American Style Tattoos Explained

Are you planning on getting some new ink soon? There are so many excellent design choices to choose from, like tribal, watercolor, realism, and iconic classics. American Style Tattoos are some of the most eye-catching and recognizable designs, featuring bright colors and prominent outlines.

Keep reading to learn more about the history and meaning behind these stunning tattoos.

An artist with American Traditional style tattoos on arms.

The Colorful History of American Style Tattoos

American Traditional Tattoos have a fascinating history that led to their enduring popularity. Bold tattoo designs appeared on American shores in the 1920s, marking the brave soldiers who traveled the globe during World War One. These men brought home more than just stories and trinkets but also an inked iconography to represent their voyages.

While American Style Tattoos soared in popularity during the mid-20th century, the foundation that led to their widespread adoption started much earlier. The distinct artistic technique of filling bold black outlines with bright colors has its roots in the ancient tattooing practices of indigenous cultures in North America, Asia, and the Pacific Islands.

In the late 19th century, Samuel O’Reilly invented the forerunner of the modern tattoo gun. This allowed tattoo artists to create larger designs in a fraction of the time. Shortly thereafter, Lew Alberts created the first flash sheets and distributed them around the nation. These convenient design pages brought standardization to the industry and aided the development of the traditional Americana style.

A tattoo artist working on arm tattoos.

What Makes an American Traditional Tattoo Stand Out?

American Style Tattoos are recognizable by their bold and simple designs. Early tattoo machines had large needles incapable of modern fine lining and shading. This led to the recognizable aesthetic of thick black outlines filled with blocky colors. Additionally, only a few long-lasting colors were available at this time, primarily red, yellow, and green.

In addition to the artistic style, most American Traditional Tattoos follow a motif deeply rooted in military culture. Each design represented an idea or achievement, and servicemen would tell their stories through intricate sleeves with meaningful icons.

Timeless Americana Tattoos and Meanings

Soldiers deployed overseas during World Wars One and Two used traditional tattoos to tell a story, mark accomplishments, and ground themselves to loved ones back home. The iconic designs of American Style Tattoos reflect the culture of servicemen during this era, often inspired by nautical imagery and fierce animals.

There are dozens of tattoo images these men brought home, each with its own meaning. The following examples are just a handful of the most popular designs that withstood the test of time and remain popular choices to this day.


It goes without saying that the anchor tattoo was extremely popular among sailors. This design served to ground seamen to loved ones back home and reminded them of what they were fighting for. Oftentimes, anchor tattoos would be adorned with a banner featuring the name of a wife or girlfriend along with red roses representing love.


The swallow is another recognizable icon that American sailors added to their tattoo tapestry. Servicemen earned this image by sailing over 5,000 nautical miles while deployed. This symbolism comes from the extensive migration patterns of common swallows.


There was no better way to honor a loved one stateside than with a red heart tattoo. This unmistakable representation of love allowed soldiers to stay tethered to the people they cared about no matter how far they ventured.

Like anchors, heart tattoos featured a decorative banner with the name of a special woman back home. Older men typically chose to memorialize their wives, fiancées, or girlfriends who were waiting for them. Young soldiers without lovers often chose the simple word “mom” emblazoned on the heart. This has become a common trope among modern representations of the old-school heart tattoo.


Some American Style Tattoos represented a darker and more somber reality. The traditional skull tattoo was reserved for servicemen who witnessed the death and loss that war brings. This design honored fallen comrades and slain enemies. It also served as a memento mori for soldiers—a reminder that death comes for us all.


Many military men chose to adorn themselves with images that conveyed masculinity. Big cats like panthers and tigers represented the ferocity and sexual prowess these men embodied.

Big cat tattoos were greatly influenced by traditional Japanese designs of roaring tigers with claws outstretched. The sleek panther was commonly shown grasping a beautiful woman in its claws, signifying that the wearer considered himself quite the ladies’ man.


Another ferocious animal that graced the sleeves of sailors was the formidable shark. Seamen were no strangers to the sharks that prowled the waters of the Pacific. Shark tattoo designs from this era are as varied as the many species they encountered on their voyages.

These tattoos signified bravado and determination in the face of adversity. Some servicemen chose the shark tattoo because they revered this apex predator. Others feared them and wished to confront this fear with a permanent reminder of strength and bravery.

Finding the Perfect American Traditional Tattoo with Flash

What are flash sheets and how did they revolutionize the world of tattoos? When you walk into a tattoo parlor, you’ll likely notice framed collections of designs hanging on the walls. These standardized tattoos arose in the early 20th century and allowed artists to reproduce meaningful designs easily and consistently.

Modern tattoos are typically customized and deeply personal to the recipient. This is a stark contrast to the early history of American tattooing when flash sheets were the primary way to choose a stock design. The continued existence of flash enables people to get the exact tattoo that their ancestors brought home from the war.

Flash art covering the walls of San Diego's Tahiti Felix's Master Tattoo, the second oldest tattoo shop in the US.
Flash art on the walls of Tahiti Felix’s Master Tattoo.

World-Renowned American Old-School Tattoo Artists

The original pioneers of American Style Tattoos are still well-known today. Sailor Jerry was a famous tattoo artist based in Honolulu, Hawaii. Throughout his career, he tattooed hundreds of servicemen stationed in Hawaii and helped spread the popularity of these iconic designs.

Sailor Jerry later took protege Don Ed Hardy under his wing. Ed Hardy’s signature style is still a significant influence among old-school tattoo artists. The following artists picked up the mantle and are known as today’s greatest American Style tattoo artists.

Becca Genne-Bacon

New York, NY

Becca Genne-Bacon is a popular American Style Tattoo artist located in New York City. Her artwork stays true to the original color palette and bold contrast that makes this style so recognizable.

Becca’s work consists of black line work and traditional red, yellow, and green hues. Her pieces seamlessly blend traditional American tattoo designs with the contemporary art of intricate detailing.

Dan Santoro

Hawley, PA

Dan Santoro’s unique art style is a fun and stunning take on the American Traditional Tattoo. His designs draw inspiration from the nautical imagery brought home by sailors after the war.

Dan uses thick black lines and simple subjects to create eye-catching tattoos. Modern influences he incorporates into his designs include cartoon characters and counterculture iconography.

Danny G

Houston, TX

Danny G remains true to the roots of American Style Tattoos. His subjects are usually gorgeous pinup girls decorated with beautiful flowers and seductive snakes.

Danny’s pieces are mostly done in black and gray with tasteful accents of one or two bright colors. While this artist is based in Houston, Texas, he regularly tours the largest cities in the United States.

Gordon Combs

Portland, OR

Are you near the Pacific Northwest searching for the best old-school tattoo artist? If so, you should check out Gordon Combs at Tattoo Smile.

Gordon combines bold line work with a stunning selection of bright colors. His subjects are heavily influenced by traditional American and Japanese tattoo designs.

Matt Howse

San Francisco, CA

Matt Howse is a popular tattoo artist specializing in American Style Tattoos. His portfolio of custom and flash tattoos portrays the traditional Americana imagery of animals, skulls, and beautiful women.

Matt’s designs are generally much more colorful and detailed than the original tattoos from which he draws influence. This modern touch on old classics makes him a widely sought-after artist on the West Coast.

These artists and many others continue to contribute to the rich legacy of American Style Tattoos, offering a wide range of designs and styles for those seeking to commemorate their own stories through ink.

Get Inspired by American Style Tattoos

An American style tattoo on a man's hand.

Tattoos are personal and meaningful decorations that many people use to tell their stories. American Style Tattoos helped popularize iconic designs in the early 1900s which shaped the landscape of modern tattooing.

After reading this article, you know the history and meaning behind these tattoos. Now you can add a timeless tribute to the rich history of American tattoos to your ink tapestry.

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