The Different Tattoo Styles: A Comprehensive Guide

Tattoos have been a popular form of body art for centuries, and over the years, a wide range of tattoo styles have emerged. From traditional ink to modern techniques like watercolor and hand-poked tattoos, there is a tattoo style to suit every taste and preference.

In this article, we’ll delve into the history of tattoos and explore the various tattoo styles that have developed over the years. Whether you’re new to tattoos or are a seasoned ink enthusiast, this guide will help you understand the different tattoo styles available and find the one that best suits your body art goals.

Traditional / Old-School tattoo style

The traditional tattoo style is often also called the old-school style or ‘sailor tattoos’ since a lot of the American traditional tattoos were used to mark sailors for goodluck, or to mark a sailor’s milestones.

Some common elements of traditional tattoo styles include:

  • Nautical themes, such as anchors, ships, and mermaids

  • Americana imagery, such as eagles, flags, and pin-up girls

  • Animals, such as snakes, dragons, and panthers

  • Floral designs, such as roses and lilies

We can recognize a traditional tattoo by its bold lines and bright colors. The designs themselves are also often not that intricate.

The bright color palette is also limited due to lack of tattooing equiptment back in the day. These tattoo designs were often done by hand at the start of this iconic style.

It’s important to note, that the tattoo artist Sailor Jerry is the godfather of the American Traditional style. We have an in depth article about American Traditional tattoos, go read it if you want to learn more about the history!

If you’re in need of more specific tattoo ideas to get inspired, you’re in luck, because also have a page for that!

Neo-traditional tattoo style

As the name already suggests, neo-traditional tattoos take inspiration from the old-school style. Although it’s still a style that gives a 2D effect, it uses different line weights and its color palette isn’t as limited.

All of this together with the more subtle gradients create a more lifelike look and more intricate tattoos.

Some common imagery of neo-traditional tattoos include:

  • Botanical

  • Animals

  • Strong curves, filagree

Maori tattoo style

Maori tattoos are one of the first tattoo styles that spread. In the past, these maori tattoos were not just used as body decoration. They were used to mark indigenous people to express a variety of things, such as values, spirituality, war victories, identity or social ranking. You could identify a person by simply looking at a pattern on their ink-engraved body art. Or what we today call, tribal and maori tattoos.

Since tribal tattoos is an umbrella term for multiple style tattoos (e.g. maori), there are a lot of different elements that characterize this style.

  • Patterns (teeth, waves, etc…)

  • Only black ink

  • Sharp points and negative space

Blackwork tattoo style

The blackwork tattoo style uses only black ink, just like the tribal tattoo style does. Tribal tattoos are blackwork’s ancestors!

This style covers just about any subject matter and the tattoos can range from minimalist tattoos to intricate tattoos.

A lot of blackwork tattoo artists, tend to go for the dark side of their imagination. Detailed monsters, death and macabre representations of animals, people or objects are common subjects.

Some people might refer to it as black and grey tattoo style.

Realism tattoo style

The realism tattoo style is one of the most popular tattoo styles!

It’s just like how it sounds, these tattoos are made to look exactly how its subject would look like in real life. You’re essentially getting a photo on your skin!

Realistic tattoos are in a really high demand, which makes it sometimes a bit more expensive. It takes a really long time to master realistic tattoos, so some tattoo artists might charge a bit more.

There are no hard outlines with this style and everything is made to look 3D, so if you want a portrait tattoo this might be the style for you.

New-school tattoo style

Unlike the tad more realistic neo-traditional tattoos, new-school tattoos break a lot of boundaries. This is why we see the use of a bold color palette and various bold lines.

New-school tattoos also have a bit of a cartoonish appearance thanks to the exaggerated facial features reminiscent of a caricature. The subject of a tattoo is also often viewed from a warped perspective.

Japanese tattoo style

The Japanese style is one many tattoo lovers adore, and righteously so!

Traditional Japanese tattoos are also characterized by bold outlines, very saturated colors and lots of black! The main colors used in Japanese tattoos are red, green, yellow/gold and blue.

These tattoos were originally done with the tebori method, where a slender piece of wood, bamboo or metal with a needle grouping attached at the tip would be making the ink markings on the individual’s skin.

The depictions we see in the Japanese tattoo style are images inspired from old Japanese woodblock art and Japanese mythology.

Here are some common elements:

  • Dragons: wisdom and wealth

  • Fu Dogs: protection and power

  • Koi fish: courage and success

  • Peonies: honor and good luck

  • Cherry Blossoms: renewal and optimism

Fine-line tattoo style

Fine-line tattoos are pretty self-explanatory. It’s a style where variations of line thicknesses bring depth and movement to a tattoo.

To do this, this style uses the smallest needles to create simple and elegant designs. Fine line therefore literally means “thin line,” but sometimes a combination of thin and thick lines is used. All of this creates a beautiful contrast. 

Tattoos in the fine-line style are often said to be minimalistic tattoos thanks to their delicate nature. Almost any subject can therefore be done in this style such as names, animals, flowers and even organs. 

If you want more in depth information, we have a full article on this style!

Handpoke tattoo style

Handpoking is essentially the process of manually poking a design onto someone’s skin using only your hands and a needle. That needle is often strapped onto a piece of wood as a handle.

You might’ve heared this being called stick and poke tattoos, machine-free tattoos, non-electric tattooing,…. They all describe the same thing. What it is NOT, is hand-tapping or tebori. 

Most of these tattoos are simple and minimalistic.

We also have an article on this topic that goes in depth!

Dotwork tattoo style

You might have heard the term poitilism tattoo art before, but essentially dotwork tattoos is exactly what it souds like. It’s a style that mainly uses the dotwork technique where small, precise dots are inked to create detailed and often abstract designs. The dotworking style can be combined with other styles in order to create a unique design, for example – geometric tattoo style.

Here’s two great examples of a combination of geometric tattoos with dotwork tattoos.

Sketchy tattoo style

Sketchy tattoos are a contemporary style of tattooing that’s made up from loose, freehand lines to create a more ‘organic’ and spontaneous look, like sketches on paper do. It also creates a sense of movement and energy in the tattoo.

A sketch tattoo is often bold and expressive, hence why we can see a lot of portraits, animals and abstract tattoos in this style of tattooing.

This style has more freedom to it and is as a result less precise than a classic tattoo style like traditional tattoos might be.

As with all tattoo styles, a skilled tattoo artist is required if you want to end with a satisfying result.