Neo Traditional Tattoos: Honoring the Past and Embracing the Future

Neo traditional tattooing is not just one of the most popular tattoo styles, it’s also a way of blending the “old school” tattoo style while also leaning into what’s new and fresh.

As a tattoo artist, you will need to understand what neo traditional tattoos are and how to do them so that you can be prepared for clients who ask for this style.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Why tattooing neo traditional is different than other tattoo styles
  • How neo traditional tattoos differ from the traditional tattoo style
  • Customer’s favorite Neo traditional tattoo designs that they ask for over and over

What are Neo Traditional Tattoos? 

neo traditional snake tattoos

Many tattoo artists love the neo traditional tattoo style because it is a more modern take on the American traditional tattoo style. They follow a lot of the same rules and techniques as traditional tattoos including bold, black outlines, but allow for extra line weights and more intricate work. 

As opposed to the “flatter” look of an American traditional tattoo with their classic color palette, neo traditional tattoos tend to go for a more multi-dimensional look with a broader color palette. The neo traditional style takes many of the elements of traditional tattoos like snakes, ships, faces, flowers, and more…but it adds new detail to find a nice balance between a classic look and a modern feel.  

The designs are usually larger than traditional tattoos and have more colors.

History and Influences of the Neo Traditional Style 

neo traditional tattoo art

Neo traditional tattoo artists borrow ideas from art movements like art deco and art nouveau, which grew from European interest in Japanese art. These two artistic movements relied on the flowing lines and organic shapes of nature, as well as a detailed, eye-catching style.

Neo traditional tattoos started popping up around the 1970s when tattoo artists became interested in combining American folk art with the style of Japanese artwork. The neo traditional style quickly gained steam, spreading around the United States and into Europe and Asia as tattoo artists and clients saw the appeal of the fresh take on a classic style.

Common Imagery in Neo Traditional Tattoos

Bear tattoo in neo traditional style

Neo traditional tattoos usually have diverse imagery, incredible detail, and bold outlines that make them pop. Some of the common subject matter seen in neo traditional designs are portraits of a beloved pet, lifelike heads and torsos, pictures of nature, and playful takes on commonly tattooed animals. 

In addition to the stylized natural imagery you see in a lot of neo traditional designs, elements of the traditional style are also common. Things like anchors, birds, roses, and pinups are often seen in neo traditional tattoos with an added pop of color and dimension.
Difference Between New School and Neo Traditional Tattoos
bright colors hello kitty in new school tattoo style

Neo traditional and new school tattoos have many similarities including the bold, multi-dimensional style and the preference for vivid colors. 

The main difference between these two tattoo styles is that, where new school tattoos look toward pop culture and media references for their subject matter, neo traditional designs are rooted in American tradition.

What’s the Difference Between Neo Traditional and American Traditional Tattoos?

american traditional tattoos in colored ink

American Traditional Tattoo

Neo traditional tattoos often pay homage to American tattoo flash while breaking many of the traditional rules and incorporating photo-realism and a more vibrant color palette. Many neo traditional tattoos have a sense of humor to them in addition to the intense beauty and detail the style is known for. 

While American traditional tattoos are known for their limited color palette, black shading, and consistent line weights, neo traditional tattoos add a level of intricacy and modernism. In the neo traditional style, a common design like an anchor is likely to have an added sense of movement, color, and artistry. You can also expect neo traditional tattoo designs to incorporate gray wash as opposed to only using black ink for shading.

Neo Traditional Color Palette

Neo traditional tattoo

Neo Traditional Tattoo by Tattooing 101 Instructor Brandon Over

Neo traditional tattoos are well-known for their muted color palettes. 

Where traditional tattoos use a smaller selection of colors, it’s common for neo traditional designs to include modern colors like purples and blues, as well as lots of color blends in darker hues.

Working With the Flow of the Body

Neo traditional pinup tattoo

While the American traditional tattoo is known for its crisp lines and geometric shapes, neo traditional tattoos are more likely to include flowing designs that seem to move with the body. 

Neo traditional tattoos will have the same clean line work as a traditional tattoo, but they are often much bigger. This means they must follow the shape of the muscles to make sure they look like they belong on the body.

Line Weights

Neo traditional tattoo with varied line weights

With the American traditional tattoo style, line weight is usually very consistent.

Neo traditional tattoo designs still generally use a black ink outline, but several line weights will be used create a multi-dimensional look.

How To Do Neo Traditional Tattoos 

You know that neo traditional uses a muted color palette, multiple line weights, and flows with the body…but how do you do that as a new tattoo artist? Here are some tips for how to do your own neo trad tattoos:

How to Create a Muted Color Palette

Neo trad tattoo of a clown
flower tattoo with minimal shading
peony tattoo with bold lines

For a muted color palette, you’ll want to draw from colors often seen in American traditional tattooing like red, gold, green, and black and then expand outward with more earthy tones.

When we say earthy, we mean to go for a mustard yellow as opposed to bright yellow or olive green instead of lime green. 

A lot of tattoo retailers offer tattoo ink sets specifically made for neo traditional tattoos. Check out our favorites:

professional ink for tattoo parlor

Brand: Fusion Muted Color Set — Fusion Tattoo Ink

Price: $57.75 for 5 1oz bottles

 professional ink for tattoo studio

When to Use Different Line Weights

Wizard tattoo with multiple line weights
Neo trad mushroom tattoo

Neo traditional tattoos are known for using multiple line weights. The heaviest line weight will be for major elements and outlines while details should be done in thinner weights.  

For tattoos in this style, you’ll want 2-3 line weights in a design, which would mean using 2-3 round liners.

Having multiple line weights makes the image more detailed without hurting the readability of the design.

How to Work With the Flow of the Body

Neo traditional tattoo of a woman and owl
Tattoo of a skull and rose following the flow of the upper leg into the knee

One of the most important parts of the neo traditional style is the design working with the flow of the body. A tattoo that flows well looks like it belongs on the body, while a tattoo that doesn’t looks awkward and makes any mistakes even more visible.

To work with the flow of the body correctly, you need to follow the natural S-shapes the body makes. For example, the tattoo design will follow the curve of the tricep and how the muscle wraps around the upper arm. 

If you’re drawing digitally, you can pull up a picture of the body part you’ll be tattooing. You can do this digitally with a stock photo, but it helps a lot if you can use the client’s actual picture, especially if they already have tattoos around the area you’ll be tattooing. (You can also print out an image if you are using pencil and paper.) 

Try drawing the S-shapes of the muscles on the arm and use them as guidelines that help you plan out how the tattoo should flow.

Neo Traditional Tattoo Ideas

Neo traditional butterfly tattoos
Neo traditional butterfly tattoos
Neo traditional butterfly tattoos
Neo traditional panther
neo traditional animal tattoos
beautiful women tattoo
Neo traditional skull tattoo session
Neo traditional skull tattoo session
Neo traditional skull tattoo session

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Understanding how to create neo traditional tattoos 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.

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
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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