Is there any image that screams “America” more than that of the majestic bald eagle? First off, it’s the United State’s official emblem; enough said. But on top of this, eagles are apex predators. They are also extremely beautiful and fearsome creatures, making them one of the most sublime sights to behold in nature. Not to mention, it was a bald eagle that went after President Trump’s hair plugs not too long ago. For reasons like these, eagles have been a longstanding motif in traditional tattoos, spreading their massive wings on people’s bodies for more than a century.
On June 2, 1782, the bald eagle was selected as the official symbol of the US by the Second Continental Congress after a six-year debate among the founding fathers. One of the nation’s greatest myths comes from this dispute: it’s commonly said that Ben Franklin argued for the turkey, but this isn’t true, but thank God we got the eagle. It wasn’t until the secretary of Congress at the time took the best elements of his colleagues’ proposals that The Great Seal of the United States was born, or should we say hatched.
Traditional tattoos of bald eagles are evocative of other meanings than just good old-fashioned American patriotism, though. Most of their symbolism stems from maritime history, where they became related to other themes of life on the high seas. Aside from being a marker of national identity, bald eagles were also seen as emblems of power, heroism, and courage. But, above all else, these predatory birds are representative of freedom. From the perspective of 19th century sailors, seeing an eagle take flight from a seaside cliff would have been incredibly inspirational, like looking at a life lived without inhibitions. So it’s only natural that they became a insignia of independence and sovereignty in the domain of body art.
To see more traditional tattoos, soar on over to these tattooists' Instagrams. If you want to show that you’re proud to be an American, get an eagle tattoo. Better yet, get one by from one of these artists. There’s no better way to show that you bleed red, white, and blue.
This was a high flying installment of our series Bold that Holds, where we explore the history and symbolism of motifs from the traditional style. We hope you found looking at these tattoos of America’s national icon — the bald eagle — as thrilling as we did. If you want to learn about more classic designs, check out these previous posts about anchors, reapers, pigs and roosters, phonographs, the Sacred Heart, lighthouses, and the Rock of Ages design.