10 classic tattoo styles you need to know

There are probably thousands of styles of tattoos around now, with talented artists creating their own every day. But a lot of those designs are adapted from certain historically popular styles — many of them decades or even centuries old.

Here are ten of the classic styles of tattoo art, the ones you definitely want to know before you start getting into tattoo design. Clients may not be able to use the exact terminology of what they want, but in all likelihood they’ll have one of these in mind already when they come to you with a design, and you’ve got to know how to give it to them.

1. Classic Americana

Tattoo Styles - Classic

These may be the first kind of tattoo you think of, an old-school style defined by bold outlines and the use of similar colors and imagery. They’re closely tied to the ocean and nautical imagery, pinup female figures, fierce predatory animals, or combinations of hearts, roses, and daggers. The style was popularized by Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins in the 1930s, but is a consistent choice today — shown here by Frankie Caraccioli of Kings Avenue Tattoo.

2. New school

Tattoo Styles - New School

New School tattoos are like a crazy comic book on your body. Jesse Smith‘s work is famous in this category, depicting fabulous imagined worlds full of chaos and very often chariactured animals in vivid color.

3. Japanese

Tattoo Styles - Japanese

As we showed you in a previous post, there are centuries of history for the art tattooing all over the world. One that has maintained it’s popularity is the Japanese style Irezumi. Tattoo artists still create both traditional and new takes on these classic masterpieces. And it’s a genre particularly known for large images that cover the back, arms, and legs.

Here, Chris O’Donnell of New York shows off the traditional animal, floral, and samurai imagery of this style.

4. Black and grey

Tattoo Styles - Black and Grey

Jessica Mascitti of LA’s East Side Tattoo shows us great examples of different kinds of work in a genre that can encompass a wide range of styles. Black and Grey images aren’t as limited by subject matter, depicting anything and everything realistically in shades of grey, originally done by watering down black ink to create a spectrum of shades.

5. Portraiture

Tattoo Styles - Portraiture

Shane O’Neill shows us how realistic you can get with tattoos with his portraiture, a sub-set of the realism genre (which is just like it sounds — realistic renderings of imagery). Without the black outlines of some of the more classic styles, artists are able to achieve eerily accurate renditions of people both in color and black and grey.

6. Stick and poke

Tattoo Styles - Stick and Poke

Artist Slowerblack shows off the possibilities of the stick-n-poke, where the artist uses a single needle to create simple designs. Recently popularized for DIY tattoo-ers, in the hands of a professional this art can go to beautiful levels, characterized by thick and bold lines most often in simple black with small decorative patterns.

7. Blackwork

Tattoo Styles - Blackwork

Blackwork is originally derived from the original tribal tattoos, made of thick and bold black lines in a variety of geometric shapes. But artists continue to take this genre to new levels, incorporating patterns and imagery derived from all sorts of sources into mesmerizing pieces swirling in different forms around the body, like these from Nazareno Tubaro (who also created the featured image!)

8. Biomechanical

Tattoo Styles - Biomechanical

Typically freehanded, Biomechanical tattoos adapt to the unique flow of a person’s body, meant to mimic machinery that could be hidden within the skin. It’s hard to get away from Roman Abrego‘s name when you bring up these bad boys – his alien and mechanical-inspired images covering often the arms and legs of his clients.

9. Realistic Trash Polka

Tattoo Styles - Realistic Trash Polka

Realistic Trash Polka was created by Germany’s Buena Vista Tattoo Club. Created by Simone Plaff and Volko Merschky, it’s instantly recognizable for it’s collage-like structure, intricate and sampling from printed materials — from photography to hand-writing, paint splashes to type-writing.

10. Surrealism

Tattoo Styles - Surrealism

The art genre of surrealism gives artists loads of material to work with. The artistic style can change, the subject can change, but as long as the viewer comes out of the experience with that feeling of sublime fantasy, the artist has achieved their purpose. Pictured here are the amazing works of Milanese tattoo artist Pietro Sedda, owner of the shop The Saint Mariner.

What are your favorite tattoo design styles? Show us in the comments!

The author

Kaitlyn Ellison
Kaitlyn Ellison

Kaitlyn is part of the Community Team at 99designs.com. She grew up in Boulder, CO and went to school at Northwestern University in Chicago. When she's not blogging, she spends her time having adventures and being generally creative. She's all about having new experiences as often as possible!

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