How to Search for the Perfect Tattoo: An Introduction to Styles

Updated on February 14, 2019


Are you new to being tattooed?

Are you intimidated by this entirely new world?

Without even getting into how to book appointments, how to work with your artist, and the various different expectations that come with tattoos and the process itself, you need to first worry about what kind of tattoo you want.

Maybe you're used to googling "tattoos" or looking up "tattoo ideas" on Pinterest. There's anything wrong with that, but there tends to be a lack of identification of tattoo style in those pictures.

In this article, I aim to break down the mainstays of tattoo styles and then go break them down into more specific styles, then try my best to give a few great artists of each style.

Please keep in mind that because I'm in New York, I will be recommending a lot of East Coast artists.

American Tattoos

Example American Tattoo Sleeve, of pins and stars, and spiderwebs; American Traditional tattoos tend to require fillers in between the actual tattoos
Example American Tattoo Sleeve, of pins and stars, and spiderwebs; American Traditional tattoos tend to require fillers in between the actual tattoos | Source

American Traditional

What better to start with than perhaps the most recognizable style: American Traditional.

American Traditional was originally inked onto sailors, and was pushed into prominence during World War II by tattoo legend Sailor Jerry, who was Ed Hardy's first mentor.

American Traditional is characterized by strong bold lines, a limited color palette, and a two dimensional feel, and the ability for it to look like a "sticker", as in it can be clearly identified as a tattoo, and what it's a tattoo of from across the street.

Sleeves in the American Traditional sense are not necessarily like those of other styles, where the entire arm is covered in tattoos, because of how the tattoos themselves sit, American Traditional sleeves need to be "filled in" with pins and stars or spiderwebs, or not at all.

Personally, all of my current tattoos can be classified as American Traditional.

Some notable American Traditional Tattoo artists and shops are:

  • Benjamin Thomas
  • Brad Fink and the majority of Daredevil Tattoo
  • Smith Street Tattoo

Fresh of my rib tattoo
Fresh of my rib tattoo | Source

Irezumi/Traditional Japanese

Traditional Japanese tattoos, called tebori or irezumi, originated in Japan around 10,000 BC, in the Jomon period. In this time, the tattoos were mostly tribal looking.

Irezumi as we know it originated from the 1600s, although they were still used as punishments at that time. A Chinese novel called the Suikoden featured woodblock illustrations of the protagonists, demonstrating their masculinity, decorated with lotus, dragons, and tigers (one of the protagonists is a man known as Shi-Jin of the Nine Dragons, famously having nine dragons inked on him.)

Demand for this style of art put onto the skin was instantaneous, and the artist who carved the woodblocks used the same tools on human skin, which is why all Japanese tattoo artists take the moniker of hori or "carve" in Japanese. They also used the famous ink that turns blue green under skin, called Nara ink. It is made with the traditional inksticks used for calligraphy. The reason that it's bluegreen is due to the fact that they did not have true black ink, merely dark green.

The hallmarks of a Japanese tattoo is very heavy symbolism and a large amount of space taken. Traditional Irezumi created full bodysuits for people. Japanese tattoos tend to have many of the same motifs, dragons, tengu masks, skulls, snakes, peony, sakura, Wind and Thunder gods, Oni, Kirin, Baku, and so on and so forth.

Japanese tattoos are strict in what can be shown together, and placement of the tattoo, for example, waves are technically only supposed to be under the waist, unless there is a koi or fish involved, or certain flowers are not supposed to be with certain motifs, for example, snakes cannot be depicted with winter flowers, because snakes are supposed to be in hibernation, and so much more. Certain deities cannot be with certain onis, and it only gets more complex.

Japanese tattoos traditionally applied by hand, tebori, which means "hand-carved" although modern artists have since adopted machines.

Some notable Irezumi artists include:

  • Horiyoshi the III
  • Shige Iwasaki - Yellow Blaze
  • Horikitsune

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Shige Iwasaki, or Yellow Blaze, a self taught tattoo artist.
Shige Iwasaki, or Yellow Blaze, a self taught tattoo artist.
Shige Iwasaki, or Yellow Blaze, a self taught tattoo artist. | Source

New School

New School tattoos originated on the West Coast of the United States, and they have enjoyed a popularity with the younger crowd, especially those who want to commemorate those cartoons they love.

New School tattoos are characterized by some of the same things that redetermined old school tattoos, bold lines, heavy saturated colors, and such. New School takes old tattoo concepts and turn them on its head.

New School have subsets, neo-traditional, for example, is a subset of New School tattoos that revamp American Traditional art.

New School artists also turned the old concepts of secrecy in tattooing on its head, they were far more open, which in turn added to innovation in tattooing.

Some notable artists of New School are:

  • Kelly Doty
  • Marcus Pacheco
  • Jime Litwalk

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Black and Grey

Traditionally, Black and Grey tattoos are done with black ink and only black ink. All other shades are obtained from diluting said black ink with water. This style of tattooing also use a lot of single needle.

This style of tattooing is thought to have been started in prisons where ink and colors are severely limited, and had to use guitar strings as needles.

Black and Grey is hard to really classify as one "style" because Black and Grey tattoos can be used on American Traditional, to Japanese, to photorealism.

Some notable Black and Grey artists are:

  • Anil Gupta
  • Carlos Torres
  • Silvano Fiato

Click thumbnail to view full-size


Watercolor tattoos recently hit a high in popularity, however they remain a controversial style of tattooing because of questions of how well they last.

Many tattoo artists judge a tattoo on how well they hold, and Watercolor tattooing, to imitate the artistic styles of a brush, tend to be less saturated in terms of coloring, and therefore is easier to lose color and fade.

Although ink and machines and technique are far more advanced nowadays than when Watercolor tattooing first appeared, and an argument can be made that it will last just as well as any other tattoo, provided standard protective measures are taken, however, if you are considering a watercolor tattoo, please take caution and keep in mind that it may be prone to fading much easier than the standard tattoo.

Watercolor tattoos are known for utilizing soft colors, being abstract, and jumping out of the outlines of the tattoo. Watercolor tattoos can be simply brushstroke or utilized in conjunction with other styles of outlining.

Some notable watercolor tattoo artists are:

  • Mikhail Anderson and the rest of First Class NYC
  • Amy Zager
  • Steph Hanlon

Watercolor tattoos

Click thumbnail to view full-size


Tribal tattoos are the oldest style of tattooing.

From Jomon Japanese tattoos to the Maori Tattoos of New Zealand, Tribal tattoos have a long history of representing different things, from family, to for purely beauty aesthetic reasons.

Tribal tattoos are known for many repeated lines, using negative geometric space, symmetry, and heavy blacks. True tribal tattoos tend to be more intricate than those thick heavy black lines.

There really is not much to say about tribal, except if you want to get tribal tattoos, please get a legitimate tribal tattoo, not those 90's "fad" tattoos.

Some notable tribal tattoo artists are:

  • Peter Madsen
  • Jean-Michel Manutea
  • Felipe Soares


Click thumbnail to view full-size


Script tattoos are another self explanatory tattoo, they are tattoos of words or numbers, either stylized or not.

Script tattoos can be extremely versatile, they can be as cute and subtle as a birthday on the wrist, as badass as that across the chest inscription, or as tasteless as Jared Leto's Joker "Damaged" tattoo.

Please exercise common sense, research, and spellcheck before getting a script tattoo. And, please try not to get script in languages you don't speak.

Most tattoo artists can handle script tattoos, so there are no true recommendations in this section.


Click thumbnail to view full-size


And that's all for today!

There are a lot more tattoo styles I haven't covered, but this should cover the mainstays of the tattoo world.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and leave comments! This is the first article I've ever written so I look forward to your feedback.

Questions & Answers


      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.


      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

      Show Details
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)