Popular Tattoo Design Styles

When choosing a tattoo, considering the many different tattoo design styles can seem to be a time-consuming task. Here a list of popular design styles to help narrow your list of options.

1. American Traditional

The American Traditional design style originated in the 1930s on American military bases. It became associated more with sailors when tattooist Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins popularized it.

This style of tattooing is based on big and bold sections, with solid and clean black outlines and a minimal (mainly primary colors) well-saturated color palette. Traditional imagery is often maritime in nature, celebrations of love or reflections on love lost.

Images usually consist of: anchors, hearts, ships, etc.

More modern imagery might consist of: skulls, roses and daggers

2. Traditional Japanese (Irezumi)

Japanese design style tattooing is one of the most ancient, making it extremely sacred and traditional among the styles. It uses a hand-carved technique (also called tebori) and was made popular in Japan by the Yakuza, the Japanese criminal underworld. Similar to American traditional, it uses bold black outlines and minimal shading. Most often, these designs are meant to cover a whole limb, back or body suit.

Images are usually inspired by traditional Japanese art and nature as well as creatures and characters from Japanese folklore. Images usually consist of: lotus flowers, koi fish, tigers, warriors, waves, cherry blossoms, dragons, war dogs and geishas.

3. Realism


The realism tattoo design style recreates images as they would appear in real life. It usually lacks bold outlines and instead uses shading and color contrasts. Realism showcases fine line detail of an image by creating true to life scenes or landscapes.

4. Fine Line Black and Grey (Chicano-style)


Fine line black and grey originated in the 70s in Hispanic communities. Similar to the realism design style, although fine line black and grey does not use color. Usually watered down black ink (to create grey) is used. This creates shades, hues and color contrasts. Many tattoo artist today will use pre-watered down black ink, as well as actual grey ink to create this effect.

5. Portraiture


Portraiture is a design style that uses realism to create a portrait of someone in tattoo form. Using a fine line tattoo style, they can be found in black and grey or color and are created by making a stencil over a pre-existing image to get exact likeness.

It requires a lot of skill for a tattoo artist to convey a person’s likeness onto someone’s skin. These are often meant to show love and admiration or loss.

6. Illustrative


The illustrative tattoo design style combines the tradition and realism style techniques. They usually feature bold outlines with the intense saturation of color paired with the realistic shading techniques in order create a tattoo that looks more like an illustration.

7. New School


The New School design style is all about free-styling using the more modern form of American Traditional. It is an extremely animated style that is almost an exaggeration of the illustrative style. Usually the tattoos consist of caricatured characters doing out of character things. Most commonly used are personified objects and animals.

New School style uses unique patterns and ideas. With advancements in technology and in the industry, it is becoming more popular.

8. Bio-mechanical

Also known as biomech, the bio-mechanical design style is typically done free-handed based of the client’s body flow. This style uses a combination of humans and machines to mimic the body flow in order to create patterns that are of mechanical, cyborg or alien like aesthetics.

9. Color Horror/Black and Grey Horror

Color Horror

The horror tattoo design style consists of dark and morbid subject matters. Color horror uses a combination of portraiture and realism with an evil aspect usually using famous subject matters from horror films.

Black and grey horror, uses a combination of the bio-mechanical or bio-organic styles with realism, unlike color horror. It was made popular by tattooist Paul Booth. Typically it is free-handed and done in large-scale such as full sleeves.

10. Lettering/Script


Lettering is an extremely popular choice among clients. It can be simple lettering and words in standard fonts or it can be highly stylized and unique pieces done free-handed.

It can be helpful to take into consideration that some fonts are harder to read than others. Using a site that allows you to see your word or phrase in the chosen font style can be useful.

11. Surrealism


Surrealism is strongly influenced by Salvador Dali. It usually consists of exaggerated, imaginary images, mashed-up styles and fantastical creations that unrealistically could not occur in nature, but look extremely realistic.

12. Tribal (Polynesian, Maori, etc.)

Just like the Japanese style, Tribal is one of the most ancient design styles. Typically it is black and is used for symmetry and geometrical designs. The difficulty of this design requires an artist with good line work and steady hand.

An example being the Polynesian design style tattoos. It is derived for the culture and traditions of the Polynesian tribal peoples like Maori. Tribal symbolism is used in designs that are created specifically for the one receiving the tattoo.

13. Asian (Yakuza)

The Asian design style typically consists of koi fish, Buddha, lotus, dragons, samurais or geishas. Often, these are used together to create a story as well as timeless art. It is usually very detailed and covers the whole body.

14. Trash Polka

The Trash Polka design style was popularized by the Buena Vista Tattoo Club. It uses a black and red color scheme illustrated with collage-like images. Trash Polka includes a combination of realism, lettering/script, and geometric shapes.

15. Watercolor

Watercolor is a design style that consists of abstract tattoos. It takes a lot of skill and artistic ability to design a watercolor style successfully. It uses extreme amounts of color and less of lines and black color to create the effect that it has been painted on your skin with watercolors.


These are just a few of the popular tattoo design styles. Some others that are less common, but still popular include: Blackwork, Dotwork, Geometric, Stick and Poke (DIY tattoo), Sketch work, Celtic and Graffiti.

One thought on “Popular Tattoo Design Styles”

  1. I’m really picky about what designs I’m going to get for a sleeve in the coming months here, and I want it to be just right. If I’m going to have a tattoo on me forever (pretty much) I want it to look good and represent who I am. These are some really awesome designs here and I really appreciate you sharing this. Thanks so much!

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