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The Ultimate Guide to Different Tattoo Styles

The Ultimate Guide to Different Tattoo Styles June 25, 2018

tattoo styles

Here's the field guide to different tattoo styles you didn't know you needed

So you want to get a new tattoo, but you have no idea where to start. Should it have deep, serious meaning for you, or are you fine with pulling something off a flash sheet because it looks cool? Are you into heavy outlines and bright colors, or is soft black and grey more your speed? Who should you even see to get work done? The answer here, by the way, is definitely not someone doing work out of their garage. Have no fear, dear reader. I've put together a definitive tattoo styles guide, including the top styles as well as some of the top artists in each specialty. 

American Traditional

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/dansmithism

One of the oldest tattoo styles, American traditional was the result of early sailors wanting to permanently commemorate their high sea voyages. They’re known for having bold, black outlines and a limited color palette (because hey, tattoo ink wasn’t exactly what it is today). Typically, traditional designs include pin-ups, swallows, anchors, daggers, and roses.

Dustin Stemen — Black Anvil Tattoo | Fort Wayne, Indiana

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/dustinstemen
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If you’re looking to throw back to American days of old, you’re going to want to head down to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Old school tattoos are Dustin Stemen’s specialty, and he’s phenomenal at tattooing literally every classic image. So while this rose would for sure make a nice addition to your collection, you might also want to consider a traditional gypsy to go with it.

Neo-Traditional

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/miguellepage

Like traditional tattoos, the neo-traditional style is marked by bold linework and a (mostly) classic color palette. Unlike traditional, however, neo-traditional is known for having more realistic depth and shading. Its subject matter is expanded as well, so think swans, wolves, and better looking ladies.

Dashuai_Ma — HaloInk Tattoo Shop | Beijing, China

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/dashuai_ma

If you ever have the opportunity to fly your ass out to Beijing, set aside some time to hit up Halo Ink for the most amazing neo-traditional tattoo you’ll ever be lucky enough to receive. Dashuai Ma has done some of the cleanest, most beautiful work in the world, and her color palette is nothing short of stunning. She also owns the shop, which just makes her a badass bitch overall.

Traditional Japanese (Irezumi)

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/horiyotatt
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Having come to popularity during the Edo period (1603-1868), traditional Japanese tattoos are a celebration of classic folklore. It’s why you’ll mostly see stuff like mythological beasts and monsters (dragons and foo-dogs), geisha, samurai, and buddhas covering people’s bodies. And we do mean covering — full body suits are commonplace.

Horiyoshi Souryou the 3rd — Yokohama, Japan

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/souryou

Traditional Japanese tattooing is deeply intertwined with the Yakuza. It’s considered disrespectful to actually show them in public (which is why they’re usually cut off at the wrists and neck). A master will pass down his knowledge to a single apprentice, a process that takes years, and Horiyoshi "Souryou" the 3rd, who works out of a private studio in Yokohama, is the current heir to master Horiyoshi III’s tattoo line.

Tribal

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/danieldimattiacalypsotattoo

Literally the oldest form of tattooing in the entire goddam world. Indigenous body art dates back thousands of years and actually varies from tribe to tribe of aboriginal communities (although you’d never know it from the onslaught of awfulness that hit US shops in the early ‘00s). Tribal tattoos are known for their elaborate patterns and are almost 100% done in black.

Daniel DiMattia — Calypso Tattoo | Belgium

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/danieldimattiacalypsotattoo
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Daniel DiMattia is a self-taught Belgium artist who’s been working for over 20 years. He has a serious love for tribal tattooing (among other styles), and his shop is lined with books on African tribes, Polynesian culture, and everything in between. He isn’t just doing what he does for a paycheck; the guy takes a genuine interest in the cultures he studies, so you’d be able to sleep well knowing the design he’s created for you isn’t just some piece of garbage arm band.

Realism

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/nikkohurtado

Unlike outline-heavy styles, realism relies on shading and color for contrast. It’s meant to look like a photo, essentially recreating on skin what you’d see in real life. It’s really only been around since the second half of the 20th century and has gained popularity with artists like Kat Von D and Nikko Hurtado.

Nikko Hurtado — Black Anchor LA | Los Angeles, CA

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/nikkohurtado

Speaking of… if it’s a portrait you’re after (real or fictional), Nikko Hurtado is the man to do it. Since 2002, he’s been a real force in the industry, and aside from having opened two separate shops, he’s been featured on several TV series and travels the world leading seminars on color theory and technique. So, good luck booking that appointment and all.

Hyperrealism

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/stefan_tattoos
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Take realism and turn it up to a thousand, and that’s what you’ll get with hyperrealism. Every pore. Every bead of sweat. Every tiny light fracture. It’s like watching a movie on your home TV versus watching it on a theater screen in XD. And it’s the new wave of realistic tattooing.

Stefan — Black Rainbow Tattoo Theatre | Zwickau, Germany

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/stefan_tattoos

Step into Black Rainbow Tattoo Theatre in Zwickau, Germany, and it’s like stepping into an actual theater. Which is appropriate, seeing as how Stefan tattoos like his work should be shown on a big screen. Seriously, if you’ve ever wanted a piece pulled straight from a movie poster and etched permanently into your skin, Stefan is the guy to see.

Illustrative

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/kimsaigh

If you were to take elements from both American traditional and realism styles and combine them into something new, that something would be illustrative. With bold outlines, intense color saturation, and realistic shading, it’s one of the most beautiful styles being practiced today. Plus, it’s just imaginative AF.

Teresa Sharpe — Unkindness Art | Richmond, VA

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/teresasharpeart
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Fans of tattoo competitions might recognize Teresa Sharpe from the second season of Best Ink (a show that actually went into development before Ink Master, FYI). She wound up taking the grand prize that year, and for good f—ing reason. Sharpe specializes in whimsical, mythical pieces that are meant to stand the test of time. Phoenix chest piece, here we come.

New School

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/jessesmithtattoos

Like the illustrative style, new school tattoos are heavily influenced by traditional work: heavy outlines, bold colors. Where new school differs is in the actual drawing. Known for its over-exaggerated, wildly colored take on old school designs, new school is the weird and wonderful result of ‘90s graffiti culture.

Jesse Smith — Loose Screw Tattoo | Richmond, VA

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/jessesmithtattoos

Damn, Virginia is kind of the place to be these days for tattooers. Jesse Smith is one of the resident artists at Loose Screw Tattoo in Richmond, a shop full of amazing new school artists. He thrives on creativity and doesn’t buy into the cliché artwork of the industry, so you can bet your ass the piece he does for you will be one of a kind.

Watercolor

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/marcus_lund
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One of the most popular tattooing styles in recent years, watercolor is everything American traditional is not. Known for a lack of outline and soft, pastel colors, it emulates an actual brush stroke on canvas. And while it sounds like it’d be easy to do (no lines to master!), it’s anything but, especially if you want the thing to last.

Marcus Lund — Marcus Lund Tattoo | St. Petersburg, FL

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/marcus_lund

Take a trip to Florida and you’ll find Marcus Lund, a self-described “avant garde tattoo specialist.” His work looks like it came directly from the pages of a storybook, and his color technique is soft and beautiful. He also has a distinctive masculine vs. feminine palette, so if you think a watercolor tattoo is too “girlie” to get, think again.

Trash Polka

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/trashpolkaofficial

Trash polka has only been around for 20 years, but its style is completely unique. If you see one of these tattoos, you’ll know immediately what it is. Combining elements from literally every other style into a black and red mixed media form, trash polka is known for pulling from realism, surrealism, lettering, and geometric shapes.

Volko Merschky & Simone Pfaff — Buena Vista Tattoo Club | Würzburg, Germany

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/trashpolkaofficial
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It isn’t going to be a true trash polka tattoo unless it’s done at Buena Vista Tattoo Club in Germany. Volko Merschky & Simone Pfaff invented the form in 1998, composing the various elements of style (trash) into a single composition, like music (polka). Today, it’s practiced around the world, but there’s no reason not to get it done by the creators (except maybe the cost of that plane ticket).

Blackwork

tattoo styles
IMAGE BY: Instagram/alex_tabuns

Blackwork is sort of a broad term for anything done solely with black ink. Artists can vary in specific styles, from illustrative to sacred geometry. We’ve included it on this list because not only has it risen in popularity tremendously over the last several years, but also because it’s where you’ll find some of the most talented artists in the industry today, who’ve pulled from nearly every other style to create something truly amazing and long-lasting.

Henry Big — Greenpoint Tattoo Company | Brooklyn, New York

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IMAGE BY: Instagram/bighenry

If you want something big, bold and black, Henry Big is going to be your man. His work is pretty flawless, and there’s something inherently modern about his take on traditional tattoos. He also firmly believes old tattoo flash is haunted, which is excellent in and of itself.