Top 10 tattoo styles that you need to know

One of the best things about modern tattoo art is that there is a wealth of different styles and specialist artists available. No matter if you’re looking for traditional tattoos with deep meanings like Sak Yant tattoos, or modern art like dainty watercolor tattoos, there will be a talented artist out there to help you achieve your ideal piece.

Tattoo styles range in popularity throughout the world, depending on the location and history behind each style. You would be surprised at the popularity of some tattoo styles in particular locations, though, for example Japanese tattoos are very popular in America, and American traditional tattoos are very popular in England. Others are less surprising though, Sak Yant tattoos are still very popular in cities like Phuket in Thailand, for example.

It can get confusing if you’re new to tattoos, though. How do you pick out the right style to suit your chosen tattoo? How do you make sense of all the differences between each type of style? In this article, we’ll be going over the top 10 tattoo styles that it’s important to know about if you’re interested in body art at all- ranging from traditional art styles to brand new modern styles.

1. Japanese

Japanese tattoos have become incredibly popular over the last few decades, and with good reason. Traditional Japanese tattoos are astonishingly beautiful, and can have a wide range of different subject matters. They’re often done in vibrant colours, but soft black and grey palettes are also very popular.

In terms of content, there are tons of beautiful images that Japanese tattoos contain. Flowers are very common, specifically cherry blossoms and peonies. It’s also very common to see subjects like legendary heroes, religious deities (specifically Shinto and Buddhist deities) and mythological creatures. Other common features include dragons, demons and oni masks. The backgrounds and frames of Japanese tattoos are very ornate too- they often include storm clouds, lightning and rivers.

Something that’s important to note with Japanese tattoos is that there are plenty of strict rules about symbolism that need to be followed. For example, tattoos of Buddha can only be done above the waist as anything below the waist would be deemed seriously offensive. Another example of this is oni masks (masks used in Japanese theatre that represent demons known as oni). You have to leave the eyes til last when colouring in or shading the piece of art, as to do otherwise would be very bad luck. If you are interested in tattoos and body art, we would definitely recommend reading into Japanese art more as it’s incredibly fascinating.

2. Old school

The term ‘old school’ in tattooing is used to refer to the American traditional style of tattooing. This style started to be developed in the 18th century, but skyrocketed in popularity in the 1950’s. This particular era has been dubbed the ‘tattoo renaissance’, as the tattoo industry went through massive social, artistic and technological changes.

The key people to be aware of in this particular style include Sailor Jerry (Norman Collins), Ed Hardy, Lyle Tuttle, Spider Webb, Cliff Raven and more. Sailor Jerry is a particular person to note, as his work is usually what people are referencing to when they talk about traditional or old school work. It’s beautifully simple, with a minimal colour palette and intense black lines.

Particularly popular subject matters in old school tattooing include swallows, anchors, ships, skulls and roses. Pin ups and mermaids are both very popular as well; bear in mind that this particular style of tattoo originates from the tattoos that sailors used to do. A lot of iconic tattoo imagery is considered old school- you will have probably seen the standard love heart tattoo that says ‘mum’ on it, for example.

3. Neotraditional

Following the last style, neotraditional is one of the most popular tattoo styles around nowadays. Neotraditional is simply an expansion on old school tattoos- think traditional subject matters, but with a much higher quality of drawing and an expanded colour palette.

American traditional tattoos tend to stick to very minimal colours, due to the inks that were available back in the 18th/19th century. Neo Traditional tattoos, however, have a much wider range of colours and are often much more vibrant. That being said, recent artists have started incorporating splashes of black and grey shading and line art in very creative ways.

In terms of subject matter, portraits of both people and animals are very common in neo traditional tattooing. Flowers and plants are also popular, as they can look stunning with vibrant color schemes. The subjects covered in American traditional tattoos are also very prevalent in this style of art, too.

4. Abstract

Speaking of modern tattoo styles, abstract tattoos are incredibly popular right now. ‘Abstract’ is a fairly vague term of course, so let’s break it down a bit further. One of the main styles that falls under this term is watercolour tattoos. These tattoos are very delicate yet very vibrant, and can feature a number of different subject matters. Some of the most common ones include flowers, birds and animals. They’re very social-media friendly, and you can find a lot of them on Instagram.

Another very popular abstract style is brush stroke/painting style tattoos. These are, surprisingly, made to look like they’ve been painted onto the client’s skin. These tattoos require a very delicate touch to make them look textured, and they are very eye-catching when done correctly. These are normally very brightly colored too, although tattoos that are done with purely black ink are becoming more and more popular.

5. Realism

Realistic tattoos are one of the most highly regarded tattoo styles right now, as they take a lot of skill to do well. This style really came into popularity towards the end of the tattoo renaissance and at the beginning of the 2000s, as more traditional artists and trained designers became involved in the tattoo world.

In regards to subject matter, realistic tattoos can be of literally anything the customer desires. Portraits are very common, as are pop culture references like movie scenes or character pictures. A common practice is to take an entire space on the body e.g. a whole arm or back, and turn them into entire scenes.

Brightly colored realistic tattoos are very popular with realistic tattoo artists. Black and grey are equally popular too, though. It generally depends on what type of scene or subject matter is chosen. For example, a back piece based around a horror film would look stunning in black and grey, but a full arm floral sleeve would be great in color.

6. Lettering

Lettering tattoos have always been very popular, and this has not changed in recent years. It makes sense if you consider how many people get tattoos to commemorate personal events or subjects. Getting a song lyric, quote or signature is a very common choice for getting a tattoo, especially for first time tattoos.

There are a number of different fonts and lettering styles to pick if you are interested in lettering tattoos. Elaborate cursive fonts are very popular choices, as are traditional sailor-style lettering. Handwritten fonts are often chosen for more personal tattoos.

7. Tribal

If you’re interested in tattoos that have beautiful and in-depth history, tribal tattoos could be the perfect style for you. Polynesian, Maori and Samoan tattoos all have incredibly rich meanings and symbolism, and are a much more spiritual style of tattooing than some of the other styles that we’ve covered in this article.

Tribal tattoos in general are made with thick black line art, and contain lots of intricate patterns. Each flourish, twist and turn all have a specific meaning to them, and the original tribal tattoos would have been able to tell you about the wearer’s tribe and family.

8. Sak Yant

Following the previous point about tattoos with a rich history and culture, Sak Yant tattoos are worth noting here. The term Sak Yant refers to a traditional form of tattooing from Thailand. Sak Yant tattoos are traditionally designed and tattooed by Buddhist monks, and would regularly be done in temples.

When getting a Sak Yant tattoo, it is vital to make sure that you’re going to someone who has had the right levels of training and expertise in this field. They are very sacred, with a number of deep meanings behind each individual design choice. Sak Yant tattoos are heavily linked to spirituality – hence the element of monks and temples – and are believed to bless the wearer.

9. Geometric

Geometric is another very broad term, but it is worth looking at in more depth. In general, geometric pieces are delicate and intricate tattoos that are made up of multiple thin lines. Often, they’re in all black, although some pieces do include color.

Mandalas are incredibly popular, as they’re very versatile. Often, they can be combined with other sub-categories of tattoos, like floral tattoos or dotwork tattoos. They fit well on many different areas of the body, and are very flattering. There’s a misconception that geometric styles are overtly feminine, but they work for every type of person.

Dotwork tattoos are made up of a multitude of miniature dots to create interesting depth and shading. This style requires a tattoo artist with a very delicate hand. There are a number of subject matters that dotwork works well with, but the most common ones include geometric designs, mandalas, botanical pieces and soft portraits.

10. New school

The final style that we’ll look at here is new school tattooing. This style became very popular in 1970, and has continued to be a beloved style ever since. This particular style uses extremely vibrant colours, dramatic proportions and cartoonish features. It draws inspiration from comics, old school tattoos and graffiti.

The subject matters can vary quite dramatically, but most follow the same themes as American traditional and neo traditional works. The best way to think of these tattoos is simply as an exaggerated, poppier version of the other styles of tattooing. This style of tattoo is very social media friendly; you can find a lot of them on Pinterest and Instagram.

In conclusion

To sum up, there are tons of fantastic tattoo styles out there to learn about- but these 10 are arguably the most important ones to be aware of. If you are interested in traditional, history-rich tattoos then we would recommend taking a look at American traditional, tribal or Sak Yant tattoos. If you want something bright, poppy and modern, check out geometric or new school tattoos.

If you’re in Phuket and looking to get a beautiful piece of tattoo art, make sure you check out Pitbull Tattoo Phuket. Our studio is full of incredibly talented and experienced artists who would love to help you create a stunning piece. Feel free to get in touch with our team to see how we could help you today.

Learn more about tattoos