What are Traditional Style Tattoos and what do they mean?

Make An Appointment With San Diego’s Best Traditional Style Tattoos

Tattoos have been a part of mankind for thousands of years and Traditional style tattoos are an important branch in the evolution of tattoos. Although they we used as early as the 1920’s in the US, it wasn’t until Norman Collins aka Sailor Jerry exposed them to millions of men in Hawaii during World War II. It was during this time that America began to cultivate its own style of body art that we now know as Traditional Style tattoos.

Having a few different names like Old school, Americana and more, Traditional style tattoos are uniquely American. They cast aside the mystical meanings of their counterpart styles and build their reverence on bold iconography and thick outlines. Traditional style tattoos derive their presence from their simplicity and bravado but do not lack technique. Traditional tattoos often require detail work with minimal shading and clean line work to create an ideal image of confidence. Some may say their simplicity is their complexity.

The confidence and boldness that Traditional tattoos invoke are also due to its iconic use of imagery and color. Utilizing mostly well-saturated primary colors and thick black lines, Traditional tattoos typically depict anchors, sparrows, women, daggers, dice, and more. Having been born of servicemen on shore leave in Hawaii, they were after only a few things: women, gambling, and a good time. The mix of these sensibilities infused with various navel images come together to form the basis of iconography for this tattoo style.

Traditional Style Images and their meanings:

Anchor Tattoo:


The anchor tattoo is one of Sailor Jerry’s most iconic tattoos and is used as one of the most recognizable symbols for sailors; However, an anchor tattoo isn’t only reserved for sailors. The anchor symbolizes safety at sea, a solid foundation, stability, and security. It pays homage to the first westerners to leave their societies behind in search of something different and sail across the seas. During World War II it was typical of Naval men and sailors to get them a way of indicating which brand of the service they were staunchly a part of.

Nautical Star Tattoos:

The nautical star is often depicted as a five pointed star that represents the directions on a compass. It has strong associations with the old fashioned mentality of seafaring sailors and their voyages across the seas. It is an indication of their ability to navigate the seas and find their way home.

The nautical star is often depicted alongside other traditional style icons like rope, birds, and other symbols. They are highly desired in this style of tattooing for their beauty and symmetry.


The Dagger Tattoo:


The dagger is common a depiction in traditional tattoos and has strong associations with the military service as many of the other designs do. The dagger can symbolize war, death, and military combat. With traditional tattoos, they represent a soldier’s last line of defense when all else has failed. Daggers can also be used with roses, skulls, hearts, and teeth

The Swallow Tattoo:

The swallow also has a strong association with nautical symbols and their use by sailors. When sailors were out at sea and saw a swallow, it indicated that land was nearby. This ultimately manifests the meaning of good luck, hope, and returning home.

This depiction of the small bird is common in Traditional tattoos and is upholds sensibilities and lifestyle of a sailor exploring the world.


The Sailboat and Masted ship:


A ship is often used in Traditional style tattoos as a symbol of freedom and adventure. For sailors who traveled the seas hundreds of years ago, they received tattoos of the ships they called home. During this time tattoos were used as mementos and documentation. Now they are commonly used to symbolize wanderlust and the quest for the unexplored.

This is another tattoo that was commonly done on sailors during World War II and might have been tattooed with images of nautical stars, mermaids, or other sailor motifs.

The Rose:

Commonly used with other depictions of skulls, daggers, and names, the rose a staple of traditional tattoo designs. Typically done in red, the rose was done on servicemen during World War II in conjunction with the script, “Mom” or “Mother”. It was used to indicate beauty, love, and loyalty to those who had birthed them.


The Mermaid:


Mermaid tattoos are used in Traditional style designs as another association with sailors and experiences at sea. Although the mermaid is a mythical creature, it symbolized a lust for women and the debauchery they might indulge in when they arrived at the shore. Also, it represented a lure for sailors that would ultimately end in their demise when they would become shipwrecked on rocks. The mermaid has the ability for men to lose everything all because of their profound beauty.

Dice Tattoos:

Dice are often depicted in Traditional tattoos that mean nothing other than luck. The numbers on the dice will have a heavy connotation on whether its good or bad luck that the dice are communicating.

For the American sailors of the 1940’s, it symbolized one of the sought after activities while on shore leave: gambling. Sailors would come to shore to relinquish their hostilities, emotions, and fears that inflicted them by indulging in the debauchery of women, drinking, and gambling. Dice also symbolized luck on the battlefield. Although people get them under different circumstances today, they invoke the same meaning of luck and afflictions to betting.

Are you interested in getting a tattoo in the traditional style here in San Diego? Give us a call and we can schedule an appointment with the best artist for the job.