Traditional Tattoos and the Meanings Behind Them

Often people will choose their tattoo based on a meaning that is close to their heart. For that person, it may be a reminder of a special loved one, a cherished memory, or a celebration of an achievement.

Tattoos have been around for millennia, and many indigenous people all over the world have long histories of tattooing. However, when people are discussing Traditional Tattoos, it usually refers to western old-school style tattoos. These tattoos are easily recognizable by their bold black outlines, limited color palette, and easily recognizable classic designs

Iconic Traditional Tattoo Designs and their Meanings

A tattoo is a personal expression of individuality, so it is perfectly okay to use an image you are drawn to convey the meaning it has for you. However, you may be curious what meanings often lie behind some of the most popular traditional tattoos.

Heart Tattoos

You would think this symbol would be easy to understand — heart equals love. That is true, a heart tattoo can represent love or passion. However, depending on the color, number, or position of the heart, it can convey different meanings.

Here are just a few common meanings behind heart tattoos:

  • Red heart — passion and lust
  • Black heart — grief, sadness
  • Yellow heart — new beginnings, friendship type love
  • Linked hearts — connection with another person
  • Crying or bleeding heart — sadness and lost love
  • Half heart — couple or best friends tattoo, one of a pair
  • Three linked hearts — past, present, and future

Ship and Anchor Tattoos

Again, the ship and anchor are popular sailor tattoos and have had various meanings over time. A fully rigged ship often represents the journey around Cape Horn. A sailing ship can also symbolize a call to adventure or the journey home.

An anchor can mean having sailed across the Atlantic or can refer to a sailor who has risen to the rank of Chief or Boatswain. For non-sailors, an anchor can represent power, strength, and stability. Because anchors hold a boat steady, they can be a symbol of stability or a tribute to the person that keeps someone grounded.

Eagle Tattoos

No surprise here. Eagles are a symbol for America. The eagle flies strong, proud, and free.

Rose Tattoos

A rose tattoo is another with a simple meaning — love for another.

According to the Victorian era “language of flowers” different colored roses have the following meanings:

  • Red — love, I love you
  • Dark crimson — mourning
  • Pink — happiness
  • White — I am worthy of you
  • Yellow — jealousy, infidelity

Gypsy Tattoos 

As with horseshoes, another popular traditional design, gypsy tattoos were often thought to bring good luck. Another more subtle meaning is to be on the constant search for happiness.

Swallow and Sparrow Tattoos 

Sailors have used swallow and sparrow tattoos to represent a number of meanings including:

  • One swallow means a sailor has traveled over 5000 nautical miles;
  • Two swallows mean a sailor has traveled over 10,000 nautical miles;
  • The swallow is thought to guarantee the sailor’s return to safety, so one is tattooed at the start of a journey, and the mate is done at the time of their safe return;
  • A swallow between the thumb and forefinger of each hand can symbolize that a sailor has sailed around Cape Horn;
  • If a sailor drowns, the swallow is thought to carry his soul to heaven


Sheri gill

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