Traditional American, or Western, tattoos have the hallmark of red and green solid features, very sparse in shading (if any at all) with rare highlights in yellow, blue, purple and sometimes brown. Traditional or “Old School” tattoos have the distinct feature of being outlined with an emphasis of a bold blue-black line.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the birth of the electric tattoo machine was a revolutionary turn in the tattoo industry. Suddenly faster and safer tattoos could be had, so the demand in the tattoo industry for skin art soared. With demand increasing, artists developed “flash” art to circulate portfolios or just pre-drawn material on sheets to be displayed prominently on the shop’s walls, or in an open portfolio that customs could purvey while waiting.

The need for new designs was ever pressing, so mail order catalogs started distributing them with tattoo shop supplies to help artists meet the ever growing demand. This mail order distribution flooded the marketplace with bright and colorful designs that were easily printed. Fine detail and shading was not easily printed in the 19th and 20th century process, so the designs reflected the limited printing capabilities of the era and the speed needed, and the Traditional style was established in look.

The Traditional style was further cemented in its iconic imagery by the number of sailors who wanted a speedy memento, and favored the imagery we relate today as a staple of this style of tattoo art. Patriotism in design; such as bold, proud eagles or the American Flag were seen circulated in the Flash Art sheets. Sentimental symbols of Americana such as Hollywood Starlets, or an ISO sweetheart, were also favored adornments as a reminder of home for troops.

The Traditional style had its critics as machines and artists refined the art of tattooing, but many see the style as a piece of history and a time capsule, so it remains popular today.

Here are some of our favorite American traditional tattoo designs: