism with some classical elements. However, the bird’s claws are odd. They seem at least three times too big in comparison to the rest of the tattoo.
Another eagle tattoo – this one is a great piece! It’s uniform use of color matching and the exceptional line work it a fantastic example of clear, concise professionalism.
This is stereotyping! This tattoo is a very relaxed traditional sailor, replete with hat, shirt, rum bottle and cob pipe. These flourishes almost take away from the skill used to produce a finely detailed pair of pants, leather shoes, and intense shadow between the hoops of his shirt.
A badass neo-classical tattoo. The reaper here is showstopper drawn with charisma, and an eye for sharp line work. The artist has made a different style of sickle, instead of using a heavy black gray shaded image he’s made it more unique with a gold blade and wooden haft – it’s an excellent touch, as is the beautiful dark blue rose towards the bottom left.
This is a lovely, classy traditional tattoo. The striking detail and muted colors make for a unique piece. The old school quality of the woman’s headshot with that patch of red across her eyes is sublime technique. The hooded falcon is so beautifully drawn that you could almost miss the references to war around it.
Twin hand tattoos: daggers through roses in classical style. The contrasting colors of the roses are great, especially the blue green one on the right hand. In classical American tattoo this image represents duality; love, life, and growth in the rose versus the death dealing dagger. Sharp line work in the green ink of the leaves help give the image a bit of extra detail.
This tattoo is a cool representation of the dagger through a heart, which often means the loss of love through betrayal or skulduggery. Behind the man’s left here seems like an awkward spot to put a tattoo of this kind
The Native American influence on this traditionally inked buffalo tattoo is evident in its clarity and the way in which the beast has been represented. The use of solid colors promotes the classical aspects of the image along with the short, clean lines augmenting the brown to create fur. The piece is also well balanced – the bottom border, sky highlights and tussock grass do an excellent job of completing the artwork.
This is a small yet brilliantly delivered traditional tattoo. The depth of the red, complemented by black to form the inside of its mouth is precise and expertly done. The interlocking black and yellow scales vividly work in with the more muted but no less clever white ink highlights and green of the serpent’s head.
American Traditional Tattoo FAQs
What do American traditional tattoos mean?
The American traditional tattoo originated with the work of Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins, who took to tattooing after mustering out of the Navy. He eventually settled in Honolulu, Hawaii, which gave him access to a huge cross section of servicemen, sailors, adventurers and tourists that he could help get inked.
Sailor Jerry pioneered a style of tattoo which took a highly visible position at the forefront of American counterculture from World War II through to this very day.
Sailor Jerry passed in 1973, however his style of tattoo imagery and influence live on through a host of imitators, flash art, and the neo-classical tattoo movement.
American traditional tattoos are a mix of nautical imagery, war themes, and nods to tattoo tradition stretching back even before Sailor Jerry’s time. These include Japanese and Native American influences.
Some types of traditional tattoos still have the meanings they were ascribed in Sailor Jerry’s day, such as the anchor for crossing the Atlantic Ocean, or the dagger as a serviceman’s symbol of life and death.
Others still are used purely for artistic enjoyment or as a nod to the role American classic tattoos play in inked history.
What colors are used in traditional tattoos?
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.
How much are American traditional tattoos?
Simple flash depictions of classic American tattoo themes such as anchors, rum bottles, or small daggers in black can cost as little as the shop minimum, which for most studios lies around $50-80.
The average cost of a three-color American traditional tag lies around the $250 mark per hour for an experienced artist.
Complex traditional designs in the neo-classical theme can cost as much as $400-$500 per hour when implementing work of the very best artists, running to a total cost upwards of $3000 for the biggest pieces.
Be advised, a 15% tip is customary for tattoo work, and that it’s best to clarify the expected cost with your artist before commencing the work.