Let’s be honest. If you’re getting your first tattoo you might not necessarily know the difference between an ‘American traditional’ and a ‘neo-traditional’ tattoo. A decade ago, I know I didn’t.
Time to brush-up on your knowledge of varying tattoo styles.
Tattoo virgin? The truth is, it does really help to know what style you are looking for when choosing the best artist for the job.
Also read: A complete guide to tattoo aftercare
First Timer Tips
- Different tattooers specialise in different tattoo styles. Decide on what you want and then find an artist who tattoos in that way. Explore artists on Instagram and find someone whose work you really love. Educate yourself so you can decide on what you want before you book an appointment.
- When contacting a studio you may speak first to a receptionist. Upon consultation, they should advise you which artist in the shop best fits what you’re asking for. It’s good to be able to describe the style you want eloquently so you can be paired up with the suitable tattoo artist. Alternatively, you may contact a tattooist direct which eliminates this step in the process.
- Print off / gather loads of reference and photos. Don’t just find a picture of a tattoo and say to an artist: ‘I want this’. Any good artist will create you a custom tattoo from scratch, never replicate or trace someone else’s work. Be prepared to describe the things you like or don’t like, and what elements of their own work you are drawn to.
- If you really love a tattoo artist’s work, you shouldn’t need to be too specific about how you want it designed. Let them take the lead and decide on what will and won’t work. The best tattoos are when clients have let artists have free reign to create something from scratch. The worst are when we have been too specific and stubborn about what we want.
Let’s move on to exploring tattoo styles. I am going to take you through 20 different terms but this list could be never-ending. There are inventive and original tattoo styles being developed all the time (this article was last updated in 2017).
1. ABSTRACT / SURREAL
The title is pretty self-explanatory. Non-realistic tattoos that might use streaks of colours, unusual shapes and surreal imagery to represent something in an abstract, artistic, unique way.
2. WATERCOLOUR / WATERCOLOR
Watercolour tattoos mimic streaks or spots of colour similar to splashing paint on a canvas. Often the tattoo might be realistic or mainly line-work, and the watercolour effect might be added in the background or around the tattoo as an addition. Watercolour tattoos are, of course, very colourful and are coupled with themes of nature, animals and flowers. They may utilise little or no line-work whatsoever.
3. ASIAN / JAPANESE
Japanese tattooing dates back to 5,000 BCE and therefore one of the most sacred and traditional tattoo styles. Very detailed, intricate artworks that are normally designed to cover a whole limb, back or body-suit. Japanese tattooing follows a very strict set of rules in terms of imagery used and positioning.
A very experienced Japanese style tattooer will have a reason behind every decision made. From the direction of a koi fish to the way an animal might face – every detail is important.
Many believe that a tattoo can only be labeled as ‘Japanese’ if it adheres to these specific, ancient traditions. Imagery includes cherry blossoms, koi fish, lotus flowers, chrysanthemums, peonies, dragons, war dogs and geishas.
4. BLACK AND GREY
Tattoos that use only black ink and watered down black ink (to create grey). Lots of shading, often fine lines and sometimes a dash of white for highlights. This technique of using only the colour black can span many other tattoo styles. Realism, watercolour, geometric… they may all utilise “black and grey”. But more often than not the term is used to refer to monochrome realistic tattoos.
Similar to Japanese/Asian, one of the most ancient forms of tattooing influenced by the traditional tattoos of tribes (Polynesian, Aztec, Maori, etc.). Usually black in colour, often using symmetry and geometrical designs, tribal tattoos are a real test of an artist’s line-work and steady hand.
Pretty self-explanatory! A broad term that can refer to many different styles. A colour design allows an exciting, bold or innovative use of different colours, shading and blending. The techniques for creating a black/grey and a colour tattoo, are very different, and many artists may specialise in only one or the other. A colour artist needs to have an eye for using colour in the best way – they will consider contrast, tones, placement and imagery to make decisions on which colours to use.
7. OLD SCHOOL / TRADITIONAL / AMERICAN TRADITIONAL / “TRAD”
One of the most popular styles of tattooing today. Where tattooing began in the modern sense of the word. Bold solid black outlines, a limited colour palette (primary colours and black) and lots of space between lines. With less detail, these are tattoos that will last. Typically less intricate, traditional tattoos are considered to ‘hold’ well over time, in comparison to other styles. Popular symbols are roses, hearts, daggers, nautical themes, eagles, skulls, diamonds, women’s heads and ships.
8. NEO-TRADITIONAL / “NEO-TRAD”
Like traditional, neo-traditional uses bold outlines to create tattoos that stand the test of time. Compared to traditional tattoos, they are more detailed and more experimental with colour and shading. They often have more dimension but still have the ‘cartoon-y’ look of traditional. They often adhere to the symbology and techniques of traditional, too. Neo-traditional might also merge different styles together and be elaborate with colour. It is an experimental style that can be as unique and custom as possible for the client.
9. NEW SCHOOL / NU SKOOL
Cartoon-like tattoos that are often influenced by graffiti, caricature and hip-hop art. Bubble-like designs, bright colours, exaggerated dimensions. Quite popular with portraits, animals, pets, celebrities, film and TV characters.
A tattoo of someone’s face (and sometimes upper shoulders) – be it a family member, character or celebrity. A realism portrait (like the black and grey one above) mimics exactly what you’d see in the real world and might use a photo as reference. But portraits can essentially be executed in any style.
Designs that use lots of tiny dots in areas where an artist might normally shade or colour. Often the tattoos are geometric and symmetrical (like this mandala) but dot-work can be used in almost anything (animals, flowers, etc).
12. GEOMETRIC / PATTERN-WORK / MANDALAS / SACRED GEOMETRY
Require immense technical skill. Delicate, intricate designs that may incorporate symmetry, shapes, mandalas, patterns and repetition. ‘Sacred geometry’ is used to describe the concept that these patterns mimic the shapes found in our natural world and wider universe. Some artists are more strict at adhering to these universal geometric rules than others. Some are creative with patternwork and are less inclined to follow these ‘sacred’ traditions.
13. LETTERING / SCRIPT / SCRIPT-WORK
Any font can be used to create a tattoo, and gothic lettering has always been popular in tattoos. An artist can create custom lettering for you rather than just tracing something printed off the internet. These tattooists do exist – lettering experts that specialise in creating custom script tattoos with inventive, bespoke, self-made fonts. Like the above by Boz De Niro.
Realism tattoos often use photographs as reference. They replicate something in the real world down to every single last detail. Popular images include animals, portraits, flowers, nature and pets. To exactly replicate a photo onto someone’s skin is a fine art. Do a lot of research into your artist and pick the best. You can spot a poor realism tattoo a mile off.
15. TATTOO FLASH / FLASH-SHEETS
‘Flash’ is the name given for designs drawn or printed on a piece of paper for customers to chose from. It’s typically displayed on the walls of the studio or shared via the artist’s online portfolio. These days, many artists won’t tattoo the same design twice so will regularly create custom flash. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. On the other hand, some tattooists (mainly traditional) create ‘flash books’ and these designs can be bought by other tattooers who wish to use the designs.
The term ‘hand-poke’ actually refers to a technique, rather than a style. Hand-poke tattoos are made with no machines. Specialist artists insert ink into the skin with hand-made tools – no electricity and no buzzing needle sounds. Hand-poke tattoos take a lot longer as the ink is inserted slowly, one dot at a time. Hand-poke is not to be confused with the term ‘stick ‘n’ poke’ – DIY kits that can be bought online that encourage users to tattoo themselves at home… not a good idea. Go to an expert!
17. BLASTOVER / BLAST
Blastover tattoos are executed on top of already existing ink to create a new, secondary layer of design.
Read more: What is a blastover tattoo?
Tattoos inspired by the styles of modern Japanese popular culture. Bright girly colours, adorable animals, the word “kawaii” has come to mean “cute”.
19. TRASH POLKA
A bold style of red and black tattoos attributed to two artists in Germany. Some would argue that others cannot replicate the style and the tattoos that fall under this category are only the ones by these tattooists.
20. BLACK-WORK / SOLID BLACK-WORK
Whilst ‘black and grey’ tattoos use watered-down black ink to create texture and depth, some black tattoos use just black ink. Often bold, block shapes like this rose by Pauly, or fine-line minimalistic designs, black-work tattoos can come in many different forms.
Categories: Advice and Aftercare