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Tattoo Style 101

Updated: Jan 6

Tattoo Style 101

Have you ever wondered what the real differences are between tattoo types? There are many easy to recognize differences that set one tattoo apart from another, and can classify it into a certain vein. Here I will explain a quick go to guide for beginners to the differentiate emerging tattoo styles; old and new.

  1. Traditional

Traditional tattoo (after ancient tribal technique) is considered one of the oldest forms of tattoo known to the modern world. It is also referred to as American Traditional or Old School. This recognizable style is set apart by its limited color pallet, bold black outlines and lack of detail. The color pallet typically included red, yellow, green, and, black until purple was added later. Imagery lends itself to hearts, roses, daggers, skulls, nautical themes, and pin up. Notable tattoo artists that perfected this style were Norman Keith Collins (Sailor Jerry 1911-1973), Herbert Hoffmann (1919-2010), Bert Grimm (1900-1985), and Bob Shaw (1926-1993). These artists set the stage for American Traditional tattoo.

  1. Nio Traditional

Nio Traditional is somewhat similar to the Old School (Traditional) Technique with the usage of bold outlines and limited symbiology. It is a modern-day conglomeration of the American Traditional styles with the addition of realistic images, cartoon, more detail, and experimental color blending. Nio Traditional tattoos are custom made, and can merge different styles together to create a unique and complex image.

  1. Nu Skool / New School

New School technique is heavily influenced by graffiti, pop culture, and hip-hop cartoon like designs. This style originated in the 1970’s and depicts exaggerated  subject matter with bold heavy outlines and bright vivid colors. New School contains a wide variety of subject matter where the sky is the limit, in contrast to traditional techniques. This style represents a transition in artist’s attitudes about sharing techniques and information on their work; beginning a movement of progressive openness. This came at a time when Old School artists tended to keep secrecy in their work out of fear of competition ultimately stifling innovation in the tattoo community. The awakening created by New School artists began to open new doors to artistic creativity and expression.

  1. Realism

Realism is exactly what it sounds like; the artist depicts an image exactly how it would exist in the real world.  This technique comes across as if having photographic tendencies.  It takes a very finely skilled tattoo artist who has the ability to recreate true to life detailed images directly on the skin. The subject matter leans towards portraiture, flowers, and animals, with a photo realistic articulation.

  1. Watercolor

Watercolor tattoos are one of the most popular type of tattoo on the market at the moment. These beautiful ethereal color driven tattoos are meant to mimic the translucency of paint on canvas or paper. They can be an all-encompassing design with no set line work or outline. Watercolor tattoos copy the artistic process of paint splashes fading in and out of the foreground and background of the tattoo plain. The subject matter revolves around themes of nature with organic shapes and bright colors.

  1. Japanese or Irezumi

Truly one of the oldest sacred world tattoo art forms, this style dates back to 10,000BCE. Japanese tattooing covers large areas of the body, even full body tattoos, with an artistic style that is set with very strict artistic rules. They are meant to serve as spiritual symbols or convey societal status, used for protection or symbolizing devotion. These tattoos adhere to ancient traditions that stay within unyielding guidelines of imagery, positioning, color and direction.  The subject matter here lies with dragons, war dogs, cherry blossoms, koi fish, lotus flowers, and whimsical geishas.

  1. Tribal

Tribal, yet another ancient tattoo art form of body art. Tribal focuses on complimenting the shape of the body, and is almost always articulated in black ink. There is symmetry, detailed precision, and geometrical design. Tribal tattoos were, and still are, often performed as a rite of passage and depict social status and family identification.  Some of the cultures where these tattoos are born come from Hawaii, India, Maori, Samoa, Polynesia, Borneo, Aztec cultures, and the people of New Zealand.

  1. Geometric and Dot work

These two styles can coincide and go together hand in hand. They are intricate designs created with geometry, symmetry, and repetition. They are traditionally done in black but can also incorporate color.  Geometric shapes defined by mathematics are formed to shape patterns with consistency and balance. These intricate tattoos are said to be performed with the intended goal to show enlightenment and a path to understanding. They are designed as building blocks where each shape portrays a specific meaning that adds to the next block to building perception and knowledge.

So, just a little blurb on a few of the most common tattoo styles for you to nourish your tattoo mind. Tattoo style 101 for the beginning tattoo enthusiast.

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn” -Orson Wells-

Happy Healing,


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