The American Traditional Tattoo
Roses have long been a common feature in American Traditional Tattooing simply because they were fluid in their symbolism. In the early days of American Traditional Tattooing, these stunning flowers were generally used to symbolize love. In most cases, this was for the wearer’s significant other, however, the traditional rose tattoo was also used as a memorial piece for those lost at sea or war. Today, these iconic elements can represent beauty and strength. While they are traditionally red in color, you can often find them in yellow — a color that represents friendship.
When American Traditional Tattooing began, tattoos were mostly a masculine feature. Despite more men getting tattooed than women, flowers — usually considered a feminine concept — made a regular appearance in the traditional tattoo style that was developing during the time period. Each flower has its own meaning, making them extremely versatile. For example, cherry blossoms represent the fleetingness of life and beauty, the chrysanthemum is representative of happiness or joy, and the hibiscus flower symbolizes power and respect.
You likely won’t see a sheet of American Traditional Tattoo flash without there being at least one eagle flying across the page. The bald eagle gained popularity during times of war, thanks to the pride most servicemen felt for their country. Naturally, it should come as no surprise that the American Bald Eagle took precedence as one of the most common features in traditional tattooing. This is due in part to the eagle becoming a symbol for America itself. These majestic creatures also stand for loyalty, honor, bravery, and intelligence. Often depicted with its wings outspread, it was a common site on the arms of soldiers and sailors throughout the US.
Throughout tattooing’s history, death themes have been a reoccurring element — and American Traditional Tattooing is no different. From the early days of tattoo to the height of the traditional tattoo, body art was mostly reserved for warriors, soldiers, criminals, and mercenaries. These men of action were faced with death on a daily basis, making it a premise they had to come to terms with early in their life. The traditional skull possessed a few meanings. For some, a skull depicted that we all die eventually, or that life is short. For others, a traditional skull showed triumph or rebellion against tyranny.
A common feature in American Traditional Tattoo, the snake, is often chosen for its power, potency, and defense. Unlike most other animals, which are shown in an aggressive stance, the traditional snake tattoo is generally presented as curled and ready to strike—but only if need be. This defensive position was thought to ward off evil and misfortune. Some even believed the coiled snake would protect the wearer from potential scuffles or fights. Naturally, these protective elements made the snake a popular choice with the bar-frequenting soldiers and sailors flooding tattoo shops during wartime.
If you’ve ever seen an image of a sparrow holding a banner or a pin-up girl balanced strategically in a martini glass, you’ve seen an example of the American Traditional Tattoo. Today, these images are a common sight—being featured on clothing, accessories, and home décor. But these bold, simplistic designs weren’t always such a public element. In fact, these traditional tattoo designs were once reserved for soldiers, sailors, and lower-class citizens.
While tattooing was an artform that had been around for centuries, it had fallen out of practice in the Western civilizations after Christianity deemed tattoos to be an act against God. Tattooing had all but disappeared in the “civilized” societies until the 1700s when sailors began exploring the outer reaches of their known-maps. Stumbling upon tribal communities across the world, these intrigued sailors would often return home with permanent souvenirs of their own. Over time, tattoos became commonplace with sailors—spreading into the ranks of the military as they too began to expand their reach.
American Traditional Tattooing saw its rise in the late 19th Century, when military men wanted to show their pride for their brothers-in-arms, their country, and their women in a way that was unique to their own culture. Instead of the tribal imagery of lines, shapes, and geometry, tattoos began to develop an American-Pride theme. Typical designs often included eagles, pin-up girls, the American Flag, sparrows, and ships—each with their own individual symbolism. As most tattoo parlors were located close to American military bases, these designs were kept simple in order to be tattooed as quickly as possible. They were limited to minimal color choices and contained bold, chunky outlines. They weren’t supposed to be fine art, rather something that could be tattooed in under an hour before the soldiers had to return to base.
The United States of America has a long-standing love affair with tattooing, reaching back further than the nation’s united front. Native Americans utilized tattooing in their culture significantly, but as colonists began to arrive from Europe, this artform began to slip into the background of an ever-growing new society. Those who were immigrating to the new frontier weren’t familiar with this method of adorning one’s body, as tattooing had largely been banned in the Catholic nations since the early 700s AD. It was an all-but-forgotten practice. Lucky for us, though, it didn’t stay that way.
As the nation began to prosper, men fighting to protect their US freedoms found themselves wanting to display their national pride on their bodies— leading to the rebirth of tattooing in the Western World and the development of a new style of tattooing called American Traditional. While the artform was making a comeback, it was slow moving. As sailors and soldiers graffitied their skin with patriotic elements and circus folk displayed their body-canvases off for a price, tattooing began to break into the main-stream world of American history. Throughout the civil war, tattoo artists began fluttering through Union and Confederate camps, inking soldiers with their loved one’s names or their military insignia. With the end of the civil war, tattoo artists had to find a new space to work from. In 1870, the first official tattoo parlor was launched in New York City by German immigrant Martin Hildebrandt. From there, shops began to pop up across the US, most often near seaports or military bases. Although tattoo shops were on every corner, the artform was still reserved for military, criminals, and circus folk for the next decade or so.
In 1891, a revolution swept the tattoo industry thanks to the patent of the electric tattoo machine by Samuel O’Reilly. This machine sped up the process of tattooing and made it easier on the artist, allowing the American Traditional Tattoo to take its next step forward. As artists were able to put out more work, people began getting tattooed more frequently.. By 1930, even tattooed women became all the rage, commanding attention at the circus sideshows.
Of course, the American Traditional Tattoo, as we now know it, arrived on the scene in the 50s and 60s. Artists with fine art backgrounds began to try their hand at this popular pastime—changing the industry forever. Perhaps the most notable was a man named Norman Collins. Better known as Sailor Jerry, this artist has been referred to as the father of the traditional tattoo. Having learned from traditional Japanese artists while overseas, Sailor Jerry returned home to blend the unique Asian-style tattoo with that of the patriotic-style tattooing of his own nation. This fusion created a melting pot of art that has stuck with the industry through time.
Sailor Jerry-inspired art work began to litter the walls of tattoo parlors across the country, thanks to mail-order flash packets available from the artists dominating the industry at the time. It was this continuity that allowed the traditional tattoo form to remain popular, even in today’s culture. In fact, experts believe the style would not have remained so rigid if not for the popularity of the flash sheets.
Today, decades later, the American Traditional Tattoo still demands a heavy focus from the industry. Devoted artists continue to use the form to train their apprentices and clients still flock to the tattoo parlor to pick their own piece from the walls of flash. Despite the range of eclectic styles available today, this classic imagery is still ranked as one of the most tattooed styles in the world.