History and Style of Old School Tattoos (American Traditional)


History and style of Old School Tattoos

Tattoos have been around thousands of years but the western society was late to the game. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that American sailors began using old school tattoos to avoid impressment by the British Navy as well as help identify their bodies if they were to be lost at sea.

However they remained largely unpopular with the rest of the country. While Norman Keith Collins, aka Sailor Jerry is one of the most popular American traditional tattoo artists, Martin Hidebrandt was actually one of the first professional tattoo artist in the USA tattooing soldiers during the civil war.

Sailor Jerry was a pioneer of his time who learned from Japanese masters but created his own pigments and tattoo equipment. His style is now matched in the Ed Hardy clothing line. Some of the symbols he made popular were:

Hearts – heart tattoos kept sailors loved ones close to them while they were out at sea

Snakes – powerful snake tattoos were often portrayed ready to strike to heed warning to evil or budding scuffles.

Panthers – panther tattoos show off a sailor’s expertise and manliness.

Ships – It is in name! Ships are where sailors went to work and had a great spirit of adventure.

Eagles, falcons and other birds of prey – eagle tattoos stand for America. They represent honor, courage and intelligence.

Swallows – these were used initially by sailors to show off their experience. One swallow meant they had sailed at least 5,000 nautical miles. They were also a good luck charm since swallows always returned home after their migration. Some even believed if they died at sea the birds would carry their souls to heaven.

Death – Tattoos are forever! This also became popular as a symbol of warriors and adventurers.

Lucky 13

Nautical stars – these represent the north star

Classically styled scroll banners

Shellback– these turtle tattoos showed a sailor’s experience of having crossed the equator


Anchors – anchors represent stability in the sailor’s life.

Hawaii themes – this is where Sailor Jerry made his home after WWII

Pin-up girls – sailors needed something to look at while they were gone for months at a time!

Sharks – symbolizes courage and will. Sailor Jerry had a healthy respect for sharks as everyone should!

Dragons – these came from his fascination with the Japanese tattoo masters and work he had done with them.

Some other early influencers of old school tattooing include Herbert Hoffmann, Amund Dietzel, Bert Grimm and Bob Shaw.

This style relied heavily on bold outlines and a limited color palate. The designs were intentionally kept simple so that artists could see more clients.


10 Replies to “History and Style of Old School Tattoos (American Traditional)”

    • jeremyh86@gmail.com Post author

      Thanks Hillary, I’m glad you were able to take away something from the post!

  1. Lefty

    very interesting! I always knew the tattoos were symbols for something, but figuring out the “what for” was a mystery. Cool how each one represented something important to each and every sailor. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Daryl

    Interesting roundup. Do you have any idea when humans started tattooing themselves? I imagine it was probably back in prehistory and tattoos seem to be a part of the culture of a lot of native peoples. I guess they had some deep meaning within those cultures that has been largely lost today with a lot of tattoos being purely decorative. Would that be a correct assumption?

  3. Elizabeth

    Hi , I like the information you have about how to care for tattoos. I don’t have any, but thank you for the tips. Great job and I like the pictures as well ! Keep it up!

  4. Yvonne

    Hi Jeremy,

    These old school tattoos look awesome! It’s interesting to know that sailors use them frequently and each design had a special meaning. I personally like the swallows and heart. Is the tattooing process still the same today compared to the 1800s?

    • Jeremy Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post Yvonne. The tattooing process actually is similar. The first tattoo machine was developed in the late 1800’s and was modeled after Thomas Edison’s electric pen. However, today’s machines are much more sophisticated and can control the depth, speed and power of the needle.


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