Traditional Tattoo Style

Traditional Tattoo Designs featured image
Published on June 12, 2024

The traditional tattoo style has its roots dating back to the 18th-20th century. While the tattooing art form has developed immensely since this time, people still like to pay homage to traditional or ‘old school’ tattooing by inking themselves in these classical designs.

Traditional Tattoo Origins

When European sailors set out on their voyages in the 16th century, they encountered many tribes from different lands who were rich in tattoo traditions.

These encounters partly inspired sailors' adoption of tattoos, as sailors began to get tattoos as mementos of their voyages to exotic locales, marking themselves as seasoned voyagers.

Sailor tattoo traditional style

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The traditional tattoo art form got its start in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thanks largely in part to Norman Keith Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry.

Sailor Jerry spent time in Southeast Asia working for the Navy, where he would be exposed to the rich tattooing cultures of the region. 

Sailor Jerry, who had been tattooing from a young age, was inspired by  Asian Tattoos, particularly from Japan, and incorporated their color palette into his designs. 

In the 1930s, he settled down in Honolulu, Hawaii, to open a tattoo parlor in Chinatown.

Hawaii had been a strategic military hub since World War II and became a prime tattooing location for Sailor Jerry as the island was frequented by a continuous influx of sailors. 

Norman Sailor Jerry Collins

Photo credit: Australian Bartender

Sailor Jerry would become world-renowned for his contributions to the tattooing world, as developed his own pigments and developed his own custom needle formations that could embed pigments less painfully into the skin. 

Traditional Tattoo Characteristics and Evolution 

The traditional tattoo style pioneered by Sailor Jerry is known for its bold, clean lines and vibrant colors, with motifs like anchors, ships, eagles, snakes, and nautical stars.

His work is also known for incorporating patriotic themes and elements from Asian art.

After Sailor Jerry's death in 1973, his traditional tattooing style continued to evolve and thrive, influenced by his techniques and styles but also diversifying through the contributions of many other artists globally.

Sailor Jerry Tattoo

Photo credit: Electric Street Tattoo

Sailor Jerry’s influence persisted through his protégés, Ed Hardy and Mike Malone, who continued to operate his shop and develop their unique styles while still paying homage to traditional American tattooing.

They were instrumental in blending and broadening the scope of traditional tattoo art with influences from other cultures, particularly Japanese tattooing.

When tattooing became more mainstream, the traditional American style spread globally with artists around the world adopting and adapting the bold lines, vivid colors, and iconic motifs of the traditional style, mixing them with local cultural symbols and techniques.

traditional tattoo woman

Photo credit: badlittleyou

Around the 1980s, a new genre called "neo-traditional" emerged. This genre respects the roots of Old School tattooing but incorporates more elaborate motifs, a broader palette of colors, and a greater emphasis on detailed shading and dimension.

Neo-traditional tattoos might include elements like detailed floral designs, animal portraits, and intricate use of light and shadow, all while maintaining the bold outlines and fluid composition of traditional tattoos.

Today, the traditional tattoo style is kept alive through a dedicated community of artists and enthusiasts who cherish its rich history and timeless aesthetic.

Modern tattooists adhere to the fundamental characteristics of bold lines and bright, solid colors, but also innovate incorporating contemporary influences and advanced techniques.

This blending of old and new ensures that each piece is both a nod to Sailor Jerry's classic designs and a fresh take on his classic themes. 

Best Traditional Tattoo Designs

by Chloe Hynes-NguyenJune 15, 2024

Amazing Traditional Tattoo Artists

1. Broken Circle Tattoo

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Tattoo by Broken Circle Tattoo #traditionaltattoo

2. Missbeans

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Tattoo by Missbeans #traditionaltattoo

3. Jared Allen

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Tattoo by Jared Allen #traditionaltattoo

4. Kuzi.tattooer

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Tattoo by Kuzi.tattooer #traditionaltattoo

5. Xmishkatraditionalx

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Tattoo by xmishkatraditionalx #traditionaltattoo

6. Alyssa Cavallo

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Tattoo by Alyssa Cavallo #traditionaltattoo


The traditional tattoo style is a living testament to a rich heritage that bridges centuries, cultures, and artistic visions.

While it has its roots deeply embedded in the exploits of 18th-century sailors and the pioneering artistry of figures like Sailor Jerry, it continues to thrive today through a vibrant tapestry of artists who respect its history while driving its evolution.

Tattooists around the world keep the spirit of 'old school' tattooing alive by merging classical motifs with innovative techniques and modern aesthetics that we’re sure Sailor Jerry himself would approve of. 

Chloe Hynes-Nguyen
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