A Beginner’s Guide to Tattoo Styles

So you’ve found your ideal shop, you’ve got your first appointment booked, and you know you want a custom piece, the next step is to brush up on your tattoo styles. If you’re new to the tattoo world, you probably can’t spot the difference between between American Traditional and Neo-Traditional. When you’re looking for an artist, it’s always best to know exactly what style you’re looking for so you can ask the right person. If you come with a watercolor piece but you’re booked with a horror specialist, you might be in for a surprise.

There are over a dozen different tattoo styles out there, with new ones popping up all the time. It’s art, and tattooers are constantly pushing the envelope when it comes to that. In this guide we’ll cover the basics though, the most popular and well known styles.

Old School / American Traditional

This style of tattooing took the Western world by storm, popularized by artists such as Sailor Jerry. It’s known for the limited color palette, bold lines, and iconic Americana images like flags, pin up girls, roses, hearts, eagles, and other patriotic symbols. While it’s considered “old school”, there are still many who enjoy this particular style!

Tattoo by George (Elk Grove) —>


Neo-traditional straddles the line between new and old. It embraces traditional tattoos with similar bold lines, but experiments with dimensions, colors, and blending. There is much more detail to these designs, while still paying homage to the past.

<—Tattoo by Aaron (Elk Grove)


Realism is exactly what it sounds like – realistic tattoos that look like a photograph on the skin. It’s important to have a good picture for reference, and to find a skilled artist. If you find the right artist, this style can shine through for many many years.

Tattoo by Jesse (Elk Grove) —>


A tattoo of someone’s face, be it a family member, character, or celebrity. This style is similar to realism, but doesn’t necessarily have to be a realistic portrait. It could be a caricature or something along those lines.

<— Tattoo by Cody (Elk Grove)


This style is currently very popular. It’s meant to mimic an experimental artistic process of using splashes and streaks of color to give an impression of paint on a canvas. It’s very aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and when done properly, it should stand the test of time.

Tattoo by Anthony (Lodi) —> 

New School / Nu Skool

New School is a tattooing style originating as early as the 1970s and influenced by some features of old school tattooing. The style is often characterized by the use of heavy outlines, vivid colors, and exaggerated depictions of the subject.

<— Tattoo by Elf (Lodi)


This style of tattooing dates back to 10,000BCE, and is one of the most sacred tattoo arts. These detailed designs cover large areas of the body, and follows a strict set of artistic rules. Usual imagery includes cherry blossoms, koi fish, lotus flowers, dragons, war dogs, and geishas.

Tattoo by Drain (Modesto) —>


Dotwork tattoos are a style on their own, and the shading you get through dots is almost 3D. You can’t get that kind of shading with any other method. The dotwork technique is used especially for geometric tattoos, religious and spiritual tattoos.

<— Tattoo by Drain (Modesto)


Script tattoos are very popular because words are the way we as humans communicate, in any language. Meaningful quotes, lyrics or even meaningful peoples’ names or dates of special events are all very personal and sentimental themes for script tattoos. Different fonts can affect the way the quote is read. Feminine or bold or classic fonts can be used to accentuate the words and illuminate their meanings. Script tattoos are perfect for any part of the body, depending on the length or brevity of the words themselves. 

Tattoo by Jarod (Modesto) —>

Black and Gray

Using black and white in varying shades, it’s made by diluting black ink with distilled water in various proportions. This style supposedly originated in prison, where inmates had limited access to different colors of ink.

<— Tattoo by Nick (Modesto)


Tribal tattoos date back centuries and are probably the oldest known style of tattoos. There are many different types of tribal, from Polynesian and Aztec, to Maori and Samoan. They were used for aesthetic, spiritual beliefs, and rites of passage. Tribal is depicted in big, bold loops, swirls, hooks, and could be designed to represent animals as well. Celtic crosses and knots are also a type of tribal, as is today’s modern Western version. When picking a tribal tattoo, it’s best to do your research first!

Tattoo by Josh (Elk Grove) —>

Biomechanical / Bioorganic

Bio mechanical is one of the most creative and inventive style of tattooing, as it imagines what the inside of the body would look like combined with machinery. For instance, it may look like a flash of metal machinery is peaking out from a torn open arm. Bio organic style is an abstract representation of naturally flowing, and comprised of elements that can be found in the natural world. It’s pretty common to see plants, bones, teeth, and other imagery that all swirl together and contort with the shape of the human body.

<— Tattoo by Jesse (Elk Grove)

These are just a few examples of the many styles of tattoos, and keep in mind that not all tattoos have a set style! Tattoos are art, and art is always changing. But if you are looking for a certain style, do your research and look for the right artist!


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