Complete Guide to All Tattoo Styles

As tattoo designs have evolved over time, different styles of tattoos have become popular in the industry. 

A tattoo’s style is determined by which aesthetic it falls under, and each style has guidelines artists can use to make sure their design works within their chosen style. 

Understanding these guidelines not only makes it easier to create new tattoo designs from scratch, but it also helps you get a good idea of how a client wants their tattoo to look and find the right reference photos. 

By the end of this article, you’ll know all the different styles and the “rules” of the most popular tattoo styles so you can do them yourself.

In this article, we will:

  • List all the most important tattoo styles
  • Explain what imagery you’ll see most in each style
  • Share tips and tricks for how to tattoo every style

What are the Different Tattoo Styles? Our Complete Tattoo Styles List

There are dozens of tattoo styles. In this post, we’ll focus on how to tattoo the 10 we see the most, and then list all the styles we’ve seen gain popularity in the industry.

1

American Traditional Tattoo Style / Old School Tattoo Style

western traditional tattoo style

The traditional style uses bold lines and a limited color palette. Traditional tattoos are also called “old school tattoos,” “American Traditional,” “classic tattoo style,” or even “sailor tattoos,” since the more common designs were used to mark a sailor’s milestones or give him good luck.

Common Imagery for this Tattoo Style

  • Roses
  • Panthers
  • Tigers
  • Flowers
  • Women’s faces
  • Pin up girls
  • Sailboats
  • Compasses
  • Watches
  • Anchors
  • Knives
  • Skulls
  • Snakes
  • Eagles
  • Butterflies
  • Moths
  • Swallows

Rules for Old School Style American Traditional tattoos:

  1. 1
    Use thick, bold lines. We like using a 11 or 14 round liner, standard taper (1211RL) with Dynamic Lining Black.
  2. 2
    Use only one line weight. (Only use one liner and stick to that size for all your line work.)
  3. 3
    Stick to the old-school color palette: yellow, red, green, and black.

Note

Sailor Jerry created the traditional tattoo style, and now lots of tattoo artists use his flash designs as inspiration.

Pro Tip:

If you are new to tattooing, we recommend traditional tattoo design first. Many new artists find it the easiest to learn to draw because it is 2-D and only uses one line weight, making it the perfect tattoo style to master first.  

2

Neo Traditional Tattoo Style

neo traditional tattoo inspiration

Neo traditional tattoos can be considered a more modern version of American Traditional. 

While Neo Traditional style tattoos are still 2-D and very technical, they use different line weights, more subtle gradients, additional colors, and more intricate details.

Common Imagery for this Tattoo Style

Neo Traditional pulls from the “Art Nouveau” style by featuring strong curves, as well as detailed “Art Deco” elements like filigree. 

On top of the designs normally seen in Traditional tattoos, Neo Traditional imagery also includes:

  • Native American portraits
  • Animals
  • Flowers
  • Birds

Rules for Neo Traditional tattoos:

  1. 1
    Keep colors to a more muted palette and make sure your blends are ultra-smooth.
  2. 2
    Focus on clean line work and use 2-3 different line weights. Thinner line work should be used for details and bold lines can be used for the outline and main elements.
  3. 3
    Imagery should have realistic proportions.

3

New School Tattoo Style

popular tattoo styles

Unlike the Neo Traditional style, New School tattoos push the limits of believability and color palette. 

It often has a “cartoon” look to it, with exaggerated facial features, almost like a caricature.

Common Imagery for this Tattoo Style

  • Animals
  • Skulls
  • Cartoon characters
  • Food

Rules for New School tattoos:

  1. 1
    Use bright colors
  2. 2
    Go for a 3-D “graffiti” effect
  3. 3
    If you’re doing a design with a face, make the features much bigger than they would be in real life (big eyes, big teeth, and/or big nose).

4

Black and Grey Tattoo Style

 black and grey tattoos

One of the most popular styles, black and grey tattoos can cover just about any subject matter. 

The only rule is: no color is allowed. Any difference in “color” you see is made from grey gradients.

Common Imagery for this Tattoo Style

  • Roses
  • Pocket watches
  • People
  • Skulls
  • Animals
  • Objects
  • Nature scenes

Rules for Black and Grey Tattoo Style:

  1. 1
    Black and grey wash only; no color
  2. 2
    Grey wash tends to heal 30% lighter than when it’s fresh, so you’ll want to go a little darker while tattooing so the healed tattoo has the right values.
  3. 3
    Use 10-gauge curved mags for smoother blends

Note:

Black and grey is different from the blackwork tattoo style. Blackwork tattoos only use black ink, and use brush shading to make lighter areas. The black and grey tattoo style uses both black ink and grey wash for smoother shades.

Pro Tip:

While you can create your own grey wash, we recommend buying grey wash sets so your measurements are exactly the same, every time

5

Realism Tattoo Style

portrait tattoos by highly skilled tattoo artist

The images in realistic tattoos look exactly like they would in real life. You are essentially recreating a photo on the skin. Realism is a great style to learn because it’s in higher demand than other styles, but it can take a long time to learn. 

Realism tattoos are also the most expensive style to get tattooed.

Common Imagery for the Realism Tattoo Style

  • Skulls
  • Statues
  • Faces/portraits
  • Animals
  • Plants

Rules for Realistic tattoos:

  1. 1
    Don’t use hard outlines. Realism usually asks for you to create a 3-D image, which means it doesn’t actually end, it just curves. On a 2-D surface, that will look like a soft, undefined edge.
  2. 2
    We recommend using curved mags, especially if you’re doing a portrait tattoo. They’ll help you get smoother shades while causing less trauma to the skin since they work with the skin instead of against it like a flat needle. 

Note:

You need to mark out the shading for your realism tattoos on your stencil. We recommend designing realism stencils digitally because programs like Procreate and Photoshop let you use reference images directly in your stencil and mark out shading on different “layers.”

Pro Tip:

Realism can be one of the hardest tattoo styles to learn, and it takes a skilled tattoo artist to do it right. We recommend that less experienced tattoo artists practice on fake skin before tattooing realism on a client.

6

Japanese Tattoo Style

Japanese floral tattoos

Japanese tattoos tend to be big, bright, and focused on cultural symbols. Traditionally, Japanese-style tattoos were done without machines using the trbori (“hand-carved”) technique.

Common Imagery for the Japanese Tattoo Style and What it Represents

  • Tigers (strength and courage)
  • Dragons (wisdom and wealth)
  • Koi fish (inspiration and struggle)
  • Japanese Samurai (honor and self-discipline)
  • Fu Dogs (power and protection)
  • Flowers (positivity and good character)
  • Cats (good luck and fortune)
  • Masks (anger, jealousy, and transformation)
  • Demons (mischief or evil)
  • Snakes (transformation and rebirth)
  • Octopus (intelligence and adaptability)
  • Wind bars (change and the impermanence of things)
  • Water (purity and life)

Rules for Japanese Style Tattoos:

  1. 1
    Use bold red, green, yellow, and brown in your designs, as well as plenty of black in the background to make the brighter colors pop. 
  2. 2
    When making a design, pull inspiration from traditional mythology. The Japanese tattoo style traditionally told stories through symbols that the wearer connected with (even though the stories were not actually about them).

Note: 

Japanese tattoos are great for cover-ups and large-scale work.

7

Tribal Tattoo Style

original tribal tattoo with bold black lines

In the past, tribal tattoos were used to mark someone as part of a specific family or clan of people. While many modern tribal designs pull on that past for inspiration, they’re now more characterized by large areas of black and sweeping lines that flow with the body’s muscles.

Common Imagery for this Tattoo Style and What it Represents

  • Triangle designs (shark’s teeth protecting against danger)
  • Shaded triangles (arrowheads symbolizing strength and power)
  • Lizards (good luck charm)
  • Sea turtles (protection/shield)

Rules for Tribal tattoos:

  1. 1
    It’s recommended you change the reference design at least a little. Tribal tattoos are still used as a means of identification for some families and cultures. Changing a design to better fit you or the client makes sure you’re not “stealing” someone’s identity.
  2. 2
    Use the biggest 12-gauge mags you can for the design’s size. Tribal requires you to pack a lot of black ink into the skin. Using large mags not only will make the process go faster, but you won’t have to go back over the skin as much and cause lots of trauma.
  3. 3
    Use a 4-stroke machine for packing in the ink.
  4. 4
    Use shading black instead of lining black. Shading black is thicker and will expand over time, covering up small gaps in shading.

Note: 

Tribal tattoos can incorporate a “negative space tattoo” style to include a smaller design within the larger tattoo.

8

Script / Lettering Tattoos

Script tattoos let tattoo artists turn words and names into works of art.

Common Imagery for this Tattoo Style

There are as many tattoo lettering styles as there are fonts on a computer, so tattoo artists have a lot of freedom when it comes to creating custom pieces for their clients. 

And while creating that lettering is pretty straightforward, most artists will add some sort of filigree around cursive lettering.

Rules for script tattoos:

  1. 1
    Keep your lines clean. We recommend using long-tapered needles for script. They take a little longer to put ink into the skin, but the extra precision is worth the time, especially on hard-to-tattoo areas like the ribs.
  2. 2
    Have someone else read the tattoo first. Sometimes, certain fonts can make one word look like another.
  3. 3
    Make sure the letters are spaced apart enough. The ink will spread a little over time. If the letters are too small or too close together, it’ll be impossible to read and look like a black blur.
  4. 4
    If the script is in a different language, try to get a native speaker to check it for accurate translation.
  5. 5
    Triple-check the spelling using Google; tattoos are permanent and you don’t want to misspell something on a client.
  6. 6
    We recommend “floating the needle” while tattooing script, since it gives you more accuracy.

Note: 

Name tattoos get covered up a lot, which is why a lot of tattoo artists will refuse service to clients that want them. Generally, names of friends and relatives that have passed away or pets are “safe” and less likely to be covered.

9

Watercolor Tattoo Style

sanninolello watercolor tattoo style
_sgushonka_ watercolor tattoo image
Claudia Denti cartoon tattoo style

Watercolor tattoo designs are meant to have the same opaque look as watercolor paint on paper. These tattoos tend to have soft-looking edges and plenty of color (often pastels).

Common Imagery for this Tattoo Style:

  • Animals and birds
  • Characters
  • Flowers

Rules for watercolor tattoos:

  1. 1
    To “fade out” your colors, you can mix your ink color with something like Foundation Flesh (by Fusion Ink) or similar to your client’s skin tone. This will help the color appear lighter without looking washed out. 
  2. 2
    Include some line work so the design is still easy to read over time as the ink fades and spreads.
  3. 3
    Using whip shading and pendulum shading will help you create gradual feathered edges.

Note: 

Name tattoos get covered up a lot, which is why a lot of tattoo artists will refuse service to clients that want them. Generally, names of friends and relatives that have passed away or pets are “safe” and less likely to be covered.

10

Geometric Tattoo Style

tattoo machine creating geometric tattoo idea

Geometrical Heart Tattoo Tutorial inside Tattooing 101’s 10-Day Beginners Tattooing Seminar

Modern geometric tattoos take any design and breaks it down into basic geometric shapes. A tattoo artist then uses shading to show how the light bounces off each plane of the geometric shape.

Common Imagery for the Geometric Tattoo Style:

  • Animals
  • Shapes
  • Mandala-style designs

Rules for Geometric Tattoos:

  1. 1
    In the geometric tattoo style, shading shows where the light is coming from. Make sure all the planes facing the light source head-on are lighter than the planes next to it. The further a plane is facing away from the light source, the darker it is.

Tattoo Styles Gallery

While we’ve covered the main tattoo styles you’re most likely to see, there are still different tattoo styles that have been created based on them.

pop culture references in tattoos
portrait tattoo
cosmetic body art
prison tattoos
elaborate tattoos

Minimalist Tattoos

Graffiti Art Tattoos

surrealism tattoo of a woman

Surrealism Tattoo Style

sketch tattoo of a queen

Sketch Style Tattoos

blackwork tattoo style moth

Blackwork Tattoos

trash polka tattoo design

Trash Polka 
Tattoo Style

moth and leaf dotwork tattoos

Dotwork Tattoos

Negative Space Tattoos

intricate tattoos

Fine Art Tattoos

Fine Line Tattoos

Micro Tattoos

Cartoon/Anime Tattoos

Pet and Animal Tattoos

Chicano Tattoos

biomechanical tattoos

Hyperrealism Tattoo Style

Continuous Line Tattoos

Illustrative Tattoos

Abstract Tattoos

Cell
Cell
Cell

Minimalist Tattoos

Graffiti Art Tattoos

Surrealism Tattoo Style

Sketch Style Tattoos

Blackwork Tattoos

moth and leaf dotwork tattoos

Dotwork Tattoos

Negative Space Tattoos

Fine Art Tattoos

Fine Line Tattoos

Micro Tattoos

Cartoon/Anime Tattoos

Pet and Animal Tattoos

Chicano Tattoos

biomechanical tattoos

Hyperrealism Tattoo Style

Continuous Line Tattoos

Illustrative Tattoos

Abstract Tattoos

What it Means to Create Your Own Tattoo Style

As a tattoo artist, you will create your own tattoo style over time. 

To do this, we recommend picking one of the different tattoo styles that is already popular (classic tattoo style, geometric tattoo style, blackwork tattoo style, etc.) and then finding a way to put your own spin on it. 

To find the perfect tattoo style for you to specialize in, take a look at what you draw the best. Do you naturally draw from real life? Then the realism tattoo style might fit best with your skillset. If you like to draw designs that push the boundaries of reality, then the surrealism tattoo style or new school tattoo style might be for you.

The Evolution of Different Tattoo Styles

Just like styles and trends in fashion, tattoo styles change and evolve over time. The styles in this list have been staples in the tattoo industry for a while, like black and grey and old school style tattoos.

However, each of these tattoo styles have branched off to form other tattoo styles that appeal to an even more specific audience. For example, glitter tattoos and “patch” tattoos have branched off from the new school tattoo style. Line art tattoos are a subset of what we would call “minimalist tattoos.” Surrealism style tattoos take realism tattoos to the next level, and the trash polka tattoo style combines black and grey portrait tattoo with the brush-like marks of watercolor.

Become a Tattoo Artist with the Artist Accelerator Program

american traditional tattoo style designs

Learning all the different tattoo styles is an important step in your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full time faster…

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

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Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
  • Professional tattoo artist coaches
  • Private mastermind community
AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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