Old school tattoos, otherwise known as American Traditional, are a tattoo style that was popularized by mid twentieth century sailors. This type of tattoo is recognizable in its heavy line work, use of reds and blacks, and depiction of figures like swallows, pin up girls, and nautical stars. Although several artists contributed to this classic style, Sailor Jerry is credited with establishing the form. Born as Norman Collins in 1911, Sailor Jerry became part of the tattoo counterculture that emerged in the ‘20s and carried on throughout the 20th century. He joined the Navy and loved the ocean, which played a major part in his proclivity for sailor tattoos. Read the list below to learn the meanings behind some of the most popular American tattoos that you can still find on people’s arms today.
12. Shellback Turtle
Significance: Creation, trips across the equator
Style: Dark line work with pale yellows and greens
Bonus Fact: Although turtle tattoos were popular among American sailors, they began as part of traditional polynesian tattooing practices
photo source: Cassie LaFave via Tattoonow.com
Turtles have several meanings depending on context. The turtle is at the center of several creation myths in countries like Japan and India. Turtles are also designs typical of traditional tattoos in places like Polynesia. With old school tattoos, the shellback turtle represents a sailor’s trip across the equator. As with swallows, a sailor could accumulate turtle tattoos to show the amount of times they’d made such a trip.
Significance: Patriotism, courage, health
Style: Dark line work with white and yellow coloring
Bonus Fact: How the eagle is depicted also lends to its meaning
photo source: Sailorjerry.com
It seems that nothing could be labeled “American Traditional” without eagles. As a patriotic symbol, the eagle was a popular choice among naval officers and sailors showing allegiance to their country. In this context, the eagle is often paired with the American flag. How the tattoo artist positions the eagle also has significance. A perched eagle stands for health and energy while a fighting one shows courage and bravery.
Significance: Strength, caution, good fortune, rebirth, temptation
Style: Dark lines, bright colors, often coiled
Bonus Fact: The meaning of a snake tattoo changes greatly depending on where you are. Some might see it as a dangerous monster while other interpret it as a sign of rebirth and fertility
photo source: Vamp’s – How To Draw Tattoo Coloring Book Pages
Snakes have a variety of meanings, especially depending on the culture or country they are tattooed in. They can stand for rebirth, fertility or temptation. American Traditional snakes often represented strength as well as caution, warning other sailors or threats to back off. These types of snakes were usually depicted coiled, ready to strike, emphasizing the potential danger the wearer posed. They were often brightly colored with greens and reds, which displayed the creature proudly on the skin.
9. Nautical Stars
Significance: Direction, protection, good fortune
Style: Contrasted shading to make the star appear three dimensional on the skin
Bonus Fact: The star comes from the compass
photo source: Tattooseo.com
The nautical star was a choice style for sailors as it was the same kind of star found in the middle of a compass. For sailors, the nautical star meant good fortune and protection— just as a compass directed them as through the most daunting of conditions. The nautical star can also stand for participation in the Marines or Navy. Nautical stars are simple designs that range in size, making them a popular choice for tattoo enthusiasts.
8. Mom Heart
Significance: Keep a loved one close while faraway
Style: Red heart with a banner
Bonus Fact: Has roots in a traditional Irish folk song
photo source: Headsweats.com
The heart tattoo with the word “mom” written in the middle is one of the most stereotypical and iconic tattoos ever. Like many other old school tattoos, the tradition of the mom heart begins with sailors. Allegedly, a sailor first got this tattoo style in memory of a traditional Irish song called, “Kissed Me Darling Mother.” Today there are several variations on the mom heart tattoo, but the original style featured a red heart with a banner sporting the word “mom” in stylized font.
7. Pin Ups
Style: Dark line work, heavy shading, and bright colors
Bonus Fact: The history of pin up girls began in 1890s
photo source: Guen Douglas, Taiko Gallery, Germany
Pin up girls were introduced to popular culture in the 1890s as representatives of the “new woman.” In the 1940s, they were sold as images that should be hidden from women, which seems counterintuitive to tattooing. However, soldiers in WWII and the Korean war did not have secret places to hide their pin up pictures nor women to hide them from while overseas. Sailor Jerry designed pin up tattoos for sailors who would be gone for a long time. Overall, pin ups have a controversial history of being a classic tattoo style and enforcing sexist stereotypes of female beauty.
6. Lucky 13
Significance: Luck, daredevil acts, gang affiliations, drugs
Style: Varied, but usually the numbers were in black with horizontal lines on to emphasize the tips of one and three
Bonus Fact: The number 13 began as a sailor tattoo and went on to have meaning for bikers and gang members
photo source: Sailorjerry.com
Depending on where you are, the number 13 is either a bad omen or an indicator of great luck. Lucky 13 became a mainstay of American traditional tattoos as sailors would get them as a “daredevil” act. Bikers took on the number 13 to indicate that they dealt or had connections to certain drugs. Today, the number 13 is associated with particular gangs, like MS-13. Tattoo parlors keep the memory of Lucky 13 alive with Friday the thirteenth flash tattoo deals, where customers choose from a sheet of predesigned tattoos that are $13 each.
Significance: Virility, strength, prowess
Style: Heavy linework, white and black contrast with red coloring
Bonus Fact: Old school panthers are almost alway scary looking
photo source: Iron Brush Tattoo
Panthers represent strength and uniqueness as they are ferocious cats that are quite rare in nature. Like skulls, panthers are not associated with sailors and have no nautical meaning beyond being tough. Panthers are a classic tattoo style due to their basic color scheme as well as the technical know-how required to make the panther look like a ferocious jungle feline rather than a house cat. Old school panther tattoos amp up the scary elements of the panther, often depicting them with barred fangs and bloody paws.
Significance: Death, acceptance, commitment
Style: Heavy line work with white, yellow, and black coloring
Bonus Fact: Old school skull tattoos were usually paired with a clever or ironic sentence about death
photo source: Debbie Jones Tattoos
Skull tattoos were not unique to sailors, but they were a favorite style of Sailor Jerry. In general, skulls represent an acceptance of death as a part of life. And, as with several other American traditional tattoos, skulls made the wearer look like a “tough guy.” Sailor Jerry often paired skulls with clever epithets about death as well as flowers or flags. Like other old school designs, the skulls were not realistic, but drawn in a stylized manner that makes death seem less scary. Reminders of death trace back to ancient times. During the Roman Empire, memento mori (“Remember that you must die”) came in the forms of art, jewelry and other trinkets to prevent soldiers from becoming too prideful.
Significance: Strength, travel, peace, piety, stability
Style: Dark line work, heavy shading, grey and red coloring
Bonus Fact: The anchor represents crossing the Atlantic ocean
While swallows and dragons might be surprising sailor-fare, anchors should not come as a shock. What is surprising, however, is that anchors originally began as a way for Christians to secretly express their religious beliefs during the Roman Empire. After Christianty was no longer persecuted, the anchor became more associated with sea travel, showing that a sailor had crossed the Atlantic ocean. As a stable object, the anchor is also a great way to depict meaningful relationships. Sailors and land lubbers alike often had anchor tattoos with the name of an important person written on them.
Significance: Strength, Travel
Style: Dark line work with green, red and gold coloring
Bonus Fact: A special type of dragon tattoo indicated that a sailor crossed the International Dateline
photo source: Sailorjerry.com
Like the swallow, dragons don’t immediately come to mind when thinking about the sea, but they were another typical style for sailors. Old school dragon tattoos took inspiration from Chinese and Japanese tradition, a result of Sailor Jerry working with tattoo masters from these countries. Sailors got dragon tattoos to show they’d stopped in China. A variation of the dragon tattoo is the golden dragon, which showed that the sailor crossed the International Date Line, which is an imaginary line that delineates between calendar dates.
Significance: Travel, loyalty, fidelity, rebirth
Style: Dark line work with red and gold coloring
Bonus Fact: A swallow tattoo represents 5,000 nautical miles traveled
photo source: Sailorjerry.com
Swallows, small birds with angular wings, were the favorite tattoos of sailors in the early to mid 20th century. Swallows represented the amount of miles a sailor traveled. One swallow stood for 5,000 nautical miles, and so on. While a tiny bird doesn’t seem representative of a tough, tattooed sailor, the birds’ migratory patterns mirrored the transient lifestyle characteristic in ships. Swallows head south during the winter and their return means the arrival of spring. In this way, they also represent return, which is a comforting concept to a sailor.