Traditional American Tattoos Guide (With 100+ Inspirational Tattoos) - Tattoo Stylist (2023)

Traditional American Tattoo Meanings: Common Elements&Symbol

American tattoos include all types of symbols, from the oldest to the newest.

At first glance they look very clear, almost absurd, but they have a long history that has brought these tattoo designs to where they are today.

The most common reasons are:

  • swallow
  • Anker
  • Two
  • Keep going
  • skull
  • Cobra
  • pantera
  • 13 lucky tattoos
  • Adler
  • Boat (nautical)
  • Herz

These common classic American tattoo motifs can have universal or very personal meaning.

Below we will explore the origin of each of these popular motifs with examples.

swallow tattoos

Traditional swallow tattoos are one of the most common old-school tattoo motifs.

First associated with sailors tattooing them to indicate they had sailed 5,000 nautical miles, they are also associated with the idea of ​​returning. Swallows have a migratory pattern to return to their home in San Juan Capistrano once a year, creating a strong bond to return again and again.

Some also believed that if a sailor died at sea, the tattooed swallow would carry his soul to heaven.

In old-school American tattoo culture, it was quite common to see pairs of tattooed swallows. Often a sailor would tattoo a swallow and add a second one upon returning home to represent the successful ending of the voyage.


Of course, traditional anchor tattoos are also connected to the life of the sailor, tying them to an old-school nautical motif.

At sea, the anchor is the most secure object in a seaman's life.

This reassurance can also be metaphorically transferred to important people in our lives, which is why one often sees "mother" anchored, indicating with aMama-Tattooto the safest relationship of our lives that keeps you grounded.

The anchor also represented the seaman's ability to remain steadfast and calm in the face of various unforeseen obstacles and challenges that the sea would bring during his absence.

The traditional anchor tattoo design usually has a band running along the bottom of the anchor showing the name of a family member or loved one in constant memory while the sailor was away.

In maritime life, some say that anchor tattoos indicate that the sailor has attained the rank of boatswain. Wearing an anchor tattoo also symbolized crossing the Atlantic.

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Sailor Jerry had a real seaman's approach to shark tattoos.

You want to hate her, but you have to love her.

Getting an animal tattoo is for manyaccept its characteristics. Strong family ties are represented by wolves or bears. Strong personality with tigers.

But a shark tattoo is more about what you overcome. A shark on your arm says you're ready to assert yourself. He says you don't become someone else's shellfish.

Sailors often get a shark tattoo to protect them from dangers at sea.

In this sense, the shark also showed the strength of others and mastery of the sea, which increased self-confidence and protected the sailor, since the shark has no natural enemies in the ocean or in the wild.

It is the motivation for the sailor to show confidence and mastery of the sea and to always move forward.

Since sharks never stop moving, this reference represented a sailor's constant journey at sea.

dragon tattoos

IsTraditional dragon tattoosIt all started thanks to Sailor Jerry.

He was one of the first contacts to Japanese tattoo masters. Jerry's dragon tattoos were both oriental and Asian inspired.

For many tattooed sailors, dragons symbolize having served in Asia.

Gold kites, on the other hand, meant someone had sailed across the international date line.

skull tattoos

traditional skull tattooscarry a fortressI remember dying(think of your death in Latin) aspect with them.

Since we take our tattoos to the grave, skulls and other death-related themes are important in the tattoo world.

On the other hand,In ancient times and Jerry's time, skulls were often the mark of warriors, mercenaries, and adventurers, people whose life choices were to accept or face death.

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However, skulls are often depicted with daggers, either behind them or directly or through other animated objects, as in the example ofButterfly skull tattoos.

Since daggers were easily concealed weapons, they were often used by assassins and traitors. The dagger is therefore an ambivalent symbol: it can represent both the hero and the villain.

snake tattoos

snake tattoos They stand for power and strength, rebirth and new beginnings.

They are usually curled up and shown ready to attack or already biting the hand.

There is a strong representation of a don't step on me mentality, giving the serpent totem a strong message of protection from evil, misfortune, and possible struggle.

Sailor Jerry's favorite snake to draw in was a king cobra.

It is believed to be snakes or serpentsone of the oldest symbolsUse in mythology, religion and art. Therefore, in Egyptian iconography, it is one of the most important symbols in the Bible.

Depending on the culture, snakes can be seen as enemies or friends in some places on earth, as a symbol of life or death; really dualistic element.


Traditional panther tattoos are usually performed as totems of courage and masculinity, with the added element of symbolizing a connection to nature.

Sailor Jerry was famous for herPanther tattoos depicting these animalsparticularly wild and manly. He displayed his red, often bloody, claws, with his jaws gaping, and occasionally accompanied by a naked woman.

Among other meanings are guardianship, liberty and courage.

In the traditional tattoo world, there are several ways to depict the panther. One of the most popular, if not the most popular, is the crawling panther. This is tattooed to evoke the appearance of a panther crawling across the wearer's skin.

Panther tattoos were most popular in the 1950s and 1960s when soldiers and greasers got tattoos of the predator during World War II.

Many of them probably choose the design for its badass aesthetic, but some people think it's because the dense shading of the design is made for a perfect cover-up.

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13 lucky tattoos

Lucky 13 tattoos are strongly associated with the mischievous nature of many tattoo lovers.

Historically marginalized, this subculture of superstitious sailors, prisoner gangs, and bandits tended to turn traditional and accepted symbols on their head.

So Sailor Jerry took the number 13, notorious for bringing bad luck, and declared it the lucky number in the tattoo world.

The old-school tattoo motto of facing your fears and bad luck was sealed for years to come.

This is one of the reasons why Friday the 13th is commonly known as the Tattoo Festival when tattoo shops charge $13 (or £13 in the UK) for certain tattoos on the day.


traditional eagle tattoosThey were the symbol of an idealized America for old-school tattoo master Sailor Jerry.

A country that courageously stands by its convictions and does not back down for anyone. Jerry'sAdler-TattoosWild and iconic, they are often depicted in conjunction with the flag.

However, eagles are a symbol of America, but also values ​​honor, skill, and intelligence.

Alternatively, the eagle motif is often depicted as a symbol of masculinity, power, dominance, focus, and strength.


Traditional pin-up girl tattoos used to be done by seafarers to give them the only connection to their former lives in their hometowns while at sea.

The term pin-up represents the ideal of femininity, but it also subverts the usual way women are portrayed in art.

From the perfection of a girl to the temptation of a fox.

Today, both women and men sport pin-up girl tattoos.

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Popularized as morale boosters for airmen, sailors and the military during World War II, these pin-up girls weren't always depictions of a woman someone knew, but rather an "imaginative" version of a lucky charm. for on-call duty.

They represented "coming home" where things were more relaxed and fun than the horrors of war.

ships tattoos

Traditional boat tattoosHe showed ships both practically and metaphorically for seafarers.

It's where you work as a sailor, but it also represents danger and adventure.

Sailor Jerry loved boats and knew all common boat types. it's legendaryClipper-TattoosThey represent both the call to adventure and the determination to "come home".

It is said that professional sailors only tattoo a ship with the sails fully hoisted when they have crossed Cape Horn, one of the most difficult sea voyages.

However, some people express in this way that they have overcome a great difficulty.

On a more metaphorical level, ships represent the idea of ​​independence, courage, and honor.

Whether you are a sailor or not, marine tattoos always carry an element of adventure and risk. The journey into the unknown that nobody knows how it will end.

A ship is a symbol of strength, determination, and the will to fight against adversity, yet humbled by the weakness of a storm big enough.

In fact, ship and anchor tattoos are considered a kind of good luck charm in maritime circles, ensuring that the crew returns home safely. It's not uncommon to find ship tattoos with the phrase "Homeward Bound."


The traditional heart tattoos of some sailors alluded to the risk they took when going to sea.

Sailors used to be at sea for months at a time, and the heart tattoo constantly represented a visual image.

The heart was often seen with a ribbon showing the name of a loved one.

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