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Classic Tattoo Styles and the Pieces That Define Them




The history of tattooing is as long as civilization in general. Throughout different eras and time periods there have been numerous styles of tattooing that represent the people and legends of every region. Over time, these styles evolved, mixed, and birthed new styles. Each is loved for its own attributes that make them unique. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular styles of tattoos. 


American Traditional (Old School) 

One of the most iconic styles of tattooing is American Traditional. While this style has persisted for more than a century, it first started gaining prevalence in the 1930s. Many of America’s most historic tattoo artists like Sailor Jerry worked solely in this style. 

American Traditional tattoos incorporate simple designs, heavy outlines, and bold colors. These elements make these tattoos last quite long without fading. Heavy use of red, yellow, brown and green are the norm. As for the style and popular imagery, many of these tattoos make use of romanticized images in American folklore. 

Popular designs from this style include majestic sailor ships, pin-up girls, daggers, roses, wild animals, and poker imagery. Victoria Coren Mitchell, an European poker champion, once wrote that it is odd that poker players are quite so superstitious as they are. Undoubtedly, these traditional poker tattoos are an extension of their quaint-sounding superstitions. However, other people may enjoy them for their iconic nature, or the beauty of these classic Americana symbols. 



The origins of modern tribal tattoos go back to ancient cultures like the Māori, Mayans, Aztecs, Samoans and even Celts and Norsemen. This style of tattooing pays homage to these civilizations with some of the most bold and striking artwork you can find today. While we’ve come a long way with tattoo technology and modern instruments, you can find this style still being applied today with ancient methods of hammering the ink into the skin with bone or nails. 

The styles that are used in this artwork are beautiful and somewhat mesmerizing. They incorporate patterns far more often than imagery. This includes repetitive lines, geometric shapes, patterns that resemble vines and thorns, interlocking knots, and lots of heavy solid black coloring. 



Realism as a tattoo style is carried over from realism in traditional art, which was a move towards making art look photorealistic as opposed to stylized or abstract. For this tattoo style, portraits are the most common pieces. While black and white tend to work better to achieve the desired piece, talented artists can make wonderful use of color in portraits as well. Sometimes animals, buildings, or iconic photos are the inspiration, though there are many people that opt to get tattoos of celebrities, musicians, and family members. 




New School

New School tattooing is a style that was built on top of the motifs and techniques of American traditional. As clients started to request unique designs that were different from the classic flash designs that adorned the studio walls, new methods of 3D effects, shading and depth emerged. 

New School artwork tends to lean towards more of a striking, bold, cartoonish style. Vibrant colors, exaggerated proportions, wild detailing and a whacky flavor are the norm. Animals and famous characters are often chosen for imagery. 



Next is a style for those that love science and mathematics. As the name would imply, these tattoos utilize geometry to create beautiful interlocking designs. Most often this means black and white with lines, fractals, crosses, and shapes interlocking together. Sometimes, an outline of a recognizable object, animal, or symbol is used with a geometric design making up the inside. 

Other times, classic tribal designs are mixed with geometric patterns. Some of the most captivating designs come from mixing realism and geometric styles together, such as an animal transforming into a geometric design in areas. While these pieces look incredibly complicated to achieve, the end result can be quite astounding.



Japanese tattoos are some of the most gorgeous and instantly recognizable designs in the world. Many people are familiar with the legendary samurai, dragons, koi fish, lotus pedals, and demon masks that make up a large portion of this style. Japanese tattoos are interwoven with the history of the country and the fabric of society as they were often seen on the bodies of outcasts and criminals. To this day, many businesses across Japan still do not allow tattooed patrons to enter based on old traditions.


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