Chapter One Tattoo

American Traditional Tattoo Showcase

American Traditional Tattoos San Diego: History and Designs

Nothing compares to the timelessness of an American traditional tattoo. With countless iconic images to choose from, selecting the best American-style tattoo might be difficult. Every tattoo is unique, but when getting an American traditional tattoo you’re continuing an emblematic legacy that stems from the early 20th century. The American traditional tattoo requires an artist that understands the features of a successfully designed American-style tattoo. From the necessary linework to the choice of colors, an American-traditional tattoo demands well-crafted artistry to be done well. 

Luckily, Chapter One Tattoo is an industry leader in American traditional tattoos and the studio for getting one of these special tattoos. Let’s explore the history of American traditional tattoos, some of the most classic American traditional designs to choose from, as well as their specific meanings.   

What Are Traditional American Tattoos?

The classic American style is reminiscent of those who made the style so popular originally in the early 1900s and beyond. Some of the forerunners of the classic American tattoo style were heavily inspired by the bold artistry of Japanese tattooing, combining Eastern-style use of imagery combined with bold, bright colors to create a simplistically refined tattoo. Some of the most common features of an American traditional tattoo are saturated designs (complimentary for all skin tones), sharp and black outlining, heavy shading, bold line weights, and bright colors.  

History and Meaning of American Style Tattoos

The first appearance of what we’d consider an American traditional tattoo came in 1907 when individuals not constricted to societal standards began popularizing getting ink. People who had tattoos often operated outside the modern-day formalities of their time, such as sailors, nomadic travelers, or circus performers. The American-traditional trend skyrocketed in popularity during WWII after Pearl Harbor when servicemen fought near Honolulu, a location where tattoos were commonplace with Polynesian culture.

Popular American Design Types and Their Meaning

Every tattoo has a unique meaning, as is the case for each design of an American traditional tattoo. In theory, any image can be designed to abide by the standards of the classic American tattoo style but some images are more commonly pursued than others. Some of the most popular traditional American tattoos include: 

  • Nautical tattoos – Popularized originally by sailors and servicemen in the Navy, nautical imagery is a common American traditional design. Anchors, ships, sailor knots, ships in bottles, and compasses are all common choices for those choosing a nautical theme for their American-style tattoo.
  • Animal tattoos – Animals are a common design choice for many styles of tattoos but have a longstanding place within the traditional American traditional style. Common American traditional animal tattoos include ocean creatures such as sharks, octopi and extend to animals the individual might want to emulate, such as a dragon, tiger, swallow, or eagle. 
  • Religious tattoos – Religion has played a significant role in tattooing for much longer than the origins of the American traditional tattoo but were quickly adopted by American-style tattoo artists. Many of these religious tattoos are inspired by Christian themes, including the cross, the image of Christ, and the rock of ages. 
  • Portrait tattoos – Another popular American traditional tattoo design is the portrait tattoo, common during WWII and still one of the most recurrent designs requested today. Portrait designs include mermaids and sirens, pinup models, and custom portraits of notable figures in history or pop culture, such as Betty Boop. 

How to Choose the Best American Tattoo Design for You?

There are many decisions one needs to consider before choosing a tattoo, whether it’s an original design or one of the many traditional American styles we’ve explored. Choosing the best American traditional tattoo for you should begin with what type of design you’d like best, whether it’s a part of a traditional American tattoo sleeve or your first tattoo. Once an idea of a design has been chosen, it’s time to think about where on the body you’d like it placed. After you know where you’d like the design to be, begin to consider how large the design should be, being mindful of not warping the image with its size or placement. Lastly, make sure to choose a tattoo artist that you can trust who understands the fundamentals of traditional American tattooing that can create and tattoo a design that brings your idea of an American traditional style to life.


American traditional tattoos hold a prominent position within tattoo culture, withstanding the test of time as a popular design choice for many decades. While defined by their bold and simplistic designs, a great-looking American traditional tattoo depends upon a reliable tattoo artist familiar with the perimeters of the classic American style. Chapter One Tattoo prides itself on our captivating designs and trusted artists seeking to create a piece of art you’ll always be happy to display. Check out a few of our artists that specialize in American traditional style to begin choosing a design and book an appointment today!