There are probably thousands of styles of tattoos around now, with talented artists creating their own every day. But a lot of those designs are adapted from certain historically popular tattoo styles—many of them decades or even centuries old.
Here are twelve of the classic styles of tattoo art, the ones you definitely want to know before you start getting into tattoo design. If you’re looking for the perfect tattoo style, you may not be able to use the exact terminology of what you want, but in all likelihood you’ll have one of these in mind already. Figuring out how exactly you want your perfect tattoo to look like is hard, but we hope the styles below will help you narrow it down.
Here are the 12 most popular, classic tattoo styles:
1. Classic Americana tattoo
These may be the first kind of tattoo you think of, an old-school style defined by bold outlines and the use of similar colors and imagery. They’re closely tied to the ocean and nautical imagery, pinup female figures, fierce predatory animals, or combinations of hearts, roses, and daggers. The tattoo style was popularized by Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins in the 1930s, but is a consistent choice today—shown here by Frankie Caraccioli of Kings Avenue Tattoo.
2. New school tattoo style
New School tattoos are like a crazy comic book on your body. Jesse Smith‘s work is famous in this category, depicting fabulous imagined worlds full of chaos and very often chariactured animals in vivid color.
3. Japanese tattoo style
As we showed you in a previous post, there are centuries of history for the art tattooing all over the world. One that has maintained it’s popularity is the Japanese style Irezumi. Tattoo artists still create both traditional and new takes on these classic masterpieces. And it’s a genre particularly known for large images that cover the back, arms, and legs.
Here, Chris O’Donnell of New York shows off the traditional animal, floral, and samurai imagery of this style.
4. Black and grey tattoo style
Jessica Mascitti of LA’s East Side Tattoo shows us great examples of different kinds of work in a genre that can encompass a wide range of styles. Black and grey images aren’t as limited by subject matter, depicting anything and everything realistically in shades of grey, originally done by watering down black ink to create a spectrum of shades.
5. Portraiture tattoo
Shane O’Neill shows us how realistic you can get with tattoos with his portraiture, a sub-set of the realism genre (which is just like it sounds—realistic renderings of imagery). Without the black outlines of some of the more classic styles, artists are able to achieve eerily accurate renditions of people both in color and black and grey.
6. Stick and poke tattoo
Artist Slowerblack shows off the possibilities of the stick-n-poke, where the artist uses a single needle to create simple designs. Recently popularized for DIY tattoo-ers, in the hands of a professional this art can go to beautiful levels, characterized by thick and bold lines most often in simple black with small decorative patterns.
7. Realism tattoo
Realistic tattoos can portray anything from scenery or objects to animals and people. Whether colorful or in black and white, this is a classic tattoo style that is ideal if there’s something very specific you want to portray. Realistic tattoos are hard to get perfectly right and it takes a skilled tattoo artist or tattoo designer to create a realistic-looking artwork with amazing visual impact.
8. Blackwork tattoo style
Blackwork is a tattoo style originally derived from the original tribal tattoos, made of thick and bold black lines in a variety of geometric shapes. But artists continue to take this genre to new levels, incorporating patterns and imagery derived from all sorts of sources into mesmerizing pieces swirling in different forms around the body, like these from Nazareno Tubaro (who also created the featured image!)
9. Biomechanical tattoo
Typically freehanded, Biomechanical tattoos adapt to the unique flow of a person’s body, meant to mimic machinery that could be hidden within the skin. It’s hard to get away from Roman Abrego‘s name when you bring up these bad boys—his alien and mechanical-inspired images covering often the arms and legs of his clients.
10. Geometric tattoo style
Geometric tattoos are very popular right now and can be really timeless when done right. They can either feature geometric elements only or have a combination of geometric and organic (often floral or natural) elements. The contrast between the exact, sharp lines of this tattoo style and the curves of the body makes them stands out in a bold way.
11. Realistic Trash Polka tattoo
Realistic Trash Polka was created by Germany’s Buena Vista Tattoo Club. Created by Simone Plaff and Volko Merschky, it’s instantly recognizable for it’s collage-like structure, intricate and sampling from printed materials—from photography to hand-writing, paint splashes to type-writing.
12. Surrealism tattoo style
The art genre of surrealism gives artists loads of material to work with. The artistic style can change, the subject can change, but as long as the viewer comes out of the experience with that feeling of sublime fantasy, the artist has achieved their purpose. Pictured here are the amazing works of Milanese tattoo artist Pietro Sedda, owner of the shop The Saint Mariner.
And there you have it, a summary of the 12 most popular tattoo styles out there. But remember that there are no rules when it comes to picking the right style of tattoo. You can get creative and create your own inspired by the styles above.
What are your favorite tattoo styles? Tell us in the comments!
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This article was originally written in 2015. It has been updated with new information and examples.