Top 10 Old School Tattoos - Famous Old School Designs and Meanings

Tattooing is an old art, but there is a quintessential style associated with the American tradition. Here are the top 10 old-style tattoos.

Shiver me what? You want an old school tattoo? Long before Ed Hardy came into the scene, there was a mighty sailor who left a permanent mark on the tattoo industry. Sailor Jerry, also known as Norman Keith Collins, was a rugged man with a pipe and a penchant for inking Asian-inspired designs depicting life at sea. Born in 1911, Norman Collins learned the art of tattooing at a young age as he hopped freight trains before finally enlisting in the Navy at 19.

Sailor Jerry kept penpals and played the saxophone in addition to his creative tattoo work. As he remained close with Japanese tattoo masters throughout his career, his artistic and accurate handled many average men into the world of body art. Clad with bottles of booze, women, and wild cats, old school tattoos were tough and made their colorful way mainstream.

Make a wise choice, Matey!


She sings a pretty song at sea only to lure men into her evil trap. Or so legend says. Mermaids remain a mystery, yet their beauty endures in a classic and colorful piece befit for your arm. Long a reminder of life at sea and the beauty and mystery of the deep, a mermaid calls to every sailor. Why not answer her song?


Ahoy! Keep your ship stable with a symbol of stability and strength. Anchors are a popular relationship tattoo and are a classic choice for couples that share a love for the sea. As sailors led the tattoo bandwagon as body art pioneers, their ships led the way for all to follow. The anchor boasts the travels and stories of men at sea.

Nautical star

A fitting naval symbol, sailors used the nautical star to guide them on their journey. Today, the nautical tattoo can also indicate a gay or lesbian sexual preference. Stars also signify life at sea, as in the popular Sailor Jerry style. Wrists and arms make a desirable placement area for star tattoos.


Whether they scream “Homeward Bound” or “Mom,” banner and ribboned tattoos are even better when they include a small heart. Banner tattoos can include family names, parents’ names, lover names, or even the name of your trusty ship. “Love. Kills. Slowly.”


She’s got the bosom, and she’s not afraid to flaunt it. Neither is he. Scantily clad women are a tattoo favorite for men. Pin-up styles and retro ladies lead in racy and seductive portrait pieces that have old school flavor. For an Asian inspired tattoo, consider opting for a hula dancer or Native Indian woman in addition to the popular Betty Grable inspired designs.


This sea-faring bird flies miles and miles. Sea-travelers, take note; get your wing tattoos and join the flock. Back, shoulders, ankles, wrists, toes, anywhere really. There’s always room for an avian tattoo. Swallows gained popularity amongst sailors and remain an old school favorite design.

Patriotic eagles or flags

Even the Sailor Jerry clothing line is made in the U.S.A. Keep it real, go old school and support your country with a flag or an eagle tattoo. Sailors and the military alike continue to opt for this old school support of freedom. Patriotic designs can include dog tags, flags, and names of fallen brothers.

Glass bottles

Whether to send a letter off to sea, to celebrate the wild and partying nights, or for those who have chosen a sober path, a bottle is a classic old school tattoo that looks right at home on the arm. Add a ship inside for character, add flags to celebrate freedom and travel, or opt for a skull and crossbones in reference to your pirate ways.

Wild cats

Cats listen to nobody. Enough said.


Feeling lucky or ready to kick no luck to the curb? Roll the dice and opt for a lucky number seven tattoo. Bad luck streak? It’s okay. Roll again. Old school tattoos are all about taking chances and living life on the edge.

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