A Beginner’s Handbook: Tattoo Styles

words by belle

Many consider the human body a temple. And some temples contain intricate, extravagant murals. Just like tattoos on the skin. Getting tattooed is a critical decision since needles are puncturing ink, permanently calling your skin home. A commitment. Thinking of the “right” tattoo can be pretty nerve-wracking, especially when you’re unsure about what you want. If you intend on getting a freshie, as a symbol that holds a meaning or just because it looks good, be sure to know the different types of tattoo styles.


Well, the title is pretty self-explanatory. Blackwork applies to any tattoo that utilises only one colour; black. Obviously. With the vast amount of symbols that exist in black ink, this categorial term has a broad spectrum, branching out to many other styles. Despite lacking colour, it does not make the tattoo less impactful. Most blackwork pieces are in-your-face intense, with designs such as sacred geometry and blackout that involves covering parts of the body with black ink.


In this style, the artist brings watercolour paintings onto delicate human skin. With the exception that they use permanent ink and needle(s) instead of paint and a paintbrush. Usually, a myriad of bright colours is used for tattooing the artist’s interpretation of popular designs: Flora, fauna and famous paintings in this whimsical style. Other elements of watercolour like splattered or ‘dripping’ paint and black brushstrokes are outlined to colour block, adding contrast and life to vivid tattoos.


Also known as old school, traditional (American) tattoos originated as far as the late 19th century. It hit its peak until the 1960s, when the former sailor and tattoo enthusiast Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry, opened his shop in Honolulu, Hawaii. At first, he studied Japanese-style tattooing from the old masters while spending many years as sailing Southeast Asia, and local legend Gib “Tatts” Thomas in Chicago. Staying true to Japanese tattooers, Sailor Jerry eventually developed his own iconic style, shaping the standard of traditional tattoos today.

Well-known for its dark, heavy lines, the designs are kept simple and limited to solid, primary colours with little to no shading.

Neo-traditional pays homage to the classic, timeless work of traditional tattoos. Though it shares characteristics of thick/bold lines, neo-traditional includes vast use of colour, heavy saturation in their modern twist to revive classic imagery and designs.


For those who intend to get realistic depictions of celebrities, loved ones, animals, scenes of nature, or surreal art on your skin, this might be your cup of tea. Inspired by Real Life Art Movement that began in France (1850s), realism or photo-realism tattoos aims to replicate a photograph. Artists who mastered this craft can transform any image, especially portraitures, seem objectively real. Choosing between vibrant colours or the classic monochromatic tone of black-and-grey.


Traditional Japanese tattoos, or irezumi, pays tribute to Japan’s rich culture and colourful folklore. As it originated from the Jomon Period (10,000 BCE-300 CE), modern styles evolved from the Edo Period; 1603-1868. Tattoos of this style usually appear in large and vibrant pieces. Commonly using staples of Japanese culture (e.g. samurai, geisha) or Japanese mythological creatures (e.g. dragon, koi fish, phoenix), waves and smoke are added for extra flair.


Tribal tattoos were initially done to differentiate people of varying tribes, usually done with black ink. Greatly influenced by Mayan, Polynesian and Maori tattoos; all uniquely designed with elaborate patterns while sharing similarities to one another. There are also some interpretations of tribal tattoos that combine elements of different cultures to create an entirely new, unique piece. Artists of this speciality create new symbols or use those from specific tribes to provide meaning and keep this ancient art form alive in the tattoo world.


A wide variety of work that exists can be called illustration or illustrative. And that is because there are so many techniques, art movements and existing tattoo styles that inspired its versatility. Artists who operate in this style put their unique taste on tattoo cliche. This evolves your typical skull and roses into an art piece unidentical to whatever that has already been inked. In other words, illustration is a fusion of any style, sprinkled with the artist’s personality.

Though there are many more styles that’ll come in the future, these are the prominent few that currently runs the whole tattoo world. With this brief introduction, we hope you’ve gained some clarity and the ability to put a name to a style for your next, or even first tattoo.