American Traditional ink makes up some of the most widely requested and recognizable tattoos out there. This particular tattoo style has been prominent for almost a century, and every tattoo style we ...

How To Design American Traditional Tattoos

American Traditional ink makes up some of the most widely requested and recognizable tattoos out there. This particular tattoo style has a long history and has been prominent for almost a century, and every tattoo style we have now has spawned from this one style. The tattoo industry as we know it today wouldn’t be what it is now without the advent of the American Traditional style. We looked into what the style is, where it came from, and some things that you need to consider when you’re getting a Traditional tattoo.

What is American Traditional?

American Traditional, sometimes referred to as Old School, tattoos are a lasting tattoo style that’s been around since the 1930s. The popularity of this style has been unwavering for roughly 80 years; while other tattoo styles have been added to the mix, Traditional tattoo requests have stayed strong alongside these burgeoning artistic styles for decades.

Traditional Style Animals Tattoo

Traditional tattooing as we know it can be largely attributed to American tattoo artist Norman Collins, aka Sailor Jerry. He took techniques from Japanese tattooing and meshed them with his own American style, creating the American Traditional aesthetic that we’re familiar with. He built tattoo machines that would allow him to ink the way he wanted to, innovating the industry in a major way. The choice of bold motifs and colors became iconic to this particular tattoo style. Primary colors like yellow, red, green, black, and, sometimes, purple, are the common color palette that are frequently used with Traditional tattoos.

Navy and servicemen were the main people to be tattooed in the early days, so the images that were chosen had specific meaning and a lot of patriotism behind them. Initially, tattoos were seen mainly on men serving the country, or outlaws, but the symbols used remained within the same realm of Americana.

Key Elements of American Traditional Designs

American Traditional tattoos are easy to identify. They’re the most classic of tattoo styles, and one that you’ve definitely seen many times before. There are some pretty specific motifs that these tattoos tend to stick to, all of which come from when it was primary Navy and military men who sported ink. Some things you might recognize being done in this particular style would be symbols of American patriotism (ships, anchors, eagles, flags), daggers, and pinup girls, to name just a few.

Traditional Ship Tattoo

As far as specific elements that determine that a tattoo is done in the Traditional style, primary colors used with minimal, if any, shading is a big one. The colors are usually very bold and use their full pigments, for the most part, and are always within the primary color spectrum. This is because of the pigments and technology available in the early 20th century, so the colors were kept more basic than we see in some newer styles, like New School. American Traditional tattoos are comprised of little to no shading, keeping the design itself relatively simple. Though a lot of Traditional designs include color, it’s not necessary to qualify as a Traditional tattoo. It’s mainly the clean, heavy linework that makes a Traditional tattoo.

Differences Between American Traditional and Neo-Traditional

The American Traditional and Neo-Traditional tattoo styles are very similar, but there are a few small differences that set them vastly apart. The central differences lay around the content of the designs themselves, and the colors and shading used in the tattoo. Traditional tattoos are done with little shading; the colors used are bold and kept that way throughout the design. The imagery for Traditional style tattoos are also within the same realm – patriotic and military themed designs.

Traditional Bird Tattoo on a Man's Torso

Neo-Traditional is essentially an expansion and innovation on the Traditional style. “New Traditional” uses the same techniques that are used in American Traditional tattooing, like bold linework and minimal color shading, but the colors and specific designs that are used are what set the two tattoo styles apart. Neo-Traditional uses a wider range of colors than American Traditional typically includes. Hues like teal or pink, which would not generally be seen in Traditional designs, are widely used in Neo-Traditional tattoos. The designs themselves can include almost anything, not just the classic motifs that you would see in American Traditional, so it offers more options than Old School tattoos, while still paying homage to the style.

Where to Start

As with any new tattoo idea, decide where you want the piece to go on your body. Once you know where you’re new tattoo will go, it’s time to decide on the type of design that you want. Knowing what the most common choices for American Traditional tattoos are will help you consider what you want for yours, which we’ll get into in the next section.

Hot Air Balloon Tattoo in Traditional Style

Think about what kinds of specific elements you want to have included in your tattoo. What kinds of colors, if any, do you want? If you’re wanting a tattoo that has bold color that’s outside of the primary color spectrum, you might be better off getting a Neo-Traditional design. Do you want a tattoo that has a more modern image, or one of the classic Old School style designs? Once you know the specifics of what you want in your tattoo, you can decide between which style is better suited for it, either American Traditional or Neo-Traditional.

Most Popular American Traditional Designs

Traditional Style Compass Tattoo

There are some designs that are incredibly popular for the American Traditional tattoo style. While basically any design can be tattooed in the Traditional style, a true American Traditional tattoo will include the classic imagery that the style is known for, namely Native American symbols, pin-ups and women, birds, symbols of patriotism, nautical and military motifs, and roses. Anchors, daggers, mermaids, and things of that nature are what you’ll most commonly see coming out of the American Traditional tattoo style.

American Traditional tattoos have been around for decades, and considering the high popularity of the tattoo style, it’s not likely to be going anywhere any time soon. Traditional style tattoos celebrate Americana and art in a big way, so if you’re looking to go the patriotic route for your next tattoo design, an American Traditional could be the perfect tattoo style for you.

Traditional Tattoo Across a Man's Torso

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