Today, tattooing is one of the most popular ways that people express themselves. People get tattooed to commemorate special dates or events, show off a favorite image or object, express their personality and spirituality, or identify themselves as members of a particular group or culture. It’s also an art form that’s thousands of years old. It’s no surprise, then, that the range of tattooing styles is massive. If you’re interested in getting a tattoo but aren’t sure which style is right for you or how to describe the style of tattoo you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.
Traditional Style Tattoos
Traditional-style tattoos are defined by bold, black lines and bright colors. They often incorporate time-honored motifs such as hearts, flowers, ships, anchors, animals, women, or skulls. This style rose to prominence in the mid-1900s United States through the work of artists like Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, Bert Grimm, and Don Ed Hardy.
New School/Neo-Traditional Tattoo Style
In the late 20th century, a new generation of tattoo artists took the bold lines and colors of Traditional-style tattoos and added intricate details, greater color variance, and a heavy dose of Art Nouveau to create the New School tattoo style. While designs in this style are firmly anchored in the traditional tattoo aesthetic, they are more lush, composed, and intensely detailed, making this one of today’s most popular tattooing styles.
Chicano Style Tattoo
The Chicano tattooing style was created in the mid-1900s by Mexican and Mexican-American artists in the Southwestern United States. The Chicano style is traditionally defined by smooth black and grey tones, creating highly illustrative designs that often feature religious, political, and historical imagery.
Ignorant Style Tattoo
The Ignorant-style tattoo is a relatively recent development in tattoo art. Ignorant style tattoos are characterized by minimalist linework that evokes cartoons or graffiti art and often features humorous, absurd, or tongue-in-cheek images and text.
Sketch Style Tattoo
Sketch-style tattoos are another recent innovation in tattoo art. Sketch-style tattoos are heavily illustrative and often feature the type of free-flowing, pencil-like lines that you might find in an artist’s sketchbook. This style is an excellent alternative for people looking for something slightly less traditional.
Trash Polka Tattoo Style
Pioneered in the 1990s by German tattoo artists Simone Pfaff and Volker Merschky, Trash Polka tattoos are defined by designs that blend surrealism, photo-realism, and abstraction, often relying primarily on black with stark red accents. Typically, Trash Polka designs evoke the morbid and macabre.
Henna Style Tattoo
Henna is an ancient style of temporary body art that originated in Egypt but is common throughout southern Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, and North Africa. From ancient times to today, traditional henna application is an important part of many cultural and religious rites and rituals in these regions, especially marriage. These days, many people choose to make permanent the beautiful, intricate, and geometric patterns of traditional henna by getting a henna-style tattoo.
Yakuza Style Tattoo
Japanese-style tattoos, also called Yakuza style or Irezumi tattoos, have a long and fascinating history. The motifs that define modern Japanese style tattoos, such as samurai, dragons, snakes, clouds, tigers, and koi, date back to tattoos of the Edo Period (1603-1868). When tattoos became socially taboo in later Japanese history, criminal gangs embraced them as a mark of rebellion and allegiance, covering their entire bodies in elaborate tattoos.
Blackwork Tattoo Style
Blackwork tattoos aren’t defined by particular motifs or technical approaches — as the name suggests, they’re defined by the color black. Blackwork artists avoid chromatic hues and grey tints, relying entirely on black fill to complete their designs, regardless of its style. Blackwork tattoos are heavily influenced by traditional Polynesian tattooing.
Viking Style Tattoos
The Vikings were Scandanavian warriors from the middle-ages, famous for their violent naval raids and tattoos. Actual Vikings likely sported designs consisting primarily of runic symbols, geometric patterns, and knotted shapes. While such designs are still popular today, the style also includes non-traditional designs inspired by stories and characters from Norse mythology, such as Odin and Thor.
Illustrative Tattoo Style
The Illustrative tattoo style is a meta-style that encompasses many others, such as Chicano, Realism, New School, and Trash Polka. Generally speaking, Illustrative style tattoos rely on the techniques and principles of traditional drawing and illustration to create their designs, such as linear perspective, stippling, cross-hatching, and strong linework.
Gothic Style Tattoos
Gothic-style tattoos feature many of the same subjects and stylistic approaches as art from the Gothic and Gothic Revival artistic movements, which are defined by elaborate and ornate designs, often featuring a combination of religious and macabre imagery with supernatural undertones. Gothic style tattoos might also be influenced by modern Goth culture or horror tropes and imagery.
Cartoon Style Tattoo
Cartoon-style tattoos aim to recreate the look, feel, and emotion of your favorite childhood cartoons and comics. Because there are many different cartooning styles, cartoon tattoos are less defined by a common technical or aesthetic approach and more by their subject matter, whether it’s Mickey Mouse or Looney Tunes, Spongebob or Spider-Man.
Realism Tattoo Styles
The Realism tattoo style aims to create tattooed images that are as close to the real-life thing as artistically possible. Though this style is most popular for portraiture tattoos, tattoo artists push the boundaries of photo-realism to depict anything from inanimate objects to landscapes, animals, or even the grotesque and surreal.
Victorian Style Tattoos
Tattooing became a major cultural and artistic phenomenon in Victorian England (1837-1901), both among the working classes and the aristocracy. Victorian-style tattoos aim to recreate the relatively simple style used by Europe’s early modern tattoo artists, whose most popular designs included naval and religious images, hearts and expressions of love, and simple portraits.
Watercolor Style Tattoo
Watercolor tattoos are a relatively new innovation, evoking the fluidity, lightness, and mixed color saturation of watercolor painting. With few dark lines and borders, colors blend into one another and into the skin around the design to produce the effect of the image emerging organically from the skin.
Dot Style Tattoo
Dot-style tattoos, also called Dotwork, are created by placing small, individual dots of ink rather than using traditional linework and fill. Although time-consuming, this style of tattooing can produce some highly original and beautiful designs.
Geometric Style Tattoo
Geometric-style tattoos are some of the oldest and most widespread types of tattoos in the world. Nearly every culture that practiced tattooing used geometric design, and the tradition is going strong today. Geometric designs are popular because of their beauty and flexibility. They can be a stark and simple shape or a highly elaborate and complex pattern that creates a larger image, such as a mandala.
Graffiti Style Tattoo
Graffiti-style tattoos seek to bring the personality and flair of street art to the human canvas. From the stylized script of graffiti tags to the blend of cartoon and color typical of graffiti illustrations, Graffiti-style tattoos allow you to take the beauty and artistry of the street with you wherever you go.
Woodcut Style Tattoo
This tattooing style is based on a classic printing technique called woodcut, in which the artist carves the negative of an image into a block of wood, which can then be inked and pressed onto paper to replicate the image many times. Woodcut style tattoos recreate the fine linework, detail, and stylized appearance of this time-honored artistic technique.
Miniature/ Micro Tattoos
Micro tattoos are one of the hottest trends in tattooing from recent years, primarily fueled by celebrities and social media stars who sport them. As the name suggests, micro tattoos can be anything, as long as they’re teeny-tiny. While miniature tattoos are popular because they’re fashionable, they’re also a good option for people who can’t get or don’t want larger tattoos.
This style of tattooing aims to reinvent an age-old handicraft. But instead of your mom embroidering your name on your camp clothes, skilled tattoo artists like Duda Lozano use a careful combination of linework, shading, and highlights to “embroider” whatever design you want straight into your skin.
Sticker tattoos take the nostalgia of popping quarters into a corner store sticker dispenser and slapping it onto your skin. By outlining designs with a solid white border and using drop shadowing, tattoo artists can create the illusion of your tattoo being a sticker floating slightly above your skin. Artist Luke Cormier is one of the most popular practitioners of the sticker style.
Mashup Style Tattoos
Mashup tattoos do exactly what the name promises: take techniques from various tattooing styles, as well as influences from pop culture, and smash them together to create something completely new. This style has become popular for its freedom and flexibility, with artists such as Mashkow, Daria Pirojenko, and Chris Rigoni producing wildly different designs that all live comfortably in the growing Mashup tattoo tradition.
Ornamental tattoos draw on various other styles such as geometric, henna, and illustrative styles to create complex, intricate, and typically symmetrical designs. Although representations of natural objects sometimes occur in this style, it’s most typically confined to shapes and patterns executed in black.
The Brutal tattoo style was made famous by the Brutal Black Project, which aims to revive the ancient and ritualistic aspects of tattooing to save it from what its founders see as the soulless commodification of the art. By covering massive swaths of skin in nothing but thick, dark black, Brutal Black seeks transcendence through the practice of intentional pain.
Whether you’re looking for something elegant and ethereal, humorous and fun, dark and mysterious, or anything in between, there’s a tattoo style for you. Throughout history, tattoos have evolved to suit the aesthetics and tastes of people around the world. When you get inked, you’re joining in one of humanity’s oldest artistic traditions.