There are A LOT of tattoo styles to choose from (skip to the bottom for a list of the styles we’ll be covering in the coming weeks).
When it comes to picking the right ink for you, learn the styles and see what’s out there.
This is a comprehensive list of tattoo styles that we’ve come across.
And it keeps growing!
Once you’re done reading this, you’ll know the difference between traditional tattoos and neo-traditional tattoos, or the diff
erence between blackwork and black and grey tattoos.
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.
Few are able to stop at just one.
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.
A tattoo is as unique as the individual who wears it.
So, it comes down to your own personal preference.
Don’t forget to keep in mind that you may choose to mix and match any of these styles.
You can have a realistic dot work tattoo or geometric sketch.
The possibilities are truly endless.
What images will represent you as you go about your daily life?
It may well be that clothes maketh NOT the man but your tattoo certainly does.
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.
It represents 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.
Sailors would tattoo their nautical achievements at sea.
For example, a tattoo of King Neptune meant you crossed the Equator.
A sparrow tattoo would be earned for every 5,000 nautical miles traveled (which is roughly a quarter of the earth’s circumference).
When you think of flash tattoos on the walls of a tattoo studio, think traditional.
We have Classic Americana tattoos to thank 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!).
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.
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 stylized 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 style if you wish to put a creative spin on your piece while honouring tradition.
Neo-Traditional Style Tattoos
It’s really easy to confuse neo-traditional tattoo style with classic Americana tattoos.
Because as the name suggests, this 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, romanticized scenarios, and luxurious detail.
Neo-traditional style differs from new school in that it’s more artsy as opposed to graffiti.
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 afterall.
Black and Grey Tattoos (Modern Monochrome)
Exactly how it sounds, that’s how it is.
But a black and grey tattoo isn’t just ink devoid of colour.
This 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.
Using only shades of black, the tattoo artist truly allows the artwork to do the talking.
Traits of black and grey tattoos:
- No colour (monochromatic)
- Black, grey, and white ink only
- Heavy shading
- Rich in contrasting elements
A few other styles that often feature monochrome black and grey include;
- Gothic letters
- Classic Americana
- Japanese traditional
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 can leave a significant impression.
If you’re looking to make a very obvious statement with your ink, look no further than the breathtaking Chicano style.
Steeped in the history of the Mexican Revolution, Los Angeles low-riders and Pachuco culture, these pieces encapsulate a gangster’s paradise.
- Elements of Hispanic culture
- Day of the dead
- Guns, gangsters, cars, gambling and money
- Roses and clocks
- Women and women’s faces
- Numbers, short text and face tattoos
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.
Stick and Poke (Handpoked Tattoos)
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.
It’s in the simplicity of the design.
Something about how handpoked tattoos are machine-free makes them feel almost elemental in nature.
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 tattoo style 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.
Realism (Photo-realism Tattoos)
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.
They 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 specializes 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.
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 an 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.
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 tattoo 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.
These tattoos are far away from traditional or new school techniques.
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.
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.
Once you figure out how to identify trash polka you’ll never forget what it looks like
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.
It can be a healthy heart, or a bloody, gory heart.
That’s some serious symbolism.
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
You don’t have to be a doctor to be into bodies.
Anatomical tattoos are the flesh and bones, the heart and brain tattoos that you’re seeing.
A really fun way to do this style is making it appear that your actual flesh was peeled back to reveal what’s underneath.
Sounds pretty hardcore, doesn’t it?
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.
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 tattoos:
- Hyperrealism and often 3D
- Flesh, bones, and organs are replaced 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.
Horror tattoos 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.
Check out these awesome scary tattoos.
Mandalas have been around for centuries, both as a form of meditation as well as art in the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian religions.
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.
The word ‘mandala’ is in fact Sanskrit for ‘circle’, although you’ll find oval and lotus shaped mandala tattoos as well.
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.
Our artists begin from a fixed point, drawing the heart of the mandala and carefully constructing layer on layer as they go along.
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.
Nature is full of geometry.
Consider the beautiful fibonacci spiral of a seashell, the structured hexagons of a bee hive, or the predictable pattern of a spider web.
The oldest tattoos, like those found in Polynesian cultures, often follow geometric patterns to pay homage to nature’s math.
Features of geometric tattoos:
- 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.
- Can be symmetrical, but not necessarily.
- Can have repeating patterns, but not necessarily.
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 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.
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 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.
Aside from sailors who would mark important dates, consider how concentration camp prisoners in World War 2 were identified with tattoos.
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.
With literally thousands of fonts to choose from, why go with something ordinary when you can be extraordinary with custom script?
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.
Combine your cursive tattoo with other styles for an impactful piece.
The Golden Rule: Less is More.
Simple, understated, and most often small; these are the defining characteristics of minimalistic tattoos.
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
Negative space is the main theme, allowing for details and secondary thematics without having them explicitly stated.
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.
If you love the philosophy of short and sweet, you know what to do.
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 style tattoos.
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.
In 1827, when woodblock prints from Utagawa Kunioshy became vastly popular, Irezumi increased in popularity among the general public.
Everybody wants to be a badass.
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.
Every tattoo tells a powerful story.
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;
- 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.
Japanese tattoos are a work of art and your skin is the canvas.
Go bold or go home with blackwork tattoos.
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.
Tribal tattoos not only include the mesmerising swirling geometric patterns you know and love.
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 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 tattoos:
- Crisp, all black designs.
- Only black ink, no shades of grey.
- Thick outlines and large filled in areas.
- Intense shading.
- Use of negative space.
There is a distinct difference between blackwork and black and grey tattoos.
Black and grey tattoos use black ink and shades of grey made from grey washing, which is the dilution of black ink.
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.
Through blackwork, your tattoos may not have an ancient meaning – but it can mean something to you.
Tattoos are all about self-expression, whether or not it’s rooted in tradition.
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 tattoos 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.
Watch this space for a look at the ultimate list of tattoo styles at a glance:
- Classic Americana Tattoos (Old School Traditional)
- New School
- Black & Grey
- Stick & Poke
- Trash Polka
- Cover Up
- Blast Over
- Dot work
- Fine line
- Continuous Contour
- Optical Illusion
- 3D Tattoos
- Broken Glass
- Negative Space
- Stained Glass
- Torn/ripped skin
- Wood carving
- Pop Art
- Aboriginal Dreamtime
- Sak Yant (Thai Bamboo)
- East Asian
- South Asian
- North American
- Earth Lines
- Skin Stitching
- Paint brush stroke
- White Ink
- UV Glow in the Dark
Still hungry for more? Check out these blogs from the archives;