Traditional Tattoos

Traditional tattoos are also referred to as Western, American or Old School. They are mainly characterized by vivid colors, black outlines and minimal shading. The traditional tattoo has an iconic style brought out by its characteristics, making it iconic and bold. Most traditional tattoos often illustrate roses, women, skulls, daggers, wolves or ships. 

The traditional tattoo style first entered American culture in the 1930s. They were used as a symbol representing rebellion against the “mainstream society” box. Sailor Jerry, whose official name was Norman Collins, was the pioneer of this tattoo style in Hawaii during World War II.

A Brief History of the Traditional Tattoo

Many people assume that Captain Cook’s explorations catalyzed the spread of tattooing across the western world. However, thanks to tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman who has deeply researched the history of tattooing, we’re presented with another idea. 

Judging from texts that date long before the mid-18th century, it appears that many scientists, authors and explorers were familiar with the practice of permanently embedding a substance underneath the skin to mark it. 

One of Cook’s peers, Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu, wrote about the Marquesan inking he witnessed in 1791. According to the explorer, European tattooing had similarities and contrasts with Marquesan tattooing. Apparently, European tattooing was not only common but of great antiquity. 

Traditional tattooing, therefore, was built on the history of many countries and cultures. In traditional America, however, there are few reasons why it flourished so much. 

Sailors and soldiers were early adopters because of their constant travel to different lands. This meant that they got to exchange new ideas and practices. 

Soldiers in the American Civil War kept tattoos as symbols of protection and they also used them to remind them of their loved ones. A major reason was also to mark their bodies for easier identification if they were to die in war. 


Common Design Subjects 

Around the late 19th century to early 20th century, flash sheets were exchanged and distributed through mail-order catalogs to help tattoo artists keep pace with the market. 

These flash sheets were, in fact, a preservation of pieces that artists had been tattooing for years, decades even. The pieces were designs symbolizing courage and strength, religious iconography, pin-ups and a lot more. 

Generally, traditional tattoo designs depict animals, military insignia, landscapes and shapes like hearts and stars. Each design has a specific meaning attached to it. 

For instance, tattoos of animals such as snakes or sharks symbolized strength, while animals such as swallows symbolized the longing to return. Many of the tattoo designs chosen reflect the wearer’s personality. 

Visually, traditional tattoo styles have bold black lines and specific use of pigment. European designs may have influenced the illustrative look, but the bold black lines may have been a technique borrowed from tribal tattooists from the Polynesian or Native American people. 

The carbon-based ink used holds its shape for ages, thereby aging incredibly well. It also aids in the clarity of the design. 

Skills and Techniques Required for Tattooing as a Profession

There are four basic skills that you should learn as an artist and then keep building. There are more techniques that are constantly evolving, but these four are the basic traditional techniques that every good tattoo artist knows and practice:

Line Tattoo Technique

The line tattoo technique is used to make basic shapes on the skin. The lines can either be very thin or extremely thick. Lineage is a basic tattooing technique, but it’s also one of the most important. The outline of the traditional tattoo design is dependent on the line, hence its importance. 

Tattoo Coloring

Precisely filling your design with color is referred to as coloring. The technique may involve the use of black ink, but it’s not necessary. Some artists use black ink solely for shading. 

Coloring is normally done as a blend of dark colors to light, with the tattoo artist working from one side of the design to the other. To void dark colors from mixing with clear ones, the tubes, needles and other accessories need to be cleaned with each color change. 

Tattoo Shading

Getting the shading right helps you to create images that are interesting to see because of the depth they have. Shading is normally done with black ink and there are other techniques that artists use in order to create lighter or darker shadows. 

It is not uncommon for a tattoo artist to mix black and white to create a custom gray. Some artists instead choose to add more water or fluids to their black color.

Tattoo Lettering

Having the skill to beautifully and accurately tattoo letters is an advantageous skill for any potential tattoo artist. Not everyone wants a complex design. Some people prefer to just have a word or a letter on their skin. 

In order for you to incorporate letters in a tattoo, you’re required to understand concepts such as form, typefaces and the spacing required to design words in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

How to Pick a Suitable Tattoo Artist 

The decision to get a traditional tattoo is a huge decision and you should be able to trust the artist you choose because you are entrusting them with an irreversible task. Before you make that final decision, here are some tips for picking the right tattoo artist: 

Ask Around

Have you seen other people with traditional tattoos that you admire? Ask them where they got the tattoos done and who specifically did them. Word of mouth is still a very useful research tool. 

Visit Local Studios

Scout the studios that are operating within your area. Don’t be too quick to make a decision as you do your research. If the artist’s studio or work isn’t convincing enough, then they’re probably not a good fit for you. 

Go a step further and ask the artist for their portfolio so you can see some of their best work. If the portfolio doesn’t wow you, it’s likely nothing else will. 

Go Online

In this digital age, a lot of tattoo artists are online. You can check out a studio’s website or even specific artists’ social media pages. See what work they’ve done and the clientele they’ve served before making the final decision. 

Go Over Magazines and Directories

If you’re not sure where to begin, you can make a list of parlors to have a look at straight from directories and magazines. The fact that a tattoo shop appears in a magazine or directory doesn’t mean that the publication endorses the parlor. 

Have a read through different magazines and decide which looks appealing to you, after which you can physically go to find out. 

Travel a Little

Why not go to a different state to see what other choices are out there? You can look for the nearest tattoo show, which would be an opportunity for you to be tattooed by some of the top artists from around the world. You can also use the opportunity to learn more about the craft as a customer as well as check out the latest trends in the industry. 

Don’t Rush

It may be tempting to go with the first good studio or artist you see, but it’s wise not to be too quick. A seemingly harmless decision made out of impulse might leave you in a world of regret. Tattoos are permanent, so take your time and do your research. 

Try and find out more about your artist of choice and look out for any client reviews to guide your decision. 

Tips for Picking a Suitable Design

Trying to narrow down on a traditional tattoo design can be confusing at best. If you’ve never gotten a tattoo before, there may be a million questions running through your mind as you hunt for a suitable design.

Nervousness and occasional anxiety should not plague your decision-making season. Here are some tips that will help your decision have a direction of sorts:

Research, Research and Research Some More

Have a look at the different traditional designs out there; there’s bound to be something for everyone. Are there designs that pop out to you? Perhaps it’s specific colors that seem to be drawing your attention. Save all your favorites and show them to your artist. 

Pick a Design That You Connect With

As a first-timer, you may be tempted to pick a design that just looks good. You need a design that you’re ready to grow old with. Getting a tattoo is a lifelong decision so ensure that you consider something that’s dear to you. 

Reflect Your Personality

If you’re a happy-go-lucky kind of person who works with children, then maybe that terrifying skull isn’t a good option for you. Get a design that naturally reflects who you are as a person. 

Take Your Time

It doesn’t hurt to make sure you’ve made the right choice. Take a step back and analyze your decision. You want to be absolutely sure so that you don’t regret your choice 2 years down the line. 

Word of Mouth 

Share your design with your friends. They may see something that you’ll have missed or they may help you build up on some ideas before you make the final decision. It’s always good to have another eye that you trust.

Best Traditional Tattoos

Other Awesome Tattoo Designs