Tattoo styles and meanings exploded in the past century, although even before then, hundreds of tattoo styles existed. For your personal tattoo, the style you choose needs to match your personality and aesthetic. Because of this, I talk all about the major tattoo styles you find in today’s tattoo shops. Along with that, I go a little bit into the history of some of them. Check them out and decide which tattoo styles work best for you!
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Traditional Tattoo Styles
As a type of body modification practiced for millennia, many traditions surround the interesting art. I list the three main traditional tattoos styles that appear in modern tattooing, although certainly hundreds more traditional tattoo styles exist. To learn more about the traditions of tattoos, check out the history behind them!
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Traditional American Tattoos
While most traditional tattoo styles represent ancient practices, traditional American tattoos refer to a brief period in time where tattoos experienced a burst in popularity. With the invention of the tattoo machine, artists inked more tattoos than ever, and the clients lined up out the doors. Sailors wore them as souvenirs and marks of honor, while others wore them to show their patriotism. Sailor Jerry created a unique style blending Western and Eastern tattoo styles, and his style defined the period. Today, Sailor Jerry tattoos represent the traditional American tattoo style perfectly.
Traditional Japanese Tattoos
Long associated with samurai—and shortly after the Yakuza—traditional Japanese tattoos appear on people of all walks of life. Every single technique and step of Japanese tattooing carries its own name. For example, ‘Irezumi’ refers to tattooing as a whole, but ‘Sujibori’ represents the outline of the tattoo that goes on before any other types of color. Oftentimes, people only receive these outlines! On top of that, the common subject matters of Japanese tattoos (such as koi fish, samurai, dragons, kirin, Baku, tigers, snakes, and so on) all represent something unique…and their meaning changes depending on their position in the art!
Traditional Hawaiian Tattoos
Often referred to as ‘tribal tattoos,’ along with a few other cultures’ traditional tattoos from around the world, Hawaiian tattoos actually distinguish themselves from styles around the world. For one, rather than depicting obvious characters, these tattoos combine symbols and weave a story. Parts of a tiki face sneak their way into the intricate design, rows of triangles representing shark teeth snake around the arm, and a circular pattern hints at the shape of a turtle. Each one provides certain wards, protections, abilities, or grants the user a certain prestige. Traditionally, artists decide the design, rather than the person who asks for a tattoo!
Modern Tattoo Styles
A modern illustrative tattoo uses many more techniques and pigments than traditional tattoos. Previously, only one black ink and three pigments made up your color options for tattooing (unless you used some strange material, such as tree ash). Now, any number of pigments exists for us to choose from. On top of that, tattoo guns help new tattoo styles explore some amazing geometry and line work.
Despite its name, this tattoo style appears in all sorts of countries around the globe. Traditional Japanese tattoos rarely use gradients and stick to crisp outlines and pigment fills. Neo-Japanese tattoos, on the other hand, work in the gray scale for black and white tattoos, and throw in lots of new coloring techniques. Although the subject matter remains the same as traditional Japanese tattoos, the style of the tattoo ranges anywhere from realistic to illustrative, with far more detail put into color. Rather than blocky backgrounds for the tattoos, a fully rendered scenery ties everything together.
One of my favorite types of tattoos, this one blends the classic techniques of American traditional tattoos (also called Sailor Jerry tattoos) with the range of pigments available today. Along with that, the subject matter and style of illustration changes dramatically. The basic rules of a Neo-traditional tattoo seem to include: Limit your palette, make heavy use of black line art, and utilize classic shading techniques. More than anything else, the low number of pigments ties things together—even if, classically, the pigments didn’t exist!
Despite its name, ‘new school’ represents the pinnacle of animated cartoons in the 80s and 90s. A comic book style seeped into the world of tattoo art and inspired thousands of vivid and toonie tats. Artists explored a huge range of new pigments available to them. Today, new school tattoo style works best for caricatures, cartoon scenes, comic characters, and similar subjects. Many artists know the style, so finding an artist to ink new school tattoos proves no challenge.
As artists flock to the realm of tattooing, the quality of tattoos grows exponentially better. Combine this with the huge amount of tools available to modern artists, and you receive the potential for realistic tattoos! Although they cost a pretty penny, these designs withstand the test of time and prove mesmerizing to look at. With 3D tattoos, in particular, some artists fool viewers into thinking the tattoo is real! I advise anyone to consider their artists with caution when seeking a realistic tattoo, especially in the case of portraits. See their portfolio and require a sketched preview. Of course, the preview might cost a little extra, but it pays off, in the end, to ensure you receive the best possible tattoo!
Recently, the trend of watercolor tattoos really picked up. People avoided them for a while due to their tendency to fade and blur, but as touchups and cleanups become more affordable, this beautiful tattoo style looks even more attractive! On top of that, good artists use a combination of black ink shading with highly contrasting colors to ensure that—even when colors start to fade—the tattoo looks great.