American Traditional Tattoos and Tattoo Art

I’m a big fan of tattoos, but I’m also very particular about what kind of tattoos I like. Tattoos have existed almost as long as we have in some form or another. In the United States they started to become popular in the 1800s, but they certainly weren’t acceptable for certain members of society.


In the 1890s, American socialite Ward McAllister said about tattoos: "It is certainly the most vulgar and barbarous habit the eccentric mind of fashion ever invented. It may do for an illiterate seaman, but hardly for an aristocrat."

In fact, tattoos at this time were most commonly associated with sailors, "loose" women, and the underbelly of society.

The most popular designs in traditional American tattooing evolved from the artists who traded, copied, swiped and improved on each other’s work. The developed a series of stereotyped symbols that were put on soldiers and sailors of both World Wars. Many designs represented courage, patriotism, defiance of death, and longing for family and loved ones left behind.

The earliest records are from ship’s logs, letters and diaries written in the early 19th century.

Mrs. M. Stevens Wagner in the United States, ca. 1907

Charlie Wagner at work, May, 1947

The American Traditional style tattoo has remained very popular in the tattoo world and happens to be my favorite style. If you’re still trying to grasp the idea of what the American Tradition style is, think Sailor Jerry or Ed Hardy (who has modernized… and in my opinion bastardized the traditional tattoo art form, but whatever you get the idea).

Here are some of my favorite traditional tattoos. Enjoy!

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