The Difference Between Tattoo Styles

Tattooing has developed many different styles. As a tattoo artist, you need to know how to identify each one. This will not only help you figure out what style you want to specialize in, but it will also help you talk with clients and other tattoo artists about your designs. 

If you’re not sure how to tell different tattoo styles apart, you can use things like color palette and line weight to help you figure it out.

In this article, we’ll be breaking down:

  • How to tell if a tattoo is a traditional design
  • The main trait that separates neo traditional and new school
  • Tips and tricks for each tattoo style

How to Tell Which Tattoo Style You’re Looking At

If you have been drawing for a long time, it can be helpful to find a tattoo style that you enjoy doing and that works well with your current style. This will make it easier to adapt the skills you have to tattooing. 

While there are subgenres of each, here are the main tattoo styles you need to know:

American Traditional

Most new tattoo artists start out learning American Traditional. While no tattoo design is “easy,” Traditional tattoos are 2D and use a limited color palette, which can help new tattoo artists master basic techniques without having to worry about things like perspective or mixing custom colors.

Traits of American Traditional:

  • 2D
  • Uses only one line weight
  • Crisp, clean outline
  • “Peppery” whip shading
  • Can be black and gray or use a limited color palette (black, red, green, gold)

Traditional tattoos have a thick, bold outline. We recommend using a 10 round liner for most Traditional tattoos. You’ll use a lot of whip shading to create contrast in your design, and if you’re using color, you can also whip out your colors to leave a “skin break,” where there is no shading or color. 

Neo Traditional

With Neo Traditional designs, you have the freedom to take a traditional design and add a bit of your own spin to it.

For example, you can experiment with different line weights to add more detail, and you can use a more extended color palette. Color theory is a big part of Neo Traditional, so it’s important to practice tattooing on fake skins to see how the different colors look together.

Traits of Neo Traditional:

Neo Traditional tattoos also focus more heavily on incorporating flow into the design. While American Traditional tattoos can look more like “stickers” on the skin, Neo Traditional tattoos should clearly follow the muscles of the body so the design looks like it was meant to be on the skin. 

New School

Original design belongs to Dave Tevanol. Brandon created this image by following along with him during an online seminar.

At first glance New School looks pretty similar to Neo Traditional. The main difference between the two is that in Neo Traditional, you aim to get all the proportions correct on your designs. 

With New School, you can stretch those proportions to unrealistic sizes. For example, you’ll often see animals with huge eyes or huge heads to make them look more stylized.

Traits of New School:

  • Bright colors
  • Different line weights
  • Unrealistic proportions

New school tattoos are meant to have a funky, cartoonish feel to them (whereas Neo Traditional could be considered more dramatic).


Japanese tattooing is a more traditional style, and it relies a lot on symbolism. For example, you’ll see tigers, dragons, etc. in a lot of Japanese-style tattoos because they represent certain personality traits or stories that the person getting tattooed connects with.

Traits of Japanese Tattoos:

  • Symbolism
  • Wind bars
  • Generally larger pieces (sleeves, full back or body pieces)

Because of the way Japanese tattoos are meant to flow (usually with the use of wind bars, waves, and flowers), you won’t see many “sticker” tattoos in the Japanese style. Large areas like sleeves or full back pieces work best for this style.


With realism, you are trying to recreate a photograph exactly as you see it. You can combine reference images to change your tattoo design, and you can move elements or change their brightness in apps like Photoshop and Procreate

Traits of Realism

  • Photorealistic details
  • Extremely smooth shading
  • Lots of texture
  • Having a light source is very important

When you’re designing a realistic tattoo, you need to make sure your reference photos are high-quality. This means a high resolution with good lighting so you can see where your shading and highlights need to go. 

You want your realism tattoos to be as close to the photo as possible. So instead of drawing a picture to use for your stencil, you’ll want to use an actual photo to make your designs.

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
  • 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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