Tattoo Styles Explained

Understanding Tattoo Styles

Describing which tattoo styles you want to your friends without knowing how to name a style can be tricky. Maybe you’re looking for reference photos for your artist, but you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for. Worst case scenario, you send ideas to your artist but misname the style and show up to your appointment and see a drawing that’s nothing like you’d hoped.

Today, we’re going to discuss the different tattoo styles so you can better communicate and research precisely what you’re looking for to your friends, your artist, and google. Walking into your appointment wanting an Egyptian tattoo but walking out with something traditional will likely be disappointing.

sexy man in arm tattoo style

Traditional Style

Traditional Style is also known as western, American traditional style, or old school tattoo style. This style is one of the most iconic and classic tattoo styles popularized by Sailor Jerry, Don Ed Hardy, and Lyle Tuttle.

This style of tattooing uses iconic symbols such as roses, anchors, lady heads, swallows, banners, and features mostly red, black, grey, and green colors. Features of tattoos done in this style are bright colors and bold lines. This style is one of the most classic and beloved and ages beautifully over time. Some military tattoos and marine tattoos are often done in this style, especially flash designs from the legendary Sailor Jerry.

Neo-Traditional Style

Much like its traditional brother, this style encompasses the same bold lines and bright colors but offers a brighter range of motifs, colors, and ideas.

Neo-Traditional style usually involves adding additional flora and fauna themes or additional detail work. Neo-traditional tattoos still capture the essence of a traditional tattoo but offer a more modern take on the same ideas. Some neo-traditional tattoos are considered neo-traditional just because of the shift in colors. I have a butterfly and three swallows, done straight from a piece of Sailor Jerry flash. Still, I wanted to add some lavender, teal, and blues as highlights, it became a neo-traditional piece because it didn’t follow the standard color guidelines.

If you love the feel and look of a traditional tattoo but aren’t as psyched about some of the flash options or strict guidelines for that forearm sleeve tattoo, a neo-traditional tattoo could be for you!

smiling man with hand tattoo style

Japanese Tattoo Style

This style mostly speaks for itself. Japanese tattoo style originated during the Edo period in Japan. At the time, decorative wood blocks became popular, and the imagery made its way onto the bodies of those who loved them. Japanese style tattoos will feature classic iconographies like dragons, phoenixes, and koi and share a story about Japan’s rich past or mythology.

Tribal Tattoo Style

Tribal tattoos are tattoos based on the imagery and body art adorned by indigenous cultures such as the Aborigines of Australia, Maori of Polynesia, or Native Americans. Tribal tattoos are often done in black, and while these tattoos fit under one umbrella, someone familiar with the cultures can spot the differences in each style.

handsome man with hand tattoo style

Realistic and Hyper-Realistic Tattoo Styles

Realism tattoos look just how they sound — realistic. These tattoos capture the details, light, and shadows of portraiture on skin. Usually, this style focuses on portraiture, but animals, nature, mountains, and other elements are often present. The central theme of realistic tattooing is that they are as realistic as possible. Before getting a tattoo in this style, research your artist carefully and know that moving and stretching of skin over time can affect these tattoos often more so than other styles.

Watercolor Tattoo Style

Watercolor style tattoos aim to capture the same dabbled textures and soft lines seen in watercolor paintings. This style has exploded in popularity over the last two decades; I’ve got a full watercolor sleeve of my own! Recreating watercolor paintings on the skin takes a skilled hand and a lot of time with a shader needle.

handsome guy with tattoo styles calling by smartphone in a caffe

Illustrative Tattoo Style

A large variety of work fits under this umbrella. Each artist often combines their own style within this realm to create something unique. Generally, if the tattoo looks like you could find it on a canvas, it is an illustrative tattoo. Art styles like German expressionism, cubism, abstract expressionism, and fauvism have impacted illustrative tattooing.

Blackwork Tattoo Style

Blackwork style tattoos are tattoos done solely in black. This style encompasses a huge range of tattoos, so if you’re trying to communicate what you want to your artist in this style, get ready to be more specific.

Sub-categories of blackwork tattoos include sacred geometry, ornamental, pointillism, Spanish blackwork, Chicano, and henna-style tattoos. Tribal tattoos often take up a large portion of this realm, but artists inspired by etching and engraving have created unique styles in this monochromatic world of tattooing.


This list is by no means comprehensive. We encourage you to continue to research and always have plenty of reference images before approaching an artist. Google searches and Pinterest are excellent for finding resources, or you can check out tattoo lists on particular styles like marine tattoos, military tattoos, watercolor tattoos, and more! Lastly, don’t forget to make sure you have an excellent healing lotion for your fresh ink post-appointment.