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This year with the help of Jack Brown's Tattoo Revival we will be hosting the 23rd Annual Richmond Tattoo Arts Festival at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.
Some of the best work from the nation's top tattoo artists during the Richmond Tattoo Arts Festival at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, Nov. Daryl Rodriguez works on a tattoo for Wayne Franck at the Richmond Tattoo Arts Festival at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, Nov. Tattoo artists work on body art at the Richmond Tattoo Arts Festival, at the Greater RichmondConvention Center, Nov. Alan Berg of Live Free Tattoo in Atlanta, GA uses paper to trace an un-tattoed area on Patrick Bleakney of Ashburn, VA. ? Expand Tattoo by Stan Corona, Photo by Kip Fulbeck Richmond didn’t invent body art, though to look around at times, you might think so. That style usually includes a number of nautical designs including anchors, compasses, stars, and ships, to name just a few of the most common. In the foreground, Fred Pinckard of Salvation Gallery in Richmond works on a tattoo for Alex Turley, also of Richmond.
The reason we recall these images when we think of American traditional tattoos and tattoo art is for two distinct reasons.
The portraits by exhibition designer Kip Fulbeck include some life-size pictures of full-body tattoos.
Behind them, James Cumberland of Black Hive Tattoo in Jacksonville, FL works on Adam Cooper. The first is because those are the symbols used by early tattoo artists who were often themselves sailors. The second is because in American culture, tattooing has historically been a heritage art; a tradition passed down from a teacher to a student. The sailors that were with Cook were fascinated by this art form and brought it back with him to Europe. Essentially, sailors sought to tattoo themselves with images that had meaning to them, as opposed to the traditional designs of the natives from who they had learned the practice. As the sailors had learned from tattoo artists in primitive cultures, they would later teach their own apprentices.
The style of tattooing used by these sailors is referred to as British Naval or British Traditional style. They were characterized by very simple, somewhat crude designs and revolved largely around their lives as sailors, but would occasionally include elements of their personal lives.It was during the civil war that American traditional tattoos really began to stand out as their own distinct style.

In 1870 Martin Hildebrandt, a German-American tattoo artist who’d made his living tattooing members of both the Confederate and Union armies during the civil war, opened the first known tattoo parlor in New York City, NY. The soldiers tattooed in the Civil War often had patriotic or military images tattooed on them, as well as graphic representations of their love for the women they left behind. Religious tattoos of crosses, praying hands, rosaries, and other religious iconography were also common. Reproductions of famous fine art works depicting religious scenes also existed, but were far less common–often seen only on circus performers whose tattoos were their trade.
These themes built the basis for tattoo culture in America and formed the cornerstone of American traditional tattoos.After the invention of the tattoo machine, tattoo culture in America expanded rapidly.
The Spanish-American War was on and some estimates say that at the time over 80% of enlisted men were tattooed. This presented an opportunity for less-skilled tattoo artists to get into the business, but this of course created a new problem. To solve this problem, flash sheets were created to provide unskilled artists a base to work from.
Flash tattoo artists often created designs that were common to a specific locality, but as demand grew a small handful of artists became prominent distributors of these flash sheets, which were available via mail order catalog, leading to a homogenized style.
Just as Captain Cook’s naval voyage introduced him and his crew to the tattoo cultures of the South Pacific, during the turn of the 20th century Japan had become a popular port frequented by American sailors. The artwork itself conveys a sense of tradition, heritage, and importance while the themes used in American Traditional tattoos are still highly relevant today. Modern American Traditional tattoo art keeps the same visual style as classic American Traditional, but incorporates a broader scope of themes and design elements.Many modern or custom American Traditional tattoos are more personalized, but maintain the use of the traditional style and design. These tattoos often employ more cultural references including musical, theatrical, and literary.
That being stated, many American traditional tattoos have meanings that are steeped in tradition and often blended with or borrowed from other cultures.
Hearkening back to the seafaring roots of the style, an anchor represents a tether or something that steadies the ship to keep it from drifting. It is common to see anchors accompanied by the name of a loved one or by a slogan or motto by which the wearer lives their life. The anchor represents security.Nautical Star TattoosThe nautical star, a five-pointed, two-toned star, has largely become purely aesthetic. In sailing, if a ship can see both the port and starboard lights of another boat, it means they are on a collision course and the ship must give way.

The ship typically represents the wearer, while the water on which it sails represents life. Waters may be depicted as smooth or stormy and the scene is often accompanied by rockers spelling out some core belief of the wearer. This is a metaphor for how the wearer feels their course in life has been, or how they’d like it to be. Read more about the meaning of the rose and other flower tattoos on our Flower Tattoos Meanings page.Traditional Swallow TattoosThe swallow tattoo actually derives from the British sailing tattoo tradition. The swallow tattoo suggests that the wearer will always return to, or be loyal to, their friends and family. It also has a connection to turn of the century street fighting in England and Scotland when worn on the back of the hand.To further the symbolism of the swallow tattoo for sailors, it was also believed that a sailor who died at sea would have his soul carried home (or to heaven) by these birds. In both instances the traditional swallow tattoo symbolizes a safe return from a journey.Traditional Dagger or Knife TattooThe image of the knife or dagger is one that appears in many cultures.
The traditional dagger tattoo was common among soldiers in the Army and Marines from WWII on.
For them it not only symbolized death, but life–as well as the tool by which they lived.
A dagger paired with a heart often refers to the wearer having experienced a broken heart or lost love. The meaning of these tattoos is generally derived from the two individual elements, the dagger and the animal.
Most often the skull tattoo will represent death, but it can also represent the idea that we all die, or that life is short. However, the traditional skull tattoo has also been known to signify triumph and rebellion. This is especially true in Mexican culture and in the religious beliefs held by Kabbalists, Hindus, and Christians. It can also be used to represent someone who has survived hard times. A traditional wolf tattoo that features a dagger through the head of the wolf can mean that the wearer has overcome hardship or hard times, as well as a vow to never be defeated by personal struggles.

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