Full Guide to Tattoo Styles

Tattoos have been used by human cultures for many centuries as a way of connecting with ancestors, displaying triumphs in battle and other achievements, expressing religious affiliations, bestowing special powers, or protecting from evil spirits.

For those who are interested in having a tattoo done, the choices can seem overwhelming. There are so many designs that it can be tough to make the right choice.

There are also many artistic styles from which to choose, and deciding on one is not always easy. To this end, here are some of the most popular tattoo styles.

1. Traditional

One popular story goes that as Captain Cook sailed around the new world, he and his crew came into contact with many indigenous cultures where tattooing was traditional.

As the good Captain made plenty of notes during his travels, he also purportedly introduced the whole idea of tattooing to the colonial new world.

It’s a neat story but not quite true. While Captain Cook certainly noted how many people he came into contact with had tattoos, he was definitely not the first to notice.

There were other explorers before him and indeed many other people who were already well aware of tattooing designs and practices.

The American Traditional tattoo is a big part of the introduction of the art of tattooing to a Western audience. It features bold lines, classic motifs, and eye-catching colors.

Designs include anchors, red roses, daggers, sailing ships, eagles, horses, Native American heads, and the heads of exotic looking ladies.

The Traditional American tattoo is hugely popular and is a great one to have as your very first tattoo. The designs are timeless and the bold lines and bright colors make it easy on the eye.

You should consider getting a Traditional tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You are new to tattoos and you want some ink that’s easy on the eye.
  • You enjoy traditional motifs, such as sailing ships and the anchor.
  • You enjoy bold line work.

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2. Watercolor

If you’ve ever seen watercolor paintings, you probably know how beautiful they can look. Those splashes of color seem to float on the paper and the way that they bleed into one another almost seems haphazard.

It’s a difficult style of painting to master, and for many tattoo artists looking for the next big thing, it lends itself to something unique in the studio too.

The watercolor tattoo is basically a reproduction of the watercolor painting style in tattoo form. This means splashes of color that seem to be soft and ethereal, as well as a distinct lack of bold outlining. However, some tattoo artists do use thin black lines just to outline their designs.

You’ll find green, purple, pink, yellow, blue, and other eye-catching colors used in the watercolor tattoo style. Subjects include copies of famous watercolor paintings, as well as flowers, swirling colorful designs, fish, birds, and anything else that lends itself well to this unique style.

You should consider getting a Watercolor tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You enjoy watercolor painting.
  • You love the watercolor aesthetic that sports bright colors and optical blending.
  • You want something different from the norm.

Related Post: 5 Mini Watercolor Tattoo Ideas

3. Mixed Media

Mixed media tattoos are an exciting new trend in body art. Mixing styles and design elements creates unique and striking tattoos that are strikingly contemporary. These tattoos take the tattooist’s art to a new level of visual sophistication.

Related Post: Mixed Media Tattoos: When Ink Meets Fine Art

4. New School

New School is one of those aesthetics that owes a lot to the popular culture of the 80s and early 90s in America. If you have a fondness for those early morning weekend cartoons that played on cable, then the New School style might just appeal to you.

New School is directly inspired by these pop cultural motifs that were a huge part of childhood memories for many people of a certain generation. Using striking colors and animated styles, there’s something here for most people, from Anime characters to cute cartoon cats.

You should consider getting a New School tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You have an affinity for those old 80s and 90s morning cartoons or love anime.
  • You love the quirky look of New School tattoos.
  • You enjoy the use of bold and bright colors.

5. Japanese

While traditional Japanese tattooing has sometimes been associated with criminal organizations such as the Yakuza in recent years, this is rapidly changing as a whole new generation explores Japan’s rich cultural and artistic history.

Also known as Irezumi, traditional Japanese tattooing became hugely popular during the Edo period between the 17th and 19th centuries. Based on traditional Japanese woodblock art, the tattoos are striking in their appearance and lend themselves very well to large applications, such as the whole of the back.

One of the most unique things about Irezumi is how they tell a story about Japanese history and mythology. Such tattoos include subjects such as dragons and other creatures from Japanese folklore. They are rich in both meaning and design, and often look like vast organic pieces filled with drama and color.

You should consider getting a Japanese tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You have an affinity for tattoos that are rich in cultural heritage.
  • You enjoy the Japanese aesthetic, including traditional woodblock art.
  • You want a large space on your body filled with ink.
  • You connect with Japanese history and culture.

Related Post: The History and Symbolism of Japanese Hannya Tattoos

6. Word

Word or letter tattoos are a popular alternative to images. Single word tattoos have become especially desirable. Sources include literary works, songs and movies. Whatever you choose, there are also design considerations before you get inked.

Related Post: Ink that Speaks Volumes: Word Tattoos

7. Blackwork

As the name suggests, Blackwork tattoos are done using black ink only. From bold lines and geometric ornamentation, to striking black roses and richly detailed portraits, Blackwork has no set subject matter.

In many ways, the use of black ink harks back to the very roots of tattooing in early human cultures. Monochromatic tattoos like this can be incredibly powerful and many people love their aesthetic.

Even though only black ink is used, the clever use of negative space and bold lines and shapes can produce visual rhythms that produce amazing artwork.

You should consider getting a Blackwork tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You want something both simple in style and striking.
  • You enjoy a monochrome look.

Related Post: What does a Solid Black Arm Band Tattoo Mean

8. Abstract

If you’re not especially interested in many of the more traditional tattoo styles, Abstract may be for you. Much like the Surreal style, Abstract is mostly concerned with experimentation.

In the same way that famous New York school artists such as Mark Rothko eschewed traditional realist painting, the Abstract tattoo style uses shape, line, rhythm, and mark to symbolize deeper meanings or simply excite the eye.

Whether you want a stylish flourish of curved lines across your shoulder in multiple colors, or a striking geometric piece in Blackwork that has profound personal meaning to you, the Abstract tattoo style is for those who want something personal, deep, symbolic, and unique.

You should consider getting a Traditional tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You have an eye for abstract art.
  • You want something unique that has deeper personal meaning.

Related Post: Triangle Tattoos To Inspire Your Next Ink

9. Tribal

Modern tribal tattoo styles have their roots in our ancient past. Across many human cultures, tattoos have been important in rituals, in initiation rites for young men, as war decorations, and in denoting one tribe from another.

To say that tribal tattoos have a long history is something of an understatement. Really, our whole modern tattoo culture has roots in a variety of tribal cultures where marking the body through both scarification and tattooing was important.

Related Post: Tribal Tattoos and Their Meanings

10. Biomechanical

Remember how the alien looked in the movie of the same name? Or, how cool the Terminator looked in the movie with all of its exposed metallic and chrome internals and red eyes? If this look appeals to you, you might also appreciate the biomechanical tattoo style.

The big name we tend to associate with the biomechanical look is HR Giger. He devised the look of the alien in the movie, with its sleek head and black skeletal outer coverings.

There’s no doubt it looked menacing and very disturbing at the time. In fact, some of it looked almost like machinery, and this is where the term biomechanical comes in.

Of course Giger was not the only one to explore this rather disturbing hybrid of human and machine. These days, the biomechanical look draws inspiration from films such as Alien and The Terminator, but also expands it.

Whether you want a tattoo on your shoulder that looks as if a cyborg circuit is exposed, or a tattoo that looks like a half chrome skull and half bicep muscle, this style is for you.

You should consider getting a Biomechanical tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You enjoy movies and fiction with biomechanical themes.
  • You like the cyborg look.
  • You want something visually striking and unique.

11. Celtic

Celtic tattoos are one of the most popular forms because of their intricacy and their rich cultural history. They make for a great first tattoo and can have profound meaning for many people.

The modern Celtic style tattoo features swirling and intricate patterns and motifs. Armbands, Celtic knots, and other designs are popular and eye catching.

They are all inspired by the mythos of the Celts, where warriors used to cover themselves in blue pigments and run into fierce battle. Tattoos were popular in this culture and were used to express triumph, heroic myth, and also to intimidate enemies in battle.

You should consider getting a Celtic tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You connect with Celtic history and heritage.
  • It’s your first tattoo and you just want to dip your toe in the waters by trying out a simple Celtic knot or similar.
  • You enjoy swirling and organic designs.

12. Floral

Floral tattoos just never go out of style. As well as being timeless they’re also very versatile. Whether you’re looking for a tattoo with profound meaning or just one that looks fabulous, there’s a floral tattoo design to suit you.

Related Post: A Short Introduction to Flower Tattoos

13. Chicano

The Chicano movement has a rich history. As Mexicans adopted the American way of life, they also adopted Chicano culture.

This was a cultural identity that started life as a derogatory term, but was proudly worn by Mexican people who felt that they needed to resist anglo-American culture and retain their own Mexican identity.

Thus, the Chicano tattoo style is rich in a specific kind of Mexican-American flavor that stretches right back to the 1940s. Religious icons, Mexican men in suits and smoking cigars, and exotic lady portraits define this aesthetic that was originally created behind prison bars.

Chicano tattoos feature great line work in monochrome and delicate shading. They can be intricate or simple, but in all ways they are a direct line back to Mexican history in a newly adopted country. For so many people, the Chicano tattoo has rich meaning.

The other good news is that while it has long been associated with Mexican men, Chicano tattoos have also found popularity with women who enjoy the aesthetic and the history behind it.

You should consider getting a Chicano tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You have a deep connection to Mexican culture and history.
  • You love the look of the American Traditional style, but you’d like something more unique.

14. Dotwork

Dotwork is a truly unique style that has its roots in ancient cave paintings. In such paintings, prehistoric people often used simple daubs of paint and dots to depict complex scenes.

Modern Dotwork tattoos eschew bright colors in favor of a monochrome look. In this style, many dots or individual points of ink are combined to form a united whole. This can be geometric in nature or even a portrait. The subjects are many and varied, but are often abstract in nature.

Just imagine a network of thousands of black ink dots that form the picture of a famous person, for example. The effect is striking and takes time. As such, not every tattoo artist can achieve this look.

You should consider getting a Dotwork tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You want a tattoo that is visually striking and unique.
  • You’re not entirely sure of the subject you want tattooed, but you enjoy the Dotwork style.

Related Post: Pros And Cons Of Dotwork Tattoos

15. Portrait

The portrait tattoo has really exploded in popularity in recent years. There are so many possibilities that it can be hard to choose. A well-done portrait tattoo can look almost three dimensional and really make for an eye-catching design.

On the other hand, one that has been rushed or has been inked by someone without the requisite skill can look quite appalling and embarrassing.

Related Post: Portrait Tattoos and Their Meanings

16. Geometric

As the name suggests, Geometric tattoos are composed of smaller geometric lines and shapes that combine to form a unified image.

Most often, black ink is used to form complex patternation that creates a visually striking result.

One of the great things about Geometric tattoos is that the style can be used to form any picture. Lines, stylized leaves and organic shapes, and curves are just some of the tools available to the tattoo artist in this modern style.

The idea is that they all combine to form the entirety of the picture in a clever and visually pleasing way.

You should consider getting a Geometric tattoo for the following reasons:

  • It’s your first tattoo and you want something striking but not too dramatic that you will regret getting it done.
  • You enjoy bold lines and Blackwork, and want a monochromatic design that has personal meaning to you.

Related Post: Geometric Tattoos: What They Mean And Tattoo Ideas

17. Sketch

Sketches on paper may sometimes look unfinished or rough, but creating them in ink can be rather challenging and time-consuming.

Sketch tattoos have a look that suggests they have literally been sketched right onto the skin. This means that it often features finely detailed shading, cross-hatching, and other designators of on-paper sketching.

As such Sketch style tattoos are usually monochromatic and can take a long time to complete. In reality the Sketch tattoo is not unfinished, but does sometimes feature a roughened hand-drawn look that is very appealing and difficult to achieve.

You should consider getting a Sketch style tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You are an artist, or have a strong affinity for art and practice, and you have a specific sketch piece in mind.
  • You enjoy a more unique tattoo that is eye catching.
  • You enjoy finely detailed monochromatic tattoos.

18. Black and Gray

This blog post covers several aspects related to black and gray tattoos. It includes insight as to how the prison-style came to be during the 70’s, taking as reference the story of Freddy Negrete, a renowned black and gray tattoo artist.

This text also delves into the composition of black ink, as well as the pros and cons of this tattoo style. The healing process and aftercare are also covered from the particular perspective of black and gray tattoos.

Related Post: Black and Gray Tattoos: Why This Classic Style Never Disappoints

19. Surrealism

Just like the Abstract style, Surrealism takes its main inspiration from the surrealist movement in art history.

Names such as Salvador Dali bring to mind melting clocks and other bizarre images, and the Surreal tattoo style is a no-holds barred tour of the weird and the wonderful in terms of imagery.

Surreal tattoos are often eye catching and visually impressive. A great surreal tattoo can look like an amazing masterpiece on the body and really create a fuss. In short, this is a very creative and inventive style that can span the realms of the bizarre and the profound.

You should consider getting a Surreal tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You really enjoy the surreal movement in art history.
  • You are looking for a truly unique tattoo that catches the eye.
  • You have an affinity for the weird and the wonderful.

20. Negative Space

In art, the use of negative space can impart a powerful visual. This is where the space around a subject is as important as the subject itself. In Negative Space tattooing, black ink is used as a dominant feature to bring a viewer’s attention to the empty spaces in between.

So, how does this work? Imagine a forearm largely covered in black ink with the shape of a lonely rose catching the eye. The rose itself is just bare skin, and so the black ink around it draws attention to it.

Just like a photographic negative, it is the negative space that draws the attention to the main subject it surrounds and emphasizes.

You should consider getting a Negative Space tattoo for the following reasons:

  • You adore Blackwork and the look of monochromatic tattoos.
  • You want a truly unique looking tattoo that is designed to catch the eye and hold it.
  • You want an affordable tattoo that is also visually stunning.

Related Post: A Guide To Negative Space Tattoos

21. Hyper Realism

If you’re a fan of tattoos, most likely you’ve come across those viral-worthy, photorealistic designs that just blow your mind. From the fine details that seem perfect, to the shading that makes the ink jump out of the skin, these tattoos look like photographs.

You don’t have to wonder for too long about why hyper realism is a popular style of tattooing. With the intense attention to detail and accuracy of the image the tattoo is mimicking, a hyper realistic tattoo can certainly garner a lot of attention. Plus, for portraits, it’s arguable if there is a better style to follow than hyper realism or photorealism.

Related Post: Hyper Realism Tattoos: 7 Things You Should Know Before Getting Inked

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