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Come As You Are, As You were, As I Want You to Be

Updated: Feb 6

Tattoo Styles

Peter Hernandez



Hello Speakeasy readers, Peter from Los Angeles back today and we are diving into different styles of tattoos, but first let's take a quick history lesson on where we come from as artists. For as long as culture and society has existed within humans, there has been body modification. It's eerie how almost all of our ancients cultures practiced a form of art we still do to this day. Writing this I found out that tattoos are at least 8000 years old. The oldest known human tattoo preserved upon his mummified skin is a Bronze Age man dubbed “Ötzi iceman”. He was found in a glacier of the Alps between Italy and Austria.

In japan, it is believed that tattooing ones skin dates back to the Paleolithic era. The first records of tattoos were found in 5000 B.C., during the Jomon period, on clay figurines depicting designs on the face and body pictures of japanese dolls.

Tattooed mummies can be found in Egypt. This infrared image shows the male mummy known as Gebelein Man. On his arm, you can see his tattoos.

5,000-year-old mummies have tattooed images of sheep and bulls.

In our own history In the United States, technological advances in machinery, design, and color led to a unique, all-American, mass-produced form of tattoo. Martin Hildebrandt set up a permanent tattoo shop in New York City in 1846 and began a tradition by tattooing sailors and military servicemen from both sides of the Civil War.

They could get different tattoos, including skulls, anchors, and snakes, in the belief that they could protect them from the dangers of the sea. A New York City tattoo artist, Samuel O'Reilly, was granted a patent for the first tattooing machine in 1891. By adapting Thomas Edison's design for an electric pen, O'Reilly created a tattoo machine with a reciprocating motor that powered a needle, which was faster and less painful than previous hand methods.

Due to the popularity of tattoos in the mid-1900s, the Americans in the general public started experimenting and branching out from the typical skulls and anchors to more art forms. This is when new styles of tattoos began to emerge, including the American traditional styles that are commonly used today. Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins, a famous tattooist, is said to be the pioneer of modern tattooing style, which involves bold lines and vibrant colors.

Generally speaking in 2023, i'd say that when we look back on tattoos from our time period I think it’ll be the absurdly precise Neo traditional realism tattoos that’ll define us. there is a vast array of genres so I'm limiting this blog to 3 styles of tattooing.


Neo-traditional tattoos are similar to traditional tattoos but tend to have more complex color palettes and more variation in line weight. The subject matter for this tattoo style is also more varied and there are beautiful examples of Neo-traditional animals, people, and plant life. Blayne Meszko of hushanesthetic.com describes Neo-traditional tattoo designs as "bold, dark outlines and illustrative looks". There is a feeling of subtle dimension and the use of saturated colors. This dimension is not a 3D type of tattoo, yet they contain lines that vary in weight. This style of tattoo art consists of an illustrated look. They expand on the traditional American tattoo style by providing a broader color palette and depth and dimension.

If you’re a fan of statement ink, this style might be just what you need. Neo-traditional tattoos are generally larger, and are perfect for covering the arm,

leg, or torso areas because their brighter colors make a statement.


Apart from Neo-traditional tattoo styles, there are others, including black and grey. Originally black-and-grey is sometimes referred to as "jailhouse" or "joint style" and is thought to have originated in prisons; they resorted to using guitar strings for needles and used cigarette ashes or pen ink to produce tattoos.

In the modern day, black and grey tattoos are one of the most popular styles and cover any subject matter. Traditional black and grey tattoos are known also as old school tattoos. They are defined by heavy outlines and minimal shading and a blend of boldness and intricacy that often carry nautical themes (ships, anchors, lighthouses, compasses with flowers, knives, sea creatures, message in a bottle etc). Black and grey traditional tattoo flash is common in many tattoo parlors, to help clients visualize an already existing tattoo design on the walls of the tattoo studio or in binders at the front desk.

Jose Torres, a prominent black and grey artist describes photorealism tattoos; "elaborate and meticulous depictions of real people and situations with truth and accuracy to their actual image."

The art movement that birthed realism began in France in the 1840s, in response and rejection of the subject matter of the Romantic Art Movement which focused on exotic, emotional, and dramatic representations. Realism tattoos seek to create an image that is representative of exactly what the human eye sees, without doctoring the image or exaggerating any aspect of the person or subject.When done well, black and grey realism tattoos are the exact representation of the subject, scenery, photograph, drawing or painting from which they are inspired.

The last style of tattoo that I will touch on, is watercolor.

Watercolor tattoos were popularized by artists acting out of defiance toward the traditions of the tattoo industry. Brooklyn-based artist Amanda Wachob took the art of tattooing in an entirely new direction in the last 10 years, pioneering a technique that has now become known as watercolor tattoos. Even just 10-15 years ago, the majority of tattoo shops across the United States specialized in old school, American Traditional designs. I remember this happening and how crazy it was for someone to think out of the box. It just seems so obviously great. Like the fine art that has inspired its stylistic creation, watercolor tattoos are usually beautiful, organic, and graceful plays of color that use the skin as a canvas.

Rather newly founded, the trend has since seen a lift due to artists that continue to push the aesthetic, methods, and concepts to new heights of ingenuity.














Prominent Los Angeles tattoo artist SUNNY MA 彫浄 has a beautiful style and emotion inspiring imagery. It perfectly encapsulates the tropes and staples of watercolor while still pushing the boundaries of what a person can do on the skin. Depth, color, and culture are beautifully crafted to perfection and really drives home the phrase fine are on skin.

there are so many different styles and sub genres of tattooing that trying to research them all is a collegiate task best left to the professionals. i am but a humble artist. new-traditional, watercolor and black and grey are only a snap shot of what's out there. i encourage every one interested to see how far down the rabbit hole with a style that you can go and maybe you might even think of something new. it is a really exciting time to be a tattoo artist. i look forward to sharing more of these thoughts with you next week. i can't wait actually. I've hyperlinked all the sources and i hope you check them out for yourself.


till next time my fellow apes.

peter hernandez





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