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Tattoo Design Styles

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When it comes to tattoos, there are so many styles to choose from.  We offer tattoos that fall into many of the categories we’ll introduce you to below, and if we don’t, our freehand ink will let you try your hand at any style you want.  While permanent tattoos marry you to one style for the rest of your life, our semi-permanent tattoos let you try every style imaginable.  Here’s a primer to get you going: 

 

1. TRIBAL (aka Polynesian)

Tribal tattoos draw inspiration from indigenous communities who used tattoos to tell a narrative story, as part of a sacred ritual, or both.  This category includes many specific sources, including native communities in Hawaii, Samoa, and New Zealand, often referred to collectively as Polynesian.  There are some common threads among tattoos in this group, namely, thick, black lines and bold, elaborate patterns.  Many modern tattoos may borrow this aesthetic, but lack the cultural associations. 

  

Here are some examples:

 

LEFT | RIGHT

 

Disney honored Polynesian tattoos with the character Maui in Moana.  A demigod voiced by Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, Maui’s body is covered in tattoos that tell his life story, including his accomplishments.  Because it’s Disney, these tattoos actually come to life through the magic of animation to give us more backstory on the character.  

Moana and Maui from Disney’s Moana

 

2. JAPANESE (aka Irezumi)

Japanese tattoos date back hundreds of years, sharing an aesthetic with ukiyo-e woodblock prints made famous during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) by printmaker Hokusai, whose “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” provides the most famous example:

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” C. Public Domain

 

Like these woodblock paintings, traditional Japanese tattoos often depict images from Japanese folklore, including dragons, lotus flowers, waves, koi fish, etc.

 

Here are some examples:

 

Lotus flowers and waves are commonly featured in traditional Japanese tattoos | LEFT, RIGHT

 

A woman in Japan gets a tattoo in the tebori style, translating to “hand carving” in 1937 | ABOVE

 

Body art flourished during the Edo Period, when certain tattoos were worn superstitiously for protection against danger or as a permanent source of beauty on the body. But when Japan began trading with the West in the 1800s, the government outlawed tattoos, thinking that Western nations would view their tattoos as barbaric.  And so, tattoos went underground, gaining a salacious reputation.  Tattoos went from culturally significant to culturally devious, so much so that during World War II, some Japanese citizens even got tattoos to avoid serving in the army, as tattoos were would make them an unattractive presence in the military.  Although tattoos became legal in Japan with the end of World War II, tattoos kept right on earning their bad boy reputation in the 1970s, when the Japanese mafia—the Yakuza—demonstrated an enthusiasm for Irezumi.  To this day, some Japanese think tattoos signal trouble.  According to a 2014 article from The Japan Times, tattoos mean ‘gangster’ to many, and even small tattoos have cost people entry to public pools or even a job. According to the Financial Times, police in Osaka even tried to shut down tattoo parlors last year, claiming that tattoos were a medical procedure requiring proper medical qualifications, citing a 19th century law that was, at best, a far reach.  However, to others, modern applications of irezumi are an important way to preserve Japanese culture and art.   

 

3. AMERICAN TRADITIONAL

Tattoos in this style originated from 18th century European sailors inspired by the indigenous communities they encountered on expeditions, and were applied to document mementos from their voyages. Notably, British explorer James Cook and his men enlisted tattoos to help them document their journeys to Japan, China, and Hawaii. 

Tattoos in this category feature bold, clean outlines, and usually stick to only primary colors. They are purposefully two-dimensional. By the 19th century, tattoos in this style became more colorful and refined.  Common images include skulls, roses, daggers, eagles, hearts, and nautical images. 

 

Here are some examples:

 

LEFT | RIGHT

 

American traditional tattoos became popular more modernly in the 1930s by Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, who is celebrated on Sailor Jerry Day every June 12.  Below, you can see many Sailor Jerry designs:

Sailor Jerry is synonymous with American Traditional tattoos | LINK

 

Neo-Traditionalism grew out of American Traditional tattoos, updating the American Traditional style with greater depth, shading, color, and detail. 

 

4. REALISM

Emerging in the second half of the 20th century, realism proliferated within the tattoo world, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: realistic images portrayed on the body.  From portraits to landscapes, realism aims for a tattoo that looks more like a photograph.   

 

Here are some examples:

 

LEFT | RIGHT

 

5. NEW SCHOOL

A style that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, new school tattoos are best described as cartoonish.  They feature highly animated characters, often doing things you wouldn’t expect.

 

Check out these New School tats to get an idea:

 

LEFT, RIGHT

 

6. BIOMECHANICAL

Tattoos in this category use the body as a canvas to fuse nature and technology.  After all, the body is a very impressive machine. Tattoos in this group imagine how your body parts would work if you were a machine, cyborg, or even an alien.  The tattoos cover the area of the body in which this hypothesis exists (i.e. a machine arm would cover your actual arm.  If you consider yourself a Bionic Woman or a 6 Million Dollar Man, this category may be for you. 

 

Check out these biomechanical tats for inspiration:

 

LEFTRIGHT

 

7. WATERCOLOR

Currently having “a moment,” tattoos in this style aim to bring watercolor paintings to your skin.  Achieving this is very difficult with a tattoo needle or gun, but when done well, watercolor tattoos look like you’ve got actual brush strokes on your body.  Outlines go out the window in favor of smoothly blended colors, so they’re perfect for anybody who’s known to color outside the lines.

 

Check out these examples:

 

LEFT | RIGHT

 

8. TRASH POLKA

The youngest of all these styles, Trash Polka has been around since only 2014, when German artists Volko Merschky and Simone Pfaff decided to merge many styles together—realism, lettering, geometric shapes—with only red and black ink.  Like a sampler plate, this style’s great for someone who likes a little bit of everything.    

   

Here are a couple Trash Polka tats to introduce you to this new, innovative style:

 

LEFT | RIGHT

- Kaitlyn Uy