The History Behind American Traditional Tattoo Style

American Traditional style has played a pivotal role in the rich cultural history of tattooing as an art form. Here’s the story behind the ink.

American Traditional Tattoo Style
FACEBOOK American traditional tattoos

American Traditional tattoos are stylistically defined by their bold, black outlines, limited and highly saturated color palette, and classic motifs such as nautical flair. Common American Traditional tattoo designs include anchors, compasses, hearts, roses, and swallows. The two-dimensional art style of American Traditional tattoos renders them both distinct and complex. Where did American Traditional come from, and how did the style rise to prominence and popularity? Let’s take a look at the cultural history of American Traditional tattoos.

American Traditional Swallow
Classic American Traditional Swallow via @__treadwell on Instagram

The origin of American Traditional tattoos (sometimes referred to as Old School, or Western Traditional), begins with sailors and dates as far back as the 1700’s. Captain James Cook, a British explorer in the late 1700s, is infamous not only for his renowned historical navigation skills, but for the men who sailed with him. These men have been said to be some of the first to get tattoos in memento of their globe traveling voyages, particularly to the thriving and vibrant tattoo cultures of China, Japan, and the Pacific Islands.

American Traditional Seahorse
American Traditional Seahorse via @traditionalkings on Instagram

In this period of Western culture, tattoos weren’t common amongst the general population – in fact, tattoos were worn by those only regarded as outside of mainstream society. This began to shift with the arrival of World War II, as millions of young American men were drafted and sent to Hawaii, a major shore-leave destination for American forces following the Attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. World War II came with an expected and major shift in cultural values, including the decreased significance of societal consciousness when it came to tattoos. Men deployed to Hawaii were not so concerned with the perception of others so much as they were with the daunting prospect of impending battle, and thus tattoos began to rise in popularity.

American Traditional Ship
American Traditional Ship via @vinnies.backyard on Instagram

Enter one of the biggest players in American Traditional tattoo history: Norman Keith Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry. Collins had been enlisted in the United States Navy at age nineteen, and his travels to Southeast Asia provided inspiration that eventually led him to be one of the most renowned American Traditional tattoo artists in history. A sailor himself, Collins relied on the teachings of Japanese tattoo masters to create his own style, a style with heavy emphasis on vibrant color, bold outlines and nautical motifs, today known as American Traditional. Living and working in Hawaii, the influx of United States servicemen provided him clientele to tattoo – and thus the influx of demand for American Traditional tattoos was born.

With American Traditional tattoos encompassing design notes from countless different influences, such as neo-traditional and Japanese traditional tattoo styles, they offered a little bit of something for everyone. Even those with no desire to get tattoos found themselves fascinated with the wide range and variety of designs that are made possible by the American Traditional style. This led to the explosion of popularity in the American Traditional style across the United States, and the world, which we see happening in the later half of the 20th century.

American Traditional Flowers
American Traditional flowers via @chasetuckertattoo on Instagram

The 50’s and 60’s saw the rise of tattoos in American counterculture: think bikers and rebels. By the 80’s tattoos – particularly American Traditional tattoos – were a hallmark of the punk scene, displaying a refusal to conform and an allegiance to fight the power. Today, tattoos are more commonplace than ever, and have risen as an art form widely accepted and celebrated throughout contemporary society. Sailor Jerry’s influence remains steadfast and prevalent throughout the United States and beyond. Designs akin to his work are still wildly popular, and from the classic anchor to pop culture icons, the meaning behind the American Traditional tattoo has remained unwaveringly symbolic of resilience, adventure, and the human spirit.

Juliana Riedman

Contributing Editor

A South shore Long Island Native, Juliana is scarcely seen without a book in hand. Whether on a plane or at the beach, her passion for reading is rivaled only by her drive to explore. From museum-hopping, coastal hiking to curling up with her cat; she is always seeking her next adventure - and her next good read.

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