Complete Guide to All Tattoo Styles

As an aspiring tattoo artist, knowing the different tattoo styles and types of tattoos will help you figure out what clients want to get and define your own individual style. 

Knowing the name of the style you like the most will help you find reference photos and learn why designs in that style look great on skin. 
By the end of this article, you’ll know all the different types of tattoos and the “rules” of the most popular tattoo styles so you can do them yourself.

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • All the different tattoo styles
  • What elements you’ll see most in each style
  • Tips and tricks for tattooing that style yourself

What are the Different Tattoo Styles?

There are dozens of types of tattoos, and each caters to its own niche. Below, we’ll point out the top eight that we see the most, and then go through a quick overview of the other styles we’ve seen gain popularity in the industry.

Traditional / Old School Tattoo Style

traditional tattoo style

The traditional style uses bold lines and a limited color palette. Traditional tattoos are also called “old school tattoos,” “Americana 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

Roses, panthers, tigers, flowers, sailboats, compasses, watches, knives, skulls, snakes, eagles, anchors, women’s faces, butterflies and moths, and swallows.

Rules for American traditional tattoos:

  • Use thick, bold lines.
  • 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 work as inspiration.

Neo Traditional Tattoo Style

neo traditional tattoo inspiration

Neo traditional tattoos can be considered a more modern version of American Traditional. While Neo Traditional is still 2-D and very technical, it uses different line weights, more subtle gradients, additional colors, and more intricate details. 

Common Imagery

“Art Nouveau” features like strong curves, and detailed “Art Deco” elements like filigree. On top of the designs normally seen in Traditional tattoos, Neo Traditional also includes Native American portraits, animals, flowers, and birds.

Rules for Neo Traditional tattoos:

  • Keep colors to a more muted palette and make sure your blends are smooth. 
  • Focus on clean line work.
  • Imagery should have realistic proportions.

New School Tattoo Style

popular tattoo styles

Unlike the neo traditional style, New School pushes 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

Animals, skulls, and cartoon characters.

Rules for New School tattoos:

  • Use bright colors
  • Go for a 3-D “graffiti” effect 
  • If you’re doing a design with a face, make the eyes much bigger than they would be in real life.

Black and Grey Tattoo Style

black and grey tattoo style by different tattoo artists

One of the most popular styles, black and grey tattoos can cover just about any subject matter. The only rule is: no color allowed. Any difference in color you see is made from grey gradients.

Common Imagery

Roses, pocket watches, and people.

Rules for Black and Grey Tattoos:

  • Black and grey wash only; no color
  • 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.

Note:

Black and Grey is different from the blackwork tattoo style. Blackwork only uses black ink, and uses certain tattooing techniques like whip shading to make lighter areas, while black and grey uses both black ink and grey wash for smoother shades.

Realism Tattoo Style

realistic tattoos

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 high demand, but it can take a long time to learn. 

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

Common Imagery

Skulls, statues, faces/portraits, animals, and plants.

Rules for Black and Grey Tattoos:

  • 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. 
  • 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".

Japanese Tattoo Style

japanese 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 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), demons, cats, masks, snakes, octopus, wind bars, and water.

Rules for Japanese tattoos:

  • Use bold red, green, gold, brown in your designs and plenty of black in the background to make the brighter colors pop.
  • When making a design, pull inspiration from traditional mythology.

Note: 

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

Tribal Tattoo Style

original tribal tattoos 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 and What it Represents

Triangle designs (shark’s teeth protecting against danger), shaded triangles (arrowheads symbolizing strength and power), lizards (good luck charm), and sea turtles (protection/shield).

Rules for Tribal tattoos:

  • It’s recommended you change the 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.
  • Use the biggest mags you can. 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.

Script / Lettering Tattoos

script tattoo style

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

Common Imagery

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 straight forward, most artists will add some sort of filigree around cursive lettering. 

Rules for script tattoos:

  • 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.
  • Have someone else read the tattoo first. Sometimes, certain fonts can make one word look like another.
  • 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.
  • If the script is in a different language, try to get a native speaker to check it for accurate translation.
  • Triple-check the spelling using Google; tattoos are permanent and you don’t want to misspell something on a client.
  • We recommend “floating the needle” while tattooing script, since it gives you more accuracy. If you're not familiar with all the various tattoo techniques you can check out our guide here

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.

Tattoo Styles Gallery

Tattoo styles are constantly evolving, and today there are tons of them out there. Covering each in-depth would take all day, so here’s a quick gallery view of some of our favorite types of tattoos. 

If you’d like more examples of these styles, check out our Tattoo Artists Reference Guide.

Geometric Tattoos

Minimalist Tattoos

Watercolor Tattoo Style

Graffiti Art Tattoos

Surrealism Tattoo Style

Sketch Style Tattoos

Blackwork 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

Continuous Line Tattoos

Illustrative Tattoos

Abstract Tattoos

Geometric Tattoos

Minimalist Tattoos

Watercolor Tattoo Style

Graffiti Art Tattoos

Surrealism Tattoo Style

Sketch Style Tattoos

Blackwork 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

Continuous Line Tattoos

Illustrative Tattoos

Abstract Tattoos

Learn to Tattoo Your Favorite Style

It can be frustrating to look at an incredible design and wonder how an artist could make such intricate tattoos…

Especially if you’ve tried your hand at tattooing and struggled to even make a straight line.
It seems like learning to create tattoos like that would take decades, but it doesn’t. Some of the most impressive tattoo artists hardly have any time under their belt at all.
Their secret is that they learned the right tattoo techniques and got guidance they needed from other artists. And anyone with a passion for tattooing has the ability to grow those same skills. However, traditional tattoo apprenticeships cost thousands of dollars and require you to work fulltime for two or more years without pay.
We created the Artist Accelerator Program to help passionate artists chase their dream of becoming a tattoo artist… without asking them to give up their day job or put their lives on hold. Instead, the Artist Accelerator’s structured course allows them to work at their own pace while they get ready to enter the tattooing industry.
Inside the program, you’ll learn how to improve your drawing skills specifically for tattoo design, as well as how to design digitally through step-by-step tutorials - even if you’ve never taken an art class or used design software before. We’ll also explain tattooing techniques so you can perfectly recreate any image you design on skin.
And if you get stuck? Ask any questions you have in our friendly online Mastermind community. There, you’ll get encouragement from other tattooers and receive feedback on your work from professional tattoo artists. They’ll tell you how you can keep improving and help you define your own style.

 Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

You Might Also Like:

The Difference Between Tattoo Styles

November 3, 2022

Tattooing has developed many different styles. As a tattoo artist, you need ...

The Difference Between Tattoo Styles

How to Shade American Traditional Tattoos

October 18, 2022

American Traditional tattoos use bold shading to create depth and make sure ...

How to Shade American Traditional Tattoos

Realism Tattoo Tutorial for Beginners

October 17, 2022

Realism tattoos try to perfectly recreate a photograph on someone’s skin. It ...

Realism Tattoo Tutorial for Beginners

Cosmetic Tattooing

July 22, 2021

We've compiled the latest information on cosmetic tattooing for you right here. ...

Cosmetic Tattooing

Traditional Portrait Illustration Tattoo: The Full Guide

October 13, 2019

  Image from ParlorTattooPrints Every tattoo fan is always on the lookout ...

Traditional Portrait Illustration Tattoo: The Full Guide

The Ultimate Guide to 3D Tattoos

September 13, 2019

Image from Pouted Magazine If you ask someone why they wanted to ...

The Ultimate Guide to 3D Tattoos

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.

write a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

SUGGESTED ARTICLES FOR YOU

MORE FREE CONTENT FOR YOU
October 6, 2022

Linework is usually the first step in most tattoos. However, when you ...

How to Tattoo Without Linework
September 13, 2021

Our easy-to-follow tattoo artist guides put you on the path to becoming ...

Tattoo Artist Guides

Our Community

Join the Tattooing 101 Community today and get free, instant access to tools and resources that take you behind the curtain of all things tattooing. From apprentice to shop owner, we've got you covered.