Traditional Tattoo Symbols and Meanings

Updated: Jul 28

Old school traditional tattoo’s originated with sailors so many are familiar with the nautical designs.. however some of the meanings behind these symbols may surprise you. It features thick black lines, a bold colour pallet and soft shading. Shapes are simple, almost cartoon like and even today this style still adopts many of the symbols that are associated with sailors.


Anchors


An anchor is seen as the most secure object in a sailors life so is used to represent stability. Anchors would often include the name of a loved one - the person who kept the sailor grounded.


Skull


The traditional skull tattoo is one of the most common designs in tattooing. It has a meaning that can vary by both the wearer and the culture. The most common association is with death.


Swallows


Used to indicate that a sailor had sailed 5000 miles. Due to the swallows migration pattern they are also associated with the idea of return. It was often believed that if a sailor died at sea, birds would carry his soul home to heaven.


Ships


Nautical tattoos have a long history of popularity among sailors and other seafaring professions. For sailors and fishermen ships represent their way of life. Not only do they depend on ships to survive and take care of their families but they can also be seen as adventurous.


Hearts


During long periods away from home hearts were often used to keep loved ones close.


These hearts often read “Mom” or a sweethearts name.


Snake


The snake is the perfect symbol to represent potency and power. Unlike panthers, which are usually depicted in mid-action, snakes are typically shown coiled, hissing and ready to strike. This was set to warn off evil and misfortune.

Dagger


The traditional dagger tattoo was used to represent death and could be combined with other elements to produce deeper meanings. For example a dagger paired with a heart often refers to the wearer having experienced a broken heart or lost love.


Rose


In traditional American tattooing a rose was usually used to represent a woman close to the wearer’s heart such as their mother, wife, or girlfriend.




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