What is the New School Tattoo Style?

The new school tattoo style has been one of the biggest tattoo trends since public interest in pop culture surged in the 1990s. 

As a new artist, knowing about the new school style of tattooing allow you to create new school designs for clients and help you define your own style. 

In this article, we’ll break down:

  • What new school tattoos are (and how they’re different from neo-traditional tattoos)
  • The history and development of the new school style
  • New school tattoo design ideas

What Defines the New School Style?

alien in new school tattoo style
mouse in new school tattoo style
dinosaur in new school tattoo style

The new school style of tattooing is defined by:

  • Cartoonish shapes
  • Bold black lines
  • Vibrant colors
  • Exaggerated features.

Borrowing From Old School and Neo Traditional

New School tattoos borrow from the American Traditional and Neo Traditional tattoo styles with thick black outlines, but take on their own style with extreme color and exaggerated perspectives. 

New school tattoos are influenced by media with bold, vibrant imagery similar to video games, anime, comic books, and cartoons.

History of New School Tattoos 

cat in new school tattoo style
bird in new school tattoo style
new school tattoo designs of space

The exact origin of the New School tattoo style is up for debate. 

Some tattoo artists believe it started as early as the 1970s when tattooers on the West coast began incorporating popular subjects like celebrities, cartoon characters, and sci-fi concepts into their designs.

Other artists believe that the style didn’t truly begin until the sudden popularity of tattoos influenced by pop culture in the 1990s.

Well-Known New School Artists

Despite disagreements about the exact beginning of new school tattoos, tattoo artists Marcus Pacheco and Jesse Smith are widely considered to be pioneers of the style. 

With new technologies increasing access to the internet and media in the 1990s, public interest in pop culture surged. Common concepts brought to artists at the time included Disney characters, cartoons, and large tattoos with bright colors.

Influences on the New School Tattoo Style

Other Tattoo Styles

American Traditional Tattooing

New school tattoos are heavily influenced by American Traditional, or old school, tattoos. New school tattoos honor the rules established by old-school tattooing with bold black lines, and large, easily recognizable designs. 

New school tattoos are similar to old school in that they both require the artist to have a strong understanding of color theory, shading, and light and dark contrasts.

Neo Traditional and Japanese Style Tattooing

Neo Traditional tattoos and New School tattoos both pull from the Art Nouveau style as well as Japanese aesthetic influences. All three of these styles feature strong, eye-catching designs built to hold up and maintain their boldness for a long time.

What is the Difference Between the New School and Old School Tattoo Style?

One of the most notable differences between old school and New School tattoos is realism. The American traditional style uses realistic imagery with correct proportions while new school tattoos start with a certain level of realism and embrace exaggeration and an in-your-face style that challenges tradition. 

Old school tattoos are bold and simple, often featuring classic designs like anchors, swallows, roses, and pin-up girls. New school tattoos, on the other hand, are often more out-of-the-box. They often feature cartoon characters, animals, and other objects in more intricate designs.

What is the Difference between the New School and Neo Traditional?

The line between neo traditional and new school art can seem blurry at times. However, the easiest way to tell the difference between these two styles is to look specifically at the color palette. 

If a design uses earthy tones, it is more likely to be a neo traditional design. A new school design will have a lot of bright (almost neon) colors.

For more about traditional/old school tattoos and other tattoo styles, check out our Complete Guide to All Tattoo Styles.

Influences from Art and Media 

One of the defining characteristics of a new school tattoo is its connection to art and media which increased in popularity due to public access to the internet. 

Pop culture, TV, movies, and popular art are common sources of inspiration for this style. Here is a look at some of the most commonly referenced subjects in new school tattooing:


New school tattoo of Ursula from The Little Mermaid
Hercules movie tattoo with bold outlines

Disney has had a large influence on new school tattoos. Many of these tattoos feature bright, bold colors and cartoon-like imagery that is inspired by many of Disney's classic characters. 

These tattoos often feature recognizable figures such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy, as well as others from classic films such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty.


spongebob new school tattoo designs
powderpuff tattoo with solid colors

Cartoons lend themselves naturally to new school tattoo designs with their bright colors, humor, and natural exaggeration. The simple yet eye-catching nature of a cartoon character makes it a natural fit for the new school style.

Anime and Manga

A full sleeve tattoo of pokemon and anime and manga characters.

The New School style draws heavily from the vibrant and exaggerated visuals of popular forms of Japanese art like anime and manga, as well as the intricate detail of traditional Japanese tattooing. 

These tattoos often feature characters from popular anime, manga, or video games, as well as symbols and images that represent Japanese culture. Pokemon tattoos are also common in this style.

Street Art

client with tattoo of vivid colors

Street art has had a major influence on the New School tattoo style, with the bold and vibrant appearance of graffiti serving as a great source of inspiration. 

Many New School tattoo artists have incorporated art styles commonly used by street artists like drop shadows and flowing, graceful lines.

Comic Book Heroes

Comic books have had a huge impact on the emergence of the New School tattoo style.

It often uses abstract shapes and objects, which are often exaggerated and distorted for a more whimsical effect, much like the bright and exaggerated shapes found in comic books.

Characteristics of New School tattoos

Beyond their vibrant color and pop culture references, tattoos in this style are often quite large, covering the entire back or arms.

New School Tattoo Design Gallery

chameleon new school tattoo
Beauty and the Beast zombie tattoo
 Sailor Moon new school tattoo
The Little Mermaid new school tattoo
Anime new school style tattoo

New School Tattoos Build off of Old School Techniques to Honor Pop Culture

New school tattoos originated in the tattoo world as early as the 1970s and gained ground in the 1990s with the mass public interest in popular culture being fueled by access to the internet and new technologies.

Tattoos in this style are defined by bright colors, magnified features, and pop culture references. These tattoos rely on large shapes and are often seen in full sleeves and larger back pieces. 

New school tattoo artists draw on the bold lines and colors made famous by the old school but add a level of exaggeration, humor, and cartoonishness that make the new school a particularly eye-catching style. As a new artist, studying new school tattoos can help you create designs for interested clients as well as build your own personal brand as a tattooer. 

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning the differences between 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.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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

  • 500 video modules
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  • 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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