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A Beginner’s Guide: Popular Tattoo Styles Briefly Explained


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Every single person gets a thought at some point in their life that they could get a tattoo. Many never act on that thought, but others start thinking about it more and more and start researching the topic. The absolute first thing you should learn – before artists, meaning, prices or anything else – are the different styles of tattoos that you can get. There are a lot, and they all branch into sub-styles, but here are the most common styles you should know, as a place to start your research:

American traditional

A very classic style of tattoos, popular in the west, is American traditional. There are some classic motifs that are done in the style, like hearts, eagles, hands, faces and banners, but almost anything can be translated to this style. It’s easy to spot: look for a bold black outline of the entire tattoo, and vibrant colors within it, mainly sticking to the basic color palette. They can be seen done in black and grey as well, but the bold colors are the classic way to go. These are by no means dainty and subtle tattoos – they make a statement and they are made to be seen.


A style that has gained massive popularity in the past years and the most common choice for a small, first tattoo has got to be lined and dotted tattoos. The word says it all: there is no shading or coloring to be found here, it’s all a composition of lines and dots that create an image. You can have a gradient effect by putting dots farther or closer together and different line weights can give completely different moods to the piece. If you’re thinking of a linework tattoo, make sure you go to an experienced artist whose work you’ve seen on other people, because one line that gets away and squiggles can ruin the whole affair.

Japanese style

a beginner’s guide: popular tattoo styles briefly explained

Most similar to the American traditional, Japanese style tattoos cover vast portions of the body and have a very specific topic they are centered around. You might think that you can only get a tattoo like this in Japan, but artists around the world have mastered the style and you can even get a Japanese tattoo in Sydney. The style consists of thin black outlines and soft, gradient colors, depicting scenes from Japanese culture, with the most popular being Geishas, Koi fish, dragons, snakes and samurais. They often take up the entire back or torso, and sometimes even the entire body, neck to ankle.


If you’re an admirer of fine art, you’re going to love this style. The soft colors, minimal outlines and perfect gradients make these tattoos look like they are literally done with watercolor and that they are just about to drip down from the skin. They are often accompanied by actual drips drawn to add to the effect. A great variation of this style is pixel art watercolor, where the stark contrast of having a tattoo start as pixel art and melt into watercolor makes them both stand out.


a beginner’s guide: popular tattoo styles briefly explained

Some artists are talented enough that they can not only draw a realistic image on paper – they can translate it to skin. If you want to have a literal photograph transferred perfectly to your body, you’ll want to find a good realistic artist. Keep in mind that realistic tattoos are divided into color and black and grey, both requiring different sets of skills, so look through the artist’s portfolio before choosing one.

New school

The graffiti of the tattoo world – a style that has actually been inspired by graffiti. Neon colors, hyper-realistic images of aliens, pop culture and twisted everyday life are what constitutes a new school tattoo. It has the solid colors of the traditional American tattoo, but the way it’s done and the topics it covers couldn’t be more different. These are definitely tattoos that you get if you live on the wild side and aren’t afraid to show it.


Last, but not least, tribal style tattoos insanely grew in popularity two decades ago, and unfortunately weren’t done all that well. These tattoos originate from the tribes in the western hemisphere, mainly Maori and Polynesian, and if you want to get one, you better be aware of what it means and the weight it carries, because for people in those tribes, these tattoos are borderline sacred. They need to be well done, with clean lines and jet black ink if you want it to look right.


There are so many more styles that are out there, but if you don’t know where to start or how to approach the topic of tattoos, this is a great first step. Keep in mind that styles don’t always mix well, so the style you pick for your first tattoo might just steer the course for all the other ones you get on that part of your body.

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