• Paper Plane Ink

Who started American Traditional Tattoo?

Updated: Jul 30, 2021


Tattoo styles are ever-changing with the times, with newer styles gaining traction every few years. Yet, some styles withstand the test of time and remain popular, like the American traditional tattoo.


What makes American Traditional Tattoo?

The American Traditional design style is typically darker in appearance, and if any colours are used, they are usually limited to primary colours like red, yellow, green, and a whole lot of black. A true American traditional tattoo will include classic imagery the style is known for, like pin-up women, Native American symbols like wolves, birds like swallows, symbols of patriotism, nautical and military motifs like ships, and roses. This tattoo style is relatively easy to spot as it has a very distinct appearance, with its bold black outlines, bright, vivid colours and minimal shading.


This tattoo style was pioneered in Hawaii during World War II by renown tattoo legend Norman Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry. He was greatly inspired by the Japanese culture and learnt from the greatest, most sophisticated tattoo artists of the time who were Japanese masters known as Horis. He built on the ancient techniques and combined them with American influences to create his own iconic, artistic style of tattooing that we know and revere today as the American traditional style.

Old school American tattoos are rooted in the American servicemen's interpretation of traditions and symbols, and there are certain common meanings.

Swallow tattoos indicate that a sailor was successful at sea faring and had sailed great distances of at least 5000 miles (approximately 8046km) and it is also associated with the idea of returning. Sailors also believed that if they died at sea, birds would carry his soul home to heaven.

Anchor tattoos represent stability. Traditional designs typically include a banner reading the name of a loved one, or include another traditional motif like a rose or nautical stars to create contrast. Anchors have become popular within the general tattoo culture over the years too, owing to its ever-relevant symbolism of firm grounding and strength.

Pin-up girl tattoos represent the ideal and extremes of femininity, usually depicted as a sexualised woman, and they were the only feminine form sailors in the past would see for months. Pin-up girl tattoos were a very simple way to boost morale amongst soldiers as they could be drawn to resemble a loved one, or as inspiration for what they were fighting for.

There are countless designs that take inspiration from early sailors’ experiences and lives, symbolically represented in themes using exotic animals, Native American icons and anything that falls within the maritime industry. In spite of the difference in time, these motifs still hold the same meaning in today’s world. When you get a traditional tattoo, you are honouring the art form and keeping the tradition alive.


Click 'here' if you're interested to find out more about the different types of tattoo styles.


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