Traditional Tattoos and Meanings

Traditional tattoos have long been popular, with good reason. The traditional tattoo style has developed naturally over time, whilst also sticking to its roots. A tattoo is intended to be on you forever so it’s no wonder pioneer artists used symbolism as the basis of their designs. By getting a traditional tattoo you are not only honouring the history of the art form, but you are also getting a piece with strong symbolic value.


A traditional sleeve is a collection of individual traditional styled pieces that cover a whole limb of the body. This type of sleeve is called a ‘patchwork’ sleeve. It’s concept is similar to the practice of quilting, where several small pieces make up a larger piece of art. This is where the name originates from. Generally there will be small gaps of negative space (skin) in a traditional sleeve. It includes designs of multiple different sizing’s from hand sized to ‘filler’ or small pieces.

The point of difference to other tattoo sleeves is that a patchwork sleeve is not restrictive to a single tattoo artist or design; where as other styles, such as Japanese, are usually completed by the same artist, and is one large design which requires a background.


Traditional tattoo flash are designs often inspired from the sheets of the legendary tattoo artists of the past such as Bert Grimm, George Burchett and Sailor Jerry. Purposefully designed to adorn the walls of a tattoo shop, flash designs are usually done in sheets of several hand painted designs, and serve as an outlet for artists to draw the pieces they’d like to tattoo most. More often than not, tattoo flash can also provide inspiration to the customers walking in off the street and can point them in the right direction on what works well as a tattoo.

Every year, we have a charity flash day to celebrate our birthday. This is a day where each of our artists will design sheets of tattoo flash and customer’s will come down, pick off the sheet, and get tattooed. All proceeds from the day are given to the charity of our choice. It’s the perfect opportunity to get your very own piece of custom flash (for a little for a little less money while supporting a good cause). Keep an eye out on our social media platforms to find out when our next charity flash day will be!


Swallows and sailors have a lot in common. Swallows, unlike other birds, tend to return to the same nesting site consistently after travelling long distances in extreme conditions, similar to a sailor at sea. Often seen in pairs when tattooed, it is thought that sailors would get one swallow tattoo to represent setting sail, and would get the other upon their return home.

Furthermore, by having one or more swallow tattoo, it was seen as a reflection of one’s sailing success. Each tattoo acquired was a reflection of the extreme distances the sailor had travelled. Not only was a swallow tattoo seen as a representation of one’s calibre at sea, there was also the myth that if a sailor was to drown on their journey, if they had the tattoo, the bird would lift their soul to heaven.


Sailors were often exposed to sharks on their voyages at sea. By wearing a shark tattoo it was thought to protect you from the perils of the ocean. Sharks have no natural predators and this represents a reluctance to be victimised by others. Sharks have a strong sense of calm yet they are constantly on the move/rarely rest. This is representative of determination and a ‘keep moving forward’ attitude towards life and the ongoing challenges one may face. Whether it is tattooed to motivate you or to symbolise a strong person in your life, the shark is a pretty gnarly tattoo to get done!


Also falling within the Maritime theme is the imagery of a ship. This of course, is a big part of a sailor’s life as it represents freedom. Once you set sail, there are no restrictions holding you back. As sailors are natural explorers, nothing could symbolise adventure more than the biggest tool used to execute their exploration and discoveries.

Furthermore, ships also have a homely nature to them. As this vessel was representative of one’s home away from home and also a means to return home when the time came.

Whilst demonstrating that they have a close connection and identity towards their homeland, this tattoo’s meaning also shows a love for travel and indicates the wanderlust nature of the wearer.


The anchor’s meaning is one of the most literal of tattoo designs. As an anchor will prevent a ship from drifting away, it represents stability and the grounded nature of one’s personality. This may be something that someone sees in themselves when they get it tattooed, or in the personality of a person they want their tattoo to represent.

Traditional anchor designs often have banners reading the name of a loved one, are shown within a scene, or are paired with another traditional motif to create contrast.


You are much more likely to see the design of the love heart shape in traditional tattoo imagery, as this is more representative of the emotion rather than the anatomical organ (although from time to time, you do see this in tattoo designs too).

The heart also originated from the sailors. There was always the risk that when you went on a voyage that you may not make it home. Often away for months at a time, a heart tattoo was a way to keep those you cared about most with you during the toughest times. Sometimes titled with banners and other times on their own, this design takes the idea of wearing your heart on your sleeve rather literally.

Often you will see the tattoo imagery of a crying heart, which is usually a reflection of a broken heart. Heart’s with daggers are also representative of this. Although you don’t have to be heartbroken to get this striking image tattooed on you, it can also be a symbol of making it through heartbreak and coming out stronger on the other side.


Sailors also often got tattoos of roses. With a feminine connotation, the rose would be a symbol of the women that they loved and left behind. Whether that was their mum, wife or lover.

Sparking from Greek mythology, the rose was symbolic of Aphrodite, so it’s not surprising that this image represented the ideas of love and beauty when it was tattooed.

You often will see roses paired with other subject matter. Whether it be to complement the concept (like the natural combination of a rose with a butterfly) or something a little more a juxtaposing.


The meaning of a Traditional dagger tattoo really comes down to the wearer of the piece. On their own, a dagger can symbolise both negative and positive qualities and experiences. This is seen through the symbolism feeling betrayed or experiencing loss. However, a dagger can also be seen to symbolise the personal characteristic of bravery or needing it as ‘protection’.

Much like other Traditional tattoo designs, it can depend on what’s put with them to determine their meaning. When placed with other imagery, the dagger is used to juxtapose the good and bad which we encounter in life. For example, you will see many traditional designs of a rose and dagger; which represents both beauty and pain or that of love and hate.


Contrary to what one may think, the skull symbolises something a little less morbid than an interest in the dead. When you get a tattoo, it’s on you for life. You have committed to this design until you die, so it’s no wonder that skulls are tattooed so frequently to represent the concept of a tattoo alone.

By having a skull tattoo it highlights the ‘you only live once’ attitude and the ability to be able to conquer one of the biggest fears of all, death.

Furthermore, skulls can be seen as homage to the circle of life and it’s infinite nature – for every death, there is new life to come.


The snake as an animal is very adaptable and powerful. Often taking on prey a lot bigger than itself, the snake’s strength comes in its intelligence (and venom). Snake tattoos when seen on their own, are often drawn in a coiled position reflecting a ‘don’t mess with me’ sort of attitude. This is due to the idea that when approached by others, they are capable of striking at any time.

When paired with other animals, they are drawn more of an attacking position in a battle representing wit vs. brawn and the potential that intelligence can conquer after all.

Snakes also tend to shed and emerge with a freshly new skin. This can be seen as a symbol of rebirth. The idea that something in nature can reflect our personalities or experiences is a recurring theme when it comes to tattooed subject matter.


As tattoo designs are often inspired by the natural world it is no wonder why this bright and beautiful insect found its place as a popular traditional tattoo design. Along with their beauty being a meaning in its own right, it’s furthermore the butterflies transformation which make them symbolically special. As butterflies metamorphose (caterpillar – cocoon – butterfly) this tattoo can demonstrate one coming into their own and having an attitude of reinvention.

A butterfly tattoo can also symbolise having a fresh start and being set free whether that is from a troubling relationship or mindset.


As one of the key symbols of America, an eagle tattoo was originally seen as a sign of patriotism or travel. As a land of the free and opportunity a tattoo of an eagle can represent you can achieve whatever you put your mind to.

Furthermore, an eagle attacks its prey from above, is very intelligent and is viewed as the ‘king of the skies’. By wearing an eagle tattoo, you could be representing these sorts characteristics which you see in yourself.

Eagles are spiritual in nature and have underlying meaning within Native American culture. You often see them pop up in different forms of imagery throughout history which is reflective that this as a tattoo will always be a classic!


Wolves travel in packs and are very loyal as animals. They are fierce, work together and represent a ‘no man left behind’ attitude. A tattoo of a wolf can mean one has a strong family foundation and are very protective of their loved ones.

Wolves also have a strong prevalence in Native American culture, where they were thought of as guidance spirit on what path to take next. This is representative of us craving a leadership dynamic and hierarchy. By getting a tattoo of a wolf, it could potentially represent someone important to you or who you look up to.


The owl consistently pops up within different cultures throughout the world and holds consistent symbolic value throughout history. As a natural observer, the owl is considered the ‘wisest’ animal in the kingdom. This is mirrored in someone if they strive to absorb information, are experienced and are great listeners. Whether having an owl tattoo reflects this or is a reminder to you to do so more, it will always reflect a thirst to learn.

Owls also are nocturnal in nature and many people find commonality in this with their sleeping patterns and behaviours. So if you’re a ‘night owl’ this might be the tattoo for you.


Gypsy women are often seen in Traditional tattoo flash and this is mostly to represent their characteristics more than anything else. Gypsies are generally nomadic and free spirits. The women in particular have a reputation for being strong-willed and beautiful. Some also were thought to possess the ability to read the future and are representative of spirituality.

By getting a piece of a gypsy it can be representative of having a bold lady in your life, being in touch with your spiritual side or just generally having a wanderlust essence about you.


A panther refers to any big cat that has a melanic black coat regardless of the species. They are rare in the natural world and each are unique. The panther is a very popular tattoo design as it represents someone who has a ferocious and powerful character. Whether that’s what you see in yourself or who you want to become, a panther tattoo can always be a reminder of having strength. As an animal, they always defend their young which this can represent the characteristic of possessing protective instincts and being close to who you love most.

Panthers lend themselves perfectly to cover-ups due to their density and shape, which is potentially why you see so many older geezers with them placed on the granddad spot (outer forearm) which was a common placement of prison tattoos.


Tigers are solitary animals and are very ferocious in the wild. They are seen as powerful and untameable. By having a tattoo of a tiger, it can represent a lack of desire to follow the crowd and to follow your instincts.

Beyond its obvious powerful nature, a tiger tattoo can further show that someone that is passionate and a free spirit.


Flowers are included in many traditional tattoo designs to cap them off or to add a little variation and juxtaposition to what it’s tattooed with. They are often designed rather simple and generic in old school designs.

However, when flowers are designed to be the star of the show, they are often seen in a bouquet, inside a vase or having a hand holding them. These tattoo designs are not only alluring, but they also demonstrate an idea of growth, enlightenment and beauty.

The distinct style of traditional tattooing developed during the 18th to 20th centuries. The tattooing practice was picked up from native cultures across the world by explorers, sailors and the like. These voyagers put their own spin on traditional tattooing with the result being the emergence of the western traditional tattoo style.

There are countless flash designs which take inspiration from early sailors experiences. You’ll notice a large majority of traditional tattoos are of exotic animals, sexualised women, and of course, anything that falls within the maritime theme. It was not long before the popularity of traditional tattoos increased, and it wasn’t just sailors who wore this style of design.

For a period of time, tattoos were often linked to criminals and people in the circus, however there is extensive evidence to support that their popularity reached those of a higher class also. This highlights that traditional tattoos appealed to many, irrespective of the individuals background or demographic. There has been a considerable shift in attitude towards tattoos over time. Particularly, the variety of subject matter and what it represents and they are now appealing to a wider cross section of society. However, there is still progress to be made.

More popular than ever, traditional artists these days, use tried and tested methods to design pieces which are meant to last (which you can also spot from a mile away!) Often based off old flash designs from the legends of the field, traditional tattoo designs depict simple imagery with clean, bold line work and use a limited colour palette.

By getting a traditional tattoo you are paying homage to the art form and keeping tradition alive. Each motif has its own distinct meaning and these have stood the test of time.

Traditional Tattoo Specialists

All of the tattoos on this page are by artists in our London based parlour.

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London, E2 6EH

020 7175 0133