There are A LOT of tattoo styles to choose from. When it comes to picking the right ink for you, learn the styles and see what’s out there.
Once you’re done reading this, you’ll know the difference between traditional tattoos and neo-traditional tattoos, or the difference between blackwork and black and grey tattoos.
As humans, we’ve been marking our skin for a very long time. Some people think of Polynesian or Asian cultures, while others think of pirates and criminals. Regardless, tattoos have been symbols representing us for millennia. We honour the ancient art of tattooing for the sake of aesthetic pleasure and a rite of passage. We’ve done our best to embody the infinite world of tattooing with this style guide, but it’s impossible to list the sheer plentitude of tattoo options.
We’ve done our best to embody the infinite world of tattooing with this style guide, but it’s impossible to list the sheer plentitude of tattoo styles. A tattoo is as unique as the individual who wears it, so it comes down to your personal preference. Don’t forget to keep in mind that you may choose to mix and match any of these tattoo styles. The possibilities are truly endless.
1. Classic Americana Tattoos (Old School Traditional)
Also known as Traditional American, these tattoos are among the most well known Western tattoo styles. It’s the first style your parents (or grandparents) will think of when you say you’re getting a tattoo, representing counterculture rebels and America’s tough-guy history.
Traits of traditional tattoos:
- Bold, saturated colours
- Simple colour palette
- Simple shading, if any
- Thick black outlines
- Precise and crisp two-dimensional images
- Elemental, clean designs (symbols and motifs)
This style is attributed to Norman Collins, aka Sailor Jerry, who learned the craft from Japanese hand poke tattoo artists. They’re closely tied to the ocean and nautical imagery, pinup girls, fierce animals, hearts, roses, and daggers. Sailors would tattoo their nautical achievements at sea. For example, a tattoo of King Neptune meant you crossed the Equator. And a sparrow tattoo would be earned for every 5,000 nautical miles traveled (which is roughly a quarter of the earth's circumference).
We thank Classic Americana tattoos for birthing other styles like New School, Neo traditional, Realism, and others you’ll read about here. Choose this style for a tattoo that will age well and likely never go out of style (they haven’t yet!).
2. New School Tattoos
Love the idea of old school tattoos but looking for a modern take without the limitations? New school tattoos are for you then.
Old school is the grand-daddy of tatty and new school is the rebel teen. Originating in the 1970’s, this style is hard to miss, and was the start of modern tattoo culture as an art form. People wanted to be part of the design process, customising their ink with their own flare.
Traits of new school tattoos:
- Bold, heavy outlines (most often black)
- Vibrant, in-your-face colours
- Playful, disproportionate, and exaggerated designs (i.e. cartoon-ified characters and themes)
- Degradês of traditional tattoo designs (i.e. customised hearts and daggers)
- Elements of shading, depth, and 3D effects
Think of new school as having a character or scene from a comic book tattooed to your body. It’s a heavily stylised tattoo design but keeps to the older feel of classic Americana; not quite neo-traditional which leans towards the abstract. New school tattoos veer off the beaten path of flash walls and towards experimental designs in graffiti, hip hop, and pop art.
Choose this tattoo style if you wish to put a creative spin on your piece while honouring tradition.
3. Neo-Traditional Style Tattoos
It’s really easy to confuse neo-traditional with classic Americana tattoos. Why? Because as the name suggests, this tattoo style evolved from its name-sake. While old school themes are the focus of neo-traditional, this style boasts lush, decorative details. Like new school, neo-traditional honours old school with a modern and colourful approach.
The main difference between classic Americana tattoos and neo-traditional tattoos comes down to the use of colours and a broader range of motifs. With traditional ink you’re limited to anchors and mermaids, but with neo-traditional pieces you can ink pretty much anything you want from animals to florals.
Impress your friends by knowing the difference:
- Pronounced line-work
- Dark, clean outlines
- Lush colours, from a larger palette (but still classic)
- Decorative, highly illustrative, art-nouveau, and art deco aesthetics
- Colour gradients and often the use of white ink to highlight
Art nouveau and art deco combine in this style, bringing together strong curves, romanticised scenarios, and luxurious detail. New patriotic imaginarium, such as Native Americans, portraits and skulls, are found in this style. Unlike new school, which aims to blow out proportions and almost mock the strictness of old school, neo-traditional remains true to the art of tattoo aesthetics.
It's as if the new school style grew up and learned that being traditional isn’t so bad after all.
4. Black and Grey Tattoos (Modern Monochrome Tattoo Styles)
Exactly how it sounds, that’s how it is. But a black and grey tattoo isn’t just ink devoid of colour. This tattoo style seeks to let the design breathe, without overwhelming you with bright colours and bold statements. There’s nowhere to hide when it comes to black and grey, or modern monochrome, tattoos. While it can indeed encompass a range of subject matter and genres, this style can depict anything and everything in shades of grey. One of the most impressive forms black and grey takes on is that of realism and hyper-realism.
Traits of black and grey tattoos:
- No colour (monochromatic)
- Black, grey, and white ink only
- Heavy shading
- Rich in contrasting elements
Conventional black and grey tattoos are referred to as grey-wash where the tattooist will use a soft hitting tattoo machine to lay in smooth shading. Prior to the introduction of white ink, the grey shade was accomplished by watering down black ink. These days, tattoo professionals combine black ink and white ink to achieve the monochromatic effect.
Black and grey tattoos are far from boring. Without a single drop of colour, a monochromatic piece is one of the tattoo styles that can leave a significant impression.
5. Chicano Tattoos
If you’re looking to make a very obvious statement with your ink, look no further than the breathtaking Chicano style. Chicano, or Chicana, is the chosen identity for many Mexican Americans in the USA. Steeped in the history of the Mexican Revolution, Los Angeles low-riders and Pachuco culture, these pieces encapsulate a gangster’s paradise.
Although Chicano tattoos were born behind bars, it is a widely influential style that many tattoo enthusiasts flaunt.
Traits of Chicano tattoos:
- Usually smooth black and grey
- Detailed with well-defined contours using fine lines
- Soft shading on high contrast designs
- Often several images in a mosaic
Modern Chicano tattoos are inspired by Santa Muerte, which means Holy Death, the image of a woman looking defiant with guns, masks, and money. For inspiration, look to iconic films like Mi Vida Loca, or characters such as Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo in Suicide Squad. But you don’t have to be a gangster to sport this style.
Today, Chicano tattoos are associated with the ‘futility of being and high justice’; a theme beautifully expressed with the realistic surrealism of this style.
6. Stick and Poke (Handpoked Tattoo Styles)
One needle, one simple design. The stick and poke tattoo method is for the DIY type and the professional artist alike. In the hands of an experienced tattooist, one needle can elevate a basic piece to new heights of beauty. Something about how handpoked tattoos are machine-free makes them feel almost elemental in nature. It’s in the simplicity of the design.
If traditional tattoos are the first images popping into your mind when you think tattooing, then you’ve forgotten just how old the practice is. It’s much older than tattoo machines that's for sure!
Stick and poke tattoos are accomplished by attaching a tattoo-grade needle to a rod-shaped instrument (such as a pencil).
Traits of stick and poke tattoos:
- Thick and bold lines
- One ink used, often black
- Small, decorative patterns
While the handpoke method can result in looking like a home-job, a skilled tattoo artist can make a design appear as though it was done by a machine. This is a great way to pay homage to the very basic principles of tattooing. If you’re thinking about getting a stick and poke tattoo, choose a simple design and remember the outcome may be rougher than you expect.
Please note, we don't offer this style at Celebrity Ink.
7. Realism (Photo-realism Tattoo Styles)
Get ready to sit in the chair for a few hours…
A realism tattoo is a true commitment to great body artwork. And it should be, because the artist is literally engraving the world as you see it onto your skin. Photo-realistic tattoos (the ones you could confuse for an actual photo of something real) are an investment in time and money. But don’t let that scare you off! This style is an absolute classic, and perfect for capturing something or someone very specific. Realistic tattoos portray anything from people and animals, to nature, scenery and objects and come in all sizes, black and grey, full colour, or a mixture of the two which has incredible visual impact when done well.
Traits of realistic tattoos;
- Accurately and proportionately depicts a person, place, or thing (even imaginary things like dragons)
- Can be full colour, black and grey, or both
- Common themes include portraits and animals
- Medium to larger pieces are more common (as this style requires fine details)
Tattoos that are photo-realistic started to pop up once tattoo machines upgraded from their roots in traditional, to medical grade technology. As time goes by, this style is more and more refined, with experts in realism easily identifiable. A tattoo artist that specialises in realism has a critical eye for detail, taking as much time as necessary to accomplish the desired effect of etching a photograph on your skin.
Through the use of fine lines, contrast, shading, and 3D effects, as well as different sized needles and a range of tones, your artist will bring your tattoo to life.
8. Hyper Realism
One step beyond photo-realism is hyper-realism. These tattoos not only look real, but they look as though they’re actually there on your skin. Hyper-realistic tattoos have depth, shading, and unreal quality about them (which is ironic given their name!).
When you get this style, expect people to want to touch your ink to verify their reality.
9. Portrait tattoo
Another sub-genre of realism is portraiture, which is the photo-realistic tattoo of people. You've seen these tattoos before - you either love them or hate them!
Great portrait tattoo artists achieve an eerily accurate rendition of real people. Expert portrait tattoo artists achieve the character and personality of real people. Almost like you know what they're thinking, or what they'll say next. Some tattoo enthusiasts see this style as the ultimate compliment, a chance to immortalise a family member, hero or (often) a pop icon. Others may not agree so much and think it's just plain creepy to get a tattoo of someone else's face on your body. You can be the judge!
Either way, portraiture is a very easy style to spot. Enjoy these tattoos in colour or black and grey scale, usually medium to larger in size due to the level of detail required, and don't expect any hard black outlines.
Portraiture captures the true likeness of a person when done well, and you simply can't achieve that level of hyper-realism without modern-day techniques.
10. Realistic Trash Polka
Here's a fun tattoo style you may not have been able to identify until now!
If you're looking for a one-of-a-kind tattoo that will smack everyone who sees it in the face - look no further than the realistic trash polka style. A true trash polka tattoo is done in all black and red, however you'll see variations most often using blue instead. This is a sub-genre of realism created by German tattoo artists Simone Pfaff and Volko Merschky. Broken down, the name implies that there are elements of photorealism and literal trash. The trash could be bits of newspaper or cigarette butts, to pretty much anything!
Traits of realistic trash polka tattoos:
- Collage-like structure including images of photographic realism, print materials, hand-writing and typography, along with literal trash.
- Smudges or splashes of red paint or ink.
- Often has surreal, abstract or geometric elements.
This is a bold style choice. You better have the attitude to back it up!
Body parts tattooed on body parts. That’s what it comes down to with anatomical tattoos!
From the heart and brain, to muscles, bones, blood and beyond - body part tattoos are a very cool way to honour our anatomy. This style is done in realism, or hyperrealism and can be equally stunning in black and grey as full colour. There are so many ways to honour anatomy tattoos - take the heart for example. You can tattoo a realistic heart over your own, or have it somewhere else on the body.
This ink is easy to spot, but here are the basics:
- Realistic body parts (including bones, muscle, blood, etc.)
- Black and grey or full colour
- Small to medium sized pieces
This style incorporates realism tattoos with a touch of gore in some cases. You may decide to get an anatomical tattoo to remind yourself that you’re still human, or to remember a time you overcame an injury or medical condition. Tattoos of body parts are a great reminder to take care of ourselves. Not just physically, but emotionally too.
12. Biomechanical Tattoos
Similar to anatomical ink, biomechanical tattoos adapt to the flow of your body and mimic the machinery replacing body parts. You can have entire areas of the body replaced with this replica style, from entire biomechanical arms and legs to shoulders, torsos, and neck. When you think of this style, all you need to think of is Arnie in the Terminator.
Traits of biomechanical tattoo style:
- Hyperrealism and often 3D
- Replace Flesh, bones, and organs with metal gears, wires, gaskets, hydraulics, and beyond.
- Pieces are a window to beneath the skin.
Sci-fi is a big influence for this style - how cool is a human-robot hybrid? Biomechanical tattoos are where nature and technology meet, but remember you don’t actually acquire super-strength.
13. Horror Tattoos
They come in every shape and size, but most commonly you'll come across them in a realism style about medium sized.
A great place for horror-themed tattoos is on the arm or thigh, but the back is also suitable.
14. Mandala Tattoos
The word ‘mandala’ is in fact Sanskrit for ‘circle’, although you’ll find oval and lotus shaped mandala tattoos as well.
Mandalas have been around for centuries, both as a form of meditation as well as art in the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian religions. Ancient monks would draw intricate mandalas on sand in temples, while in Hinduism, a mandala would be used in prayer rooms to help with focus. When you tattoo a mandala onto your body, you’re inviting peace, love, and mindfulness into your life. A beautiful and intricate pattern of geometrical fine lines, mandala tattoos are composed of shapes and symbols that radiate from the centre outwards. Mandala tattoos are a reminder to be grateful in life; to live in balance and harmony.
You’ll be able to spot one right away:
- Fine lines in complex geometrical patterns.
- Oriented towards a centre design, such as a star or flower.
- Circular in nature, but can be oval or lotus shaped.
- Symmetrically balanced.
The blooming, circular nature of a mandala can symbolise femininity, creation, and rebirth. Due to their round shape, mandalas are well suited for forearm, chest, or back tattoos. Each mandala should be as unique as the individual wearing it, so work with your artist to build the perfect tattoo together.For a taste of divine cosmic infinity, opt for a mesmerising mandala tattoo.
Look no further for a timeless, one-of-a-kind tattoo: geometric tattoos are immortal. That may seem like a pretty strong statement, but we can back it up. When done right, the crisp, sharp lines and curves of this style are your new favourite feature pieces. This style is a combination of geometric “building block” elements (think squares, triangles, hexagons, circles, etc.) along with an organic flow that hugs your body just right.
The oldest tattoos, like those found in Polynesian cultures, often follow geometric patterns to pay homage to nature’s math.
Features of geometric tattoo style:
- Faultless, form fitting designs.
- Usually black and grey, sometimes in colour.
- Clean, bold lines and strategic shading.
- Often combined with other tattoo styles, such as realistic trash polka.
- Highly visually appealing, often creating an optical illusion.
- Follows the curves of the body part that is tattooed.
- Uses a combination of mathematically accurate shapes and patterns.
Geometric tattoos celebrate the most basic of shapes in limitless patterns of mandalas, low-poly models, fractals and abstract images. What’s really great about a geometric piece, is that you can start small and expand, growing from a half sleeve to a full sleeve for instance. Similar to mandalas, this style has many small parts that make up a whole. But that’s not the only thing these tattoo styles have in common. Like mandalas, geometry can be used to represent the transcendental and metaphysical.
You may find comfort in the predictability of mathematics, and if that’s the case a geometrical tattoo can be a truly spiritual experience.
16. Custom Script Tattoos
Forget symbolism, get your message across with a custom script tattoo. Choose initials, one word, or an entire quote to spell it out: there’s no disguising what your tattoo says. But that doesn’t mean your script tattoo doesn’t have a special significance to you. In fact, custom lettering is often one of the most personal tattoos you can get, aside from a portrait tattoo of a loved one.
Popular tattoo styles include Latin letters, the Arabic alphabet, Cyrillic or Kanji, but your script tattoos can also be in Japanese or other languages. Together with traditional tattoos, lettering and numbers are one of the oldest tattoo styles.
Examples of modern custom script tattoos include;
- Names or initials
- Numbers, dates, or coordinates
- Words, phrases, mottos, etc.
- Quotes, expressions, sayings, statements, poems, etc.
- Passages, scriptures, paragraphs, oaths, stories, etc.
This style of tattoo can go ANYWHERE, depending on the size of the font. When you have your script where you can see it, you’ll always be reminded to live by what it says. It’s best to keep long script tattoos in a simple font, but feel free to embellish a single word or two. Once you’ve chosen your preferred typography, taking into consideration the size of the tattoo and placement on your body, our artists ensure consistency and composition.
The Golden Rule: Less is More.
Simple, understated, and most often small; these are the defining characteristics of minimalistic tattoo style. You can make big statements without elaborate designs. Minimalist tattoos leave your admirers wanting more, wondering what endless possibilities lie in between the fine lines of your ink.
You’ll know a minimalist piece when you see one:
- Very basic, delicate designs or symbols, sometimes abstract
- Often small and hidden, but can be medium to large
- Symbolic to the wearer, often inscrutable (yet appealing) to others
- Doesn’t draw attention
- Generally solid black lines, sometimes in colour
- No shading, or very little shading
These tattoos are a great way to introduce yourself to the world of ink. They’re easy to choose, easy to hide, and maybe the best thing about them is they’re over in minutes. Or, if you’re an experienced tattoo enthusiast you may opt for ink in less traditional places like in between your fingers, on the ears, or in your mouth.
18. Traditional Japanese (Irezumi)
Tattoo styles come and go, but one style continues to maintain its popularity throughout the centuries. And that’s traditional Japanese, or Irezumi, AKA Oriental tattoo styles. Originating during the Edo period (1603-1868), Japanese style is rooted in folklore featuring heroes from the Suikoden and mythological. Think creatures of legend (dragons, kirins, phoenixes, etc.), lotus flowers, characters from the Japanese language, tsunami waves, and dramatic smoke. Sure it’s changed over time and artists have their own interpretations of the style but one thing remains the same: they’re highly symbolic.
This is a genre well known for large pieces that cover the back, arms, legs, and even the torso.
Bear in mind that there are rigid rules surrounding this style, for it to truly be considered Irezumi. For example, Buddha can only be depicted above the waist, and you can only pair certain animals with certain flowers.
Traits of an Oriental tattoo style:
- Two-dimensional with bold, curvy lines
- Bold, rich, traditional colours (black, red, blue, etc.)
- Large pieces (full arm sleeves, full leg sleeves, full back, etc.)
- Modern interpretations include black work and one-off designs
- Themes include legendary creatures, symbolic animals (i.e. koi fish) , lotus flowers, Buddhas, waves, and smoke.
Traditional Japanese tattoos are not just for the Yakuza, just like traditional Americana tattoos are not just for sailors or criminals. However, Irezumi was born from covering up tattoos that Japanese criminals received in prison - we're talking street cred. To that end, tattooing was associated with the Yakuza mafia which led to the practice being outlawed until 1948! The practice of penal tattooing died out in the 17th century, but the art of decorative Irezumi has proven eternal.
You better be committed if you’re going for an Oriental piece, and prepared to sit for a very long time. These tattoo style is a work of art and your skin is the canvas.
Go bold or go home with blackwork tattoos. Originating from the bold, black lines of tribal tattoos, this postmodern genre incorporates imagery of geometric, negative space, thick lines, dotwork and more. As far as style goes, this is a very broad category of tattooing. Modern tattoo artists got ahold of the ancient form of tattooing and put their own spin on it. Once tattooing became more widespread and acceptable, we started to see a deviation from traditional ink. Tattoos became less about spiritual meaning, such as those worn by Polynesians, and more about aesthetics.
The style includes blackout too. Blackout tattoos are solid black pieces, usually found as cuffs on arms and legs but can encapsulate entire body parts.
How do you spot a blackwork tattoo? Put simply, blackwork pieces are created using only black ink. But this tattoo style is far from simple. A lot can be achieved through the combination of different sized needles, various techniques, and heaps of modern shapes, patterns, and images. These are also a great option for covering up a tattoo, however keep in mind that it will be very difficult to cover up or remove a blackwork tattoo.
Traits of blackwork tattoo style:
- Crisp, all black designs.
- Only black ink, no shades of grey.
- Thick outlines and large filled in areas.
- Intense shading.
- Use of negative space.
If you’re new to ink and you love this style, opt for a small piece to start with. Blackwork and blackout tattoos require a lot of layers, with the machine passing over one area several times to achieve the darkest black. If you’re an old pro, you’ll probably enjoy the almost therapeutic feeling of the largest, widest set of needles available as it travels your skin.
When you think of a silhouette tattoo, think of a shadow. If you shined a light on an object (or person) what shape would be on the wall behind it? This is what gets tattooed, either the just outline or the filled in version.
Like a true shadow, these tattoo styles are usually done with a deep, clean blackwork method. One style of silhouette tattoo that is gaining in popularity is having the shape of an object but filled in with a different image.
Still hungry for more? Check out these blogs from the archives;