The American Traditional tattoo is one of the most distinct and popular genres of tattoo design. Also called Old School tattoo, we love them at HS Tattoos!

This style of body art typically displays the following qualities:

  • Bold black outlines
  • Limited color palette
  • Solid, bright colors

If you’re considering your first tattoo, or have an interest in adding some “Old School” body work, the American Traditional tattoo has stood the test of time (despite some modern spin).

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The History of the American Traditional Tattoo

This style dates back to the invention of the electric tattoo machine, which was brought into widespread use in the 1890’s, but gained widespread popularity during World War II.

One place and historical event that brought the American Traditional tattoo to the forefront was Honolulu, HI, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Many soldiers and sailors stationed there sought to capture memories or express emotions like the will to survive, patriotism, or the desire to fight on to victory.

Old School tattoos were originally characterized by patriotic themes like American flags or armed forces symbols. They also encompassed a number of different themes and designs, such as the following:

  • Anchors
  • Skulls
  • Eagles
  • Daggers
  • Hearts
  • Roses
  • Ferocious animals — sharks, panthers, snakes, etc.
  • Swallows and sparrows
  • Pin-up girls and mermaids

The designs were usually big and bold. Primary colors, as well as black, green, and purple, made up the sensible palette that suited the straightforward images.

The American Traditional Tattoo Incorporates Symbolism and Meaning

The American Traditional tattoo was common among soldiers and sailors on adventures far from home. The images often carried special meaning to the men who wore them.

Anchor Tattoos

The anchor could symbolize a sailor’s desire to survive his time at sea and return to his home. It could, conversely, convey his love for the ocean and the life at sea.

The anchor could also symbolize constancy and steadiness, which is often why they were often decorated with the name of someone whose love was considered unchangeable, like “Mom.”

Rose and Heart Tattoos

These symbols traditionally carried the meaning of “love,” and remain extremely popular today.

They could be reminders of affection for someone far away and the promise they had to return to the person who was waiting for them back at home.

The Eagle, Swallow, and Sparrow

Images of birds typically encompassed the concept of freedom.

A sailor’s life could often be one of roaming the globe for many years at a time, tied to nowhere — a romantic, soaring image of adventure, to be sure.

Intimidating Images

Animals, such as the shark, snake, panther, tiger, and others, demonstrated the willingness or ability to fight. They sent messages of bravery and toughness.

In addition, skulls, or other frightening images, served as a sign of strength — a warning to possible enemies in battle (or competition in the barrooms).

The Modern Twist on the American Traditional Tattoo

While staying somewhat consistent with the themes of the past era, there have been some expansions to the artwork and characters used in Old School tattoos.

Superheroes and movie characters have been added, which expands on the idea of intimidating images. The X-men are a far cry from the traditional panther, and Disney characters are almost a parody of the older “ferocity” images.

Grotesque features have sometimes been added to the pin-up girls and mermaids. Resembling zombies or skeletons, they are “dressed to kill.”

Anatomical hearts occasionally replace the traditional and simple heart shape.

Patriotic themes remain extremely popular, but may sometimes incorporate a cynical spin or ironic message of distrust.

These modern developments in theme and content mean there is almost no limit to the possibilities, while still remaining faithful to the qualities that make up an American Traditional tattoo.

The American Traditional Tattoo — One of Our Specialties

Click here to take a look at some of the examples found on our portfolio, but don’t be afraid to be original and put your own twist on traditional designs.

At HS Tattoos in Austin, TX, we know that, while often having “Old School” style roots, the message and the meaning behind your American Traditional tattoo are what make it special — they make your tattoo unique to you.