Tattoo styles and techniques vary greatly and those who consider their first (or next) tattoo may be wondering how to choose the best style for their idea. We shall explain the basic features of the most popular tattoo styles so that you can decide which one – traditional or unconventional – is the right for you. Tattoo artists come up with amazing ideas and the best you can do is find an experienced professional who will give you not only a suggestion for your tattoo design, but which is the best to place it – arm, leg, shoulder, back or foot – so that you do not have issues like color loss or problems with healing. Tattoo studios will show you catalogues with different suggestions and if you do not feel certain about the style and design of your tattoo, you should take your time, talk to the artist and discuss with him your ideas.
Table of Contents
- Tattoo styles and techniques – Old School
- Tattoo styles and techniques – New School
- Traditional Japanese (Irezumi) tattoo style
- Realism and realistic tattoos
- Black and grey tattoos
- Biomechanical tattoos
- Trash polka tattoo style
- Blackwork tattoo style
- Dotwork tattoos
- Polynesian tattoos
- Tribal tattoos
- Watercolor tattoos
- Horror tattoos
- Chicano tattoo style
- White ink tattoos
Tattoo styles and techniques – Old School
Old School, also known as Traditional or American Traditional, is the most famous of all tattoo styles, and when you hear the word “tattoo” this is, probably, the first type that comes to your mind. Old school tattoo style is characterized with bold black outlines, the use of limited colors (typically those are primary colors – red, green, yellow, white, blue) and less details, usually without shades. This style appeared in the 18-19th century when sailors who visited the islands of Polynesia saw tattooed people for the first time. Sailors, constantly being in the power of the wind and sea and depending on the mercy of nature, were very superstitious as life in the sea was very harsh and only strong men survived. They believed that the drawings on their body will protect them from falling overboard or from a shipwreck, etc. One of the most famous traditional tattoo artists who is also considered the founding father of this style is Norman Keith Collins, also known as “Sailor Jerry”. His motto “Good tattoos are not cheap, and cheap tattoos are not good” is still relevant nowadays. Old school tattoo style remains popular and many masters work exclusively in this classic style. The traditional Old school style imagery, which stood the test of time, is closely connected to the ocean and nautical imagery and is often referred to as nautical tattoos. The most popular designs include roses, daggers, hearts, chain anchors, mermaids, pinup female figures, dolphins, skulls, ships, swallows and sparrows, eagles, banners, etc. Those can be surrounded by a motto, names or a significant date.
Neo-Traditional Tattoo style appeared as a development of Old School style and began in the 1980’s . The main features of Neo-Traditional style are the clear contour lines, precise shading, more realistic depth, more detail and color. This style is performed in both color and black colors. Neo-traditional looks more beautiful and brighter compared to Old School style and may merge different styles together in order to create as unique and custom images as possible. Typically, the imagery is two-dimensional and includes the old school themes, but new characters, such as cartoons, appeared and the style features mainly portrait-like images of women and personified animals, skulls, insects, angels, flames, there may be birds – usually crows or owls, animals – wolves, foxes, deer, etc. The images are clear, not as realistic as in the realism style, but they are recognizable. Various signatures, banners and sayings can be included and they fully correspond to the style as the text is done in bright graffiti-style fonts. The concept of neo-traditional differs and within the style there are some varieties – cartoon characters, surrealistic pictures and animals. For example, a traditional bird can carry a package with a motto written on it or a cross can be wrapped with a ribbon with an inscription. Chinese or Japanese symbols are not typical for the style but inscriptions in English and Latin are popular.
Tattoo styles and techniques – New School
New School tattoo style began to develop in the 80’s with the development of new techniques and modern equipment and simultaneously with the rave movement. This style does not have any strict rules and limitations. It is all about free-styling and getting away from traditionalism, presenting unique patterns and custom ideas that haven’t been used before. The main feature is the manifestation of the greatest possible imagination, humor and abstraction. New School tattoo style has many similar elements with graffiti and hip-hop styles – jagged edges and bubbly lettering. The style of tattoos and technique of performance have moved far ahead in terms of ingenuity and have become more vivid, colorful and beautiful. The images are outlined with black contours, and executed in bright colors, the figures are quite large and the inscriptions are clearly readable. The most common images in this style are hearts, crosses, flowers, fire, skulls, angels, female profiles, faces and different symbols of secret societies, surreal images, funny characters of famous cartoons, comics stories, even computer games. Many people are attracted to this style by the freedom in choosing images. The most popular New School tattoo themes and imagery includes fantasy characters, graffiti, bubble lettering, Hip-Hop themes, etc.
Traditional Japanese (Irezumi) tattoo style
Traditional Japanese (Irezumi) tattoo style demonstrates the beauty of oriental culture and many believe that this is one of the most beautiful and mysterious styles in tattoo art. The main motifs of Japanese tattoos were often characters from the ancient tales and legends associated with the sea – koi, dragons and samurai, tigers, geishas, lotuses, cherry blossoms (sakura), sea waves. Often, the motifs are in combination telling a story. The major characteristics of Traditional Japanese style are the detailed images, bold black outlines, bright, contrasting colors and minimal shading. The designs often cover large parts of the body – the back or the arm and have a more 2 dimensional or flat appearance, looking like exquisite prints on fabric. The design of the tattoo is carefully thought of and the style follows strict rules about the positioning, the direction of the image, the colors, etc. Tattoos in Japanese style are difficult as they require a great sense of color from the tattoo master, since the color and clarity of contours is the basis of the style. Oriental tattoos are the choice of both men and women who are fascinated by the beauty and uniqueness of a traditional Japanese tattoo.
Realism and realistic tattoos
Realism is one of the most popular styles of tattooing which requires a highly skilled and professional master, both as an artist and as a tattoo master. The style is extremely difficult as the artist must have excellent skills in working with shadows and volumes. The name of the style speaks for itself – it recreates images with the smallest details, as they would appear in the real world. Many people say that tattoos done well are like a photo on the skin due to the fine art skill. The style is based on shading and color contrasts, lack of large black outlines, volume, exactitude of the image, normal colors or black and white. The imagery of Realistic style tattoos includes people, portraits of celebrities and loved ones, animals, landscapes and various stories from life. A great advantage of the style is the possibility of using both large and small body areas.
Black and grey tattoos
Black and grey is a style which, as the name suggests, uses only black ink and water and white ink to smooth sharpness between different shades. The style is widely used for creating a 3-D effect without using colors and is often considered as a part of realism. The technique is based on diluting black ink in distilled water and depending on the proportion the tattoo artist creates lighter shades. The typical imagery includes skulls, wolves, portraits, religious motifs, knives and daggers, guns, etc.
Biomechanical tattoos, also called biomech is a special style which requires exceptional craftsmanship in working with volumes and shadows to create a realistic picture of complex machinery, pistons, drives and hydraulic nano-bearings peeping through ripped skin. Biomechanics is the style that can greatly change your appearance and make you a cyborg. It is excellent for athletes since tattoos in this style emphasize beautiful body forms. As a style, biomechanical tattoos appeared in the 80s with the release of movies like Terminator and Robocop when tattoo artists began creating mechanically realistic pictures on the body. The main philosophy of the style is to show what is inside and combines humans with machines. The first tattoos in the style most often featured black and white but nowadays the images are characterized by fantastic colors and shades. Most often biomechanical tattoos are placed on the shoulders, arms, legs or back and look like ripped-apart flesh and robotic parts or mechanical elements, artificial organs, joints, etc. The style requires exceptional expertise and even knowledge of human anatomy for an ideal realistic effect.
Trash polka tattoo style
Without any doubt, trash polka tattoo style is one of the most memorable, outstanding and unusual styles of tattoos! The style was created and founded by graphic designers Volko Merschky and Simone Pfaff, a married couple from Germany and was introduced at the Buena Vista Tattoo Club. The artists collected collages from magazines, newspaper clippings and photographs and made graphic sketches. Then, on top of the assembled model, they painted their masterpieces. At that time, they could not even imagine that such manipulations would turn into a kind of technique that artists and tattooists from around the world would take advantage of. The main characteristic of this style is that it is an expression of protest and challenge. If the tattoo is executed masterfully, it is impossible to pass by indifferently as it attracts attention with the bright, provocative and flashy images. Although some artists may use other colors, the classic colors for the trash polka style tattoos are red and black. The imagery features lettering, abstract or geometric shapes, bright flowers, skulls, crosses, etc. combined in a way that generates a chaotic look. As per the founder of the style, Volko – “This style is a combination of “realism and trash; the nature and the abstract; technology and humanity; past, present, and future.”
Blackwork tattoo style
Blackwork tattoo style is fascinating, mysterious and avant-garde art. The very name suggests that blackwork tattoos are characterized by using only black ink to create images and patterns through intense color and precise line work. The roots of tattoos in the style of Blackwork go back to ancient times. These tattoos are typical for the Polynesian style and were brought by sailors. The style is often confused with Tribal tattoos as the black color plays an important role and both styles refer to the ornamental style tattoos. The main difference is that Tribal style relies on the Polynesian tradition, and blackwork has no tradition and is often combined with other techniques, most often with dotwork. A typical feature of blackwork tattoo style is the aesthetics of the simplest forms. The imagery includes a variety of shapes and patterns, abstract images that emphasize geometry and tattoos that completely cover the skin. For example, mandalas are one of the most popular images used in blackwork tattoos. Blackwork tattoos can be a combination of elements. Often, these tattoos are the choice of people who would like to hide obvious defects of the skin, to disguise scars or unsuccessful tattoos.Blackwork tattoos look great both on men and for women. Symmetry, geometry, the purity of shading and the depth of black tone are the typical features of the style and the perfect execution is highly valued and these tattoos are almost always the most expensive ones.
Dotwork tattoo style, also known as stippling, creates patterns using small dots or specks instead of solid lines. Shading and depth is achieved with intensity of dots. The history of style is rooted in ancient times and the huge popularity of the style began in 90s of the 20th century due to the work of the famous English tattoo artist Xed Le Head who is considered to be the “father” of dotwork. The style requires not only patience, but also skill, ability to think graphically in a large scale. Each dot is placed separately which means that an accurate execution is a must and these tattoos take long time. Typically, dotwork tattoos feature geometric shapes, but other designs are possible, depending on the skill of the artist. The tattoos have an interesting effect when you view them from a distance, and when you come closer, you realize that the image is made with dots. The main color of the style is black, sometimes red and very rarely other colors. Dotwork tattoos are perfect for men and women who want an impressive, beautiful, unusual and complex tattoo. The style can be combined with other styles and usually the tattoos are large, voluminous and expressive.
In the culture of Polynesia, tattoos were an attribute of every self-respecting person and by their quality and quantity one could safely judge for the person’s position and level in the social hierarchy. In ancient times almost every Polynesian got a tattoo as people believed that their tattoos displayed their spiritual power or life force. Traditionally, tattooing is a sacred ceremony and personal achievements, society rank and genealogy determined the place of the tattoos. Since the head was considered to be the most sacred part of the body, face tattoos are typical. Polynesian tattoos include a variety of styles – Samoan, Maori, Tahitian – as each island has its own traditions. The ancient style features mainly simple patterns like straight lines and these geometrical tattoos are found in the tattoo traditions of Hawaii and Samoa, Fiji, Palau, Tonga, The Marquesa Islands, Easter Island, New Zealand, etc. Those who are interested in Polynesian tattoos and would like to understand their meaning would have to take a close look at each particular island cultural heritage. However, despite the diversity in traditions and customs, there are some tattoo meanings which are typical for all island cultures and they are rank, courage, talisman, sexual maturity, etc.
Tribal tattoos are the oldest style of tattooing and come from ancient times. The boom of this style was in the late 20th century with the release of the magazine Tattoo Time. Tribal tattoos feature black color, often using symmetry and geometrical patterns and designs, a lot of intersecting lines with pointed ends. Tribal tattoos include many cultures – Polynesian, African, Native American, Celtic, Mayan and Aztec and each one has its own symbolical meaning which is significant to the tribe’s culture and traditions. These tattoos are usually the choice of men, and many athletes and wrestlers choose them as they emphasize the body muscles and look very masculine. However, one should not forget that to some cultures tribal tattoos bear spiritual energy and physical strength but in general they represent the heritage of culture and tradition, and when choosing one for your body you should understand the meaning of the tattoo. Modern tribal tattoos feature a variety of motifs and patterns, large figures of animals, wings, etc. They can be placed anywhere on the body but large designs are best placed on the back. Smaller tattoos can be placed on the wrist or on the foot.
Watercolor tattoo style is a relatively new trend in tattoo art and was founded by Amanda Wachob who achieved a unique similarity of tattoo and watercolor drawing and the tattoos in this style look as if painted with brushes. Light, colorful and bright, the style creates truly pleasant emotions. Watercolor tattoos have no outlines and the splashes and streaks of color are used artistically, imitating the brushstroke aesthetic, to create an impression of paint on canvas. The style has developed and the imagery includes numerous designs – flowers, portraits, animals, butterflies and mythical creatures, various signs, abstract motifs, landscapes, etc. The style can be combined with other styles, and although, originally there are no outlines, depending on the particular design you may have some solid contour which will define the background of the tattoo.
Lettering tattoos feature a range of the simplest tattoos of letters to stylized designs in a variety of fonts. The style is perfect for those who would like to make a statement or express their feelings. There are numerous options to choose from as well as fonts and despite that the most popular choices are gothic, intricate or swirly fonts, the options are, practically, unlimited. Ambigrams which incorporate two (or more) words together in one tattoo are also very popular. The typical tattoos feature song lyrics, famous quotes or phrases, passages from the Bible or from a favorite book, poetry, etc.
Tattoo in the style of horror is the transfer of the horror film genre to the human body. The imagery includes mysticism and occultism, dark creatures, characters from horror films, monsters and usually this style is the choice of fans of the genre. Tattoos in horror style do not follow any strict limitations on size, color, technique and location. Colors, black and grey technique or other techniques and styles can be used – realism or surrealism, biomechanical or bio-organic elements and even if this style is not accepted by the majority of people, there are many others who find it attractive, especially because the tattoos require a high level of professionalism and skills
Surrealism is an unusual tattoo style, influenced by the work of Salvador Dali, which is attracting attention and is balancing between reality and abstraction. It is worth noting that the very name of the style came to us from the French language and means “super reality” – something that raises us above the ordinary and makes us look at things from a different perspective. The style is appealing to those who value freedom, emotions and question the values imposed by society. Tattoos in this style require an ideal taste and accurate transfer of ideas and details onto the body. The designs include numerous images – from Salvador Dali to scenes from miraculous dreams, fantasy monsters and incredible creatures, bizarre people, abstract ornaments and patterns, etc. Many tattoo artists prefer to work in this style, because it allows you to show all your talent and imagination.
Chicano tattoo style
Chicano style origins back in the 1940s when such tattoos were typical for members of the underworld and defined their belonging to gangs. The style was popular among Latin Americans living in the USA. The distinctive features of Chicano style are the clear contours, use of black color, shadows, high contrast. Typically, Chicano style tattoos feature saints – Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, Saint Lucas, various crosses and religious phrases. Around the 1950s, images of Santa Muerte (the image of holy death) appeared that came from a religious cult in Latin America – tattoos depicting the faces of women stylized as death. Modern Chicano style tattoos include a range of images and often feature additional colors.
White ink tattoos
In the world of tattoo art, White ink tattoos are considered to be one of the most stylish and fashionable trends. The technology is almost the same as the one of conventional tattoos, but the use of white pigment makes them unique and unlike other types of tattoo. The main advantage of white ink is that the tattoos are less noticeable compared to the traditional black outline. On the other hand, white ink tattoos are quite contradictory and there are many arguments against them. Some people think they look like a scar or skin discoloration. Another major argument against white ink tattoos is that they may fade away or turn yellow. Most tattoo artists use additional colors like pink, blue or any other pigment which will hold the white ink. Mandala, lace and tribal tattoos, elegant and feminine designs such as dragonflies, wings and flowers look great when done with white ink and the darker your skin, the better the tattoo will look.
Of course, as any art, tattoos come in a variety of styles and each one has its own characteristics and technique. In addition to the most popular ones that we listed above, one can choose from many other tattoo styles – portrait, illustrative, graffiti, geometric, polygon, sketch style, fine line, abstract, steampunk, stick and poke, cartoon / anime tattoos, stonework style, religious tattoos, etc.