How to Draw Traditional Style Tattoos: Step-by-Step Tutorial

The American traditional tattoo style, sometimes called “old school tattoos,” is one of the most popular styles, featuring bold lines and limited colors. And while all traditional style designs are 2-D and look simple, if you’re an aspiring artist who has tried drawing it yourself, then you know it’s not as easy as it looks.

On top of that, because American traditional tattoos have been around for so long, they also come with lots of rules and norms that most artists follow when designing.

In this article, we’ll break down the rules you need to know, go over popular themes and imagery, and explain how you can draw, paint, and tattoo in the American traditional style like a pro.

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • The background of American traditional tattoos
  • Step-by-step tutorials explaining how to draw popular traditional designs
  • How to paint traditional flash with the “spit shading” technique
  • Tips and tricks for tattooing traditional tattoos (and how to “fill” traditional sleeves)

Background: What is American Traditional Tattoo Style?

Sailor Jerry working in a tattoo shop

Before we get into drawing traditional tattoos, it’s important to understand that, as a tattoo artist, you’ll be expected to know a bit about the background of traditional tattoos and how they still affect tattooing today. 

Traditional style tattoos took form in the 1930-40s when soldiers would tattoo patriotic symbols on one another using simple designs. This imagery inspired Sailor Jerry, who then perfected the style that later became so popular.

Today, while the designs can portray just about anything, all American traditional tattoos have the same aesthetic:

  • Thick black lines that are all one line weight
  • Use only traditional tattoo colors (red,yellow, green, and black)
  • 2-D designs meant to resemble drawings

Why Old School Tattoos are Still Important for New Artists

When it comes to traditional tattoos, some artists fall in love with the style, and others…not so much. However, even if American traditional style isn’t your favorite, we recommend at least getting a little bit of experience with them for 2 reasons:

1

If you’re an apprentice, you’ll be expected to learn the old school tattoo style.

Most tattoo artists will want their apprentices to be able to draw every tattoo style well, and that includes American traditional. If you want to get an apprenticeship, you should have traditional tattoo drawings in your portfolio.

2

Studying American traditional style is the fastest way to learn tattoo design if you can’t draw. 

While the American traditional tattoo style does have a lot of rules, it is the easiest style to learn if you need to work on your drawing skills. It’s a 2-D style and uses elements your clients will want for the rest of your career like roses, skulls, anchors, daggers, animals, etc.

The Difference Between American Traditional Tattoos and Neo Traditional Tattoos

Because neo traditional tattoos were born from the traditional style, the line between the two can sometimes seem blurry. When you’re looking at a tattoo and see that it has different line weights and uses colors outside the traditional palette of red, yellow, and green, then the tattoo is neo traditional. The different line weights used can also make a neo traditional tattoo seem like it has more “depth” than an American traditional tattoo.

traditional american tattoo of a panther
 neo traditional panther tattoo

Tutorials: How to Draw Traditional Style Tattoos

When you’re drawing traditional tattoos, you’ll only use one line weight, meaning all your lines will have the same “thickness.” (You’ll follow this rule while tattooing, too, by only using one round liner, usually a 14 RL.)

While we’ll be diving into roses, skulls, and swallows in this article, we recommend creating every design in stages, no matter what you’re drawing.

How to Draw Sailor Jerry Roses:

traditional rose drawing tutorial
American traditional tattoo style
traditional tattooing rose

Step 1: Draw 2 circles on a sheet of tracing paper.

Step 2: Draw general shapes to find the basic form of the petals.

Step 3: Add more specific details (petal shape, the inside of the rose) and start to define your linework

traditional style rose linework
rose in the traditional tattooing style
rose design in the traditional tattoo style

Step 4: Add any extra flourishes (in this image, the stem, leaves, and curlicues are added).

Keep this linework to make your stencil.

Step 6: Using a lightbox, trace your final design onto thicker paper and add in your shading.

Step 7: Add color to your design.

traditional rose drawing tutorial
American traditional tattoo style
traditional tattooing rose

Step 1: Draw 2 circles on a sheet of tracing paper.

Step 2: Draw general shapes to find the basic form of the petals.

Step 3: Add more specific details (petal shape, the inside of the rose) and start to define your linework

traditional style rose linework
rose in the traditional tattooing style
rose design in the traditional tattoo style

Step 4: Add any extra flourishes (in this image, the stem, leaves, and curlicues are added).

Keep this linework to make your stencil.

Step 6: Using a lightbox, trace your final design onto thicker paper and add in your shading.

Step 7: Add color to your design.

How to Draw Traditional Skull Tattoos:

how to draw traditional tattoo skulls
skull drawing tutorial
tattoo artist skull
how to sketch skulls

Step 1: Draw a circle to make the basic shape of the head.

Step 2:

Add a smaller oval to outline the jawline.

Step 3: 

Place guidelines to map out the eyes and nose.

The guidelines cross wherever you want the skull to be facing.

Step 4: Roughly sketch in the eyes, nose, mouth, and bone structure of the face.

skull drawing
sailor jerry skull tattoo
traditional skull
skull tattoo

Step 5: Start refining the skull’s facial features and adding in details like cracks and indentions.

Step 6: Use thicker lines to create a strong outline.

Step 7: Add any additional elements.

Additional elements can include crossbones, snakes, flowers, etc.

Step 8: Add shading and color to your design.

how to draw traditional tattoo skulls
skull drawing tutorial
tattoo artist skull
how to sketch skulls

Step 1: Draw a circle to make the basic shape of the head.

Step 2:

Add a smaller oval to outline the jawline.

Step 3: 

Place guidelines to map out the eyes and nose.

The guidelines cross wherever you want the skull to be facing.

Step 4: Roughly sketch in the eyes, nose, mouth, and bone structure of the face.

skull drawing
sailor jerry skull tattoo
traditional skull
skull tattoo

Step 5: Start refining the skull’s facial features and adding in details like cracks and indentions.

Step 6: Use thicker lines to create a strong outline.

Step 7: Add any additional elements.

Additional elements can include crossbones, snakes, flowers, etc.

Step 8: Add shading and color to your design.

How to Draw Old School Style Swallows:

traditional tattoos drawing tutorial
swallow tattoo design
american traditional tattoo tutorial
traditional tattoo of a swallow

Step 1: Start with the general body shape.

It might help to think of this shape as a heart or pair of lips.

Step 2:

Add a simple eye and beak.

Step 3: Refine the lines of the body, including the belly line.

Some artists keep the beak as a separate piece, or you can join the beak, head, and neck into a seamless line.

Step 4: Draw the guideline for the front wing.

It might help to think of this as an “M” shape.

swallow design for old school tattoos
sailor jerry swallow tattoo
american traditional swallow tattoos

Step 5:

Add the flourishes to the front wing.

These flourishes are especially important if you’re tattooing black and grey, as they will help you break up the shading between the wing and belly.

Step 6:

Fill in the feathers.

Step 7:

Add the tail.

Note that the dip in the tail lines up with the belly line.

Step 8: Draw the guideline for the back wing.

Step 9:

Add the flourishes to the back wing.

Make sure this piece mirrors the flourishes on the front wing.

Step 10:

Fill in the feathers.

Step 11: Clean up your linework.

In this step, you’d use a new layer of tracing paper (or a new layer on Procreate) to put together a more polished version of your sketch.

Step 12: Shading and Color

Swallows have lighter feathers on their stomach, so you’ll want to keep it a light color (or avoid heavily shading that area if you’re doing black and gray).

traditional tattoos drawing tutorial
swallow tattoo design
american traditional tattoo tutorial
traditional tattoo of a swallow

Step 1: Start with the general body shape.

It might help to think of this shape as a heart or pair of lips.

Step 2:

Add a simple eye and beak.

Step 3: Refine the lines of the body, including the belly line.

Some artists keep the beak as a separate piece, or you can join the beak, head, and neck into a seamless line.

Step 4: Draw the guideline for the front wing.

It might help to think of this as an “M” shape.

swallow design for old school tattoos
sailor jerry swallow tattoo
american traditional swallow tattoos

Step 5:

Add the flourishes to the front wing.

These flourishes are especially important if you’re tattooing black and grey, as they will help you break up the shading between the wing and belly.

Step 6:

Fill in the feathers.

Step 7:

Add the tail.

Note that the dip in the tail lines up with the belly line.

Step 8: Draw the guideline for the back wing.

Step 9:

Add the flourishes to the back wing.

Make sure this piece mirrors the flourishes on the front wing.

Step 10:

Fill in the feathers.

Step 11: Clean up your linework.

In this step, you’d use a new layer of tracing paper (or a new layer on Procreate) to put together a more polished version of your sketch.

Step 12: Shading and Color

Swallows have lighter feathers on their stomach, so you’ll want to keep it a light color (or avoid heavily shading that area if you’re doing black and gray).

Wing Styles

You might want the wings on your swallows to be in different positions. The most important part of drawing these wings is remembering that the base of the wing always starts at the same place on the bird, no matter what position the wing is in. As long as you start the line in the right place, it’ll be easier to draw the wing in a natural position.

Tail Styles

Some artists like to add extra details to the tail. If you add details, sure you leave enough space so that when the tattoo ink expands overtime, you’ll still be able to see each individual line.

Other Common Imagery in Traditional Tattoos

Butterflies, moths, wolves, tigers, bears, panthers, snakes, eagles, owls, hourglasses, skulls, portraits, pin up girls, guns, and daggers are all common elements in traditional tattoo design.

american traditional bear tattoos
traditional panther tattoos

Additionally, because so many sailors in the early 1900s were tattooed, nautical themes are found often in American Traditional like anchors, lighthouses, mermaids, ships, sharks, octopuses, messages in a bottle, compasses, and rope.

Some of these elements can be used to create a better “flow” on the body. For example, using a dagger in your designs can emphasize the lines of the body, while using a rope “frame” makes designs more circular to fit rounded areas better.

american traditional dagger tattoos
sailor jerry traditional dagger tattoo
sailor jerry eagle tattoo art

How to Paint Traditional Style Designs

After you are happy with your line work, you’ll put in your shading first and then add color. We recommend using Doc Martins watercolors of Copic markers.

Know Where to Put Shading

Even though traditional tattoos are meant to look 2-D, they still have shading. Generally, you will place shading in areas that are:

  • Further away from your eye (if the object were 3-D)
  • Are “underneath” another object

Don’t Let Shading Hide Your Linework

Sometimes, you’ll use shading to hide areas of your linework (especially if you make a mistake). However, adding shading on both sides of a line can make the design look flat and merged together.. The best way to avoid this is to leave gaps between areas of shading on one or both sides of a line.  

For example, leaving gaps between areas of shading on this rose makes it easier to see each petal. Without breaking up the shading, the rose has an awkward black circle in the middle (see the first and second image below).

Additionally, only shading on one side of the line adds dimension to the design. If you added shading on both sides of the line (like in the third image), it would be hard to make the middle of the rose bud pop.

Good

Bad

Worse

Spit Shading

Getting smooth shading with watercolor can be difficult if there’s too much water on the page. This is why some artists will use two paint brushes to “spit shade” instead.  

Step 1: Dip your first paint brush into your water.

Step 2: Put the paint brush with water in your mouth. Remove excess water on your tongue.

Step 3: Dip your second brush into your watercolor.

Step 4: Apply watercolor to paper where you want the color to be the most saturated.

Step 5: Using your first paint brush (the “spit” brush) with its minimal water, move the watercolor so that it fades out.

We recommend moving the brush in a wave or “S-shaped” motion to help fade it out evenly.

Step 6: Repeat the process as needed for your design.

Step 1: Dip your first paint brush into your water.

Step 2: Put the paint brush with water in your mouth. Remove excess water on your tongue.

Step 3: Dip your second brush into your watercolor.

Step 4: Apply watercolor to paper where you want the color to be the most saturated.

Step 5: Using your first paint brush (the “spit” brush) with its minimal water, move the watercolor so that it fades out.

We recommend moving the brush in a wave or “S-shaped” motion to help fade it out evenly.

Step 6: Repeat the process as needed for your design.

Note:

Make sure the watercolors or India ink you’re using is non-toxic before practicing spit shading.

How to Add Color 

Just like tattooing, you always want to put in your darkest ink colors first. This is why you should always fill in areas that need black shading first before moving onto your colors. If you add it later, the water from your colored ink will pick up the black and make it dark and dull.

For traditional designs, you would add color in this order: black, green, red, and yellow.

If you don’t want to color your designs with watercolor, you can use markers (like Copics) instead.

Using Markers to Simulate Watercolor

If you struggle with painting, you can use Copic markers to simulate the “fade” of watercolor by using descending shades right next to each other.

Pro Tip: 

To get that “old paper” look, you can stain the paper with coffee. Do this before you paint if you’re using watercolors, as watercolor is soluble even after it’s dry. This is not recommended if you’re using Copic markers, since you’ll be working on digital photo paper that won’t stain well.

Plan Out Where You’ll Add Skin Breaks

When you’re painting a design, you want to consider where to leave white space. This white space will later be skin breaks when you’re tattooing. Skin breaks are important to your tattoos because you can use them as “highlights.”

Instead of adding white ink to your design (which will fade over time because it’s lighter than skin tone) you can use skin breaks to create highlights that will never fade.

Additionally, using skin breaks makes the tattoo faster to complete since you won’t be trying to saturate the skin tone.

Background

To add extra color and dimension, many traditional tattoos will have small areas of red in the background of their traditional tattoos. Because red is a powerful color, it works great for making tattoos “pop” against the skin.

american traditional eagle tattoo
american traditional tattoo style

How to Tattoo Traditional Style

The American traditional tattoo style has been around for nearly 100 years. And in that time, tattoo artists have created an iconic aesthetic. Knowing what tools to use can help you create that same “old-school look” on your clients.

Needle Groupings for Traditional Tattoos

Traditional tattoos can be tricky because you really want to get all the lines in one pass. While other styles make it easier to cover mistakes up, American Traditional is known for its thick, bold lines created with a 14 round liner.

For shading and color packing, you should always go with the largest mag you can use for the design. A lot of traditional artists use flat mags instead of curved mags, since flat mags were the only option back when the old school style was developing.

Pro Tip: Use One Medium

A lot of artists believe that old school tattoos age better because they use thick lines and lots of black ink. In theory, this prevents them from fading, and because the lines are spaced out, they won’t blur together as they expand over time.

Ink Color Suggestions

American traditional tattoos use red, green, yellow, and black ink only. By now, you’ve probably noticed that each of the colors are a very specific and vibrant shade. If you’re not sure where to pick them up, here’s a quick list of our favorites:

American Traditional Sleeve “Filler”

American traditional tattoos have very defined shapes and edges. They don’t flow into one another the way other styles (like Japanese) would, unless you plan out the sleeve in advance (see images below). If a client knows that they want a full sleeve, it’s easier to create a design that leaves very little “blank space.” 

traditional ship tattoos
American traditional tattoo designs

More often than not, your customers will have a bunch of smaller tattoos that they want combined into a full sleeve. Luckily, there are a few ways you can “fill” in the area and maintain the traditional tattoo style, even if they don’t have space for a full design.

Speckled Stars Filler

For tiny spaces where even small designs won’t fit, artists will use dots and simple five-point stars to fill in gaps. Even though both clients in the images below have similar tattoos, the sleeves on the right appear more “full” because the gaps are filled. 

american traditional tattoo design

Note:

Spiderwebs are often used around the elbows on American Traditional sleeves.

All-Black Filler 

If your client wants a darker sleeve, you can fill in empty spaces with plain black ink or clouds.

If you want to use plain black ink, you can still make random shapes look cohesive by mimicking other designs. In the image on the left, the artist filled in extra space with black shapes but used the scalloped edges from the actual designs in the sleeve. This makes the extra shapes less noticeable and feel like they’re meant to be a part of the sleeve.

Clouds are a great way to fill in extra space (particularly around ships, anchors, and other nautical imagery). In the image on the right, the artist used both black and grey and colorful clouds to pull different designs into one sleeve. 

American traditional tattoos
ship tattoos

Floral Filler

If a client has room for a flower, you can fill surrounding crevices with leaves, curlicues, and smaller flower buds. Because these are organic shapes and can flow in nearly any direction, they’re a great option for filling awkward gaps (see images below).

traditional american tattoo
american traditional tattoo style flower
American traditional tattoos

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning about different tattoo styles is an important step in your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist.

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits.

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full time faster…

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain. When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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  1. Hey Nathan this is Jordan, a student from last year or so that wasnt able to afford your class in the long run, I needed a refund because of issues at home : (.. I'm not sure if you remember me or not…. I have several things I'd like to talk with you about, one concerning any possible way we could get me back in with you guys! I've already worked in a shop for a year tattooing since the first day but I've never been apprenticed and I have alot of set backs in the town I live in… which I'll tell ya later if you're concerned. anyways get back to me bro

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