There's such a wide variety of tattoo styles that it can sometimes be overwhelming trying to decide what's best for your aesthetic. There are dozens of different kinds of ink (more than even listed below) and everyone has their own preferences. However, the key to a beautiful and unique tattoo is taking time to understand each style in terms not just of how it looks, but its background as well.
Once you settle on a style you love, you can search for a tattoo artist who specializes in that style to ensure your tattoo comes out as perfect as it possible—both in style and in your connection to it. For those still thinking about their next ink, here's a comprehensive guide to tattoo styles to make sure you decide on the perfect look for you.
Minimalist tattoos don’t necessarily have to be small; designs of this style are more driven by simple, clean lines and the heavy use of negative space. The idea behind minimalism is that “less is more,” and minimalist tattoos follow this same concept by featuring graphic designs and varying delicacies of linework.
Because minimalist tattoos tend to break designs down to basics, it works best with designs that can be visualized with a small number of lines or without a lot of complexity. Any color goes for minimalist tattoos as well, although black ink tends to be more common to keep the design as simple as possible.
Negative Space Tattoos
Negative space tattoos are created by using skin as part of the image and inking pigments to contour areas to create a visual. Rather than using an outline to create the tattoo’s image, negative space tattoos use the skin as the outline and the pigment as the normally “blank” parts of a design.
Any design can be made into a negative space tattoo, but it may require more planning than just knowing what you want. Make sure you plan out negative space designs with an experienced tattoo artist to ensure that the proportions are right and the correct areas are filled in versus what is left bare.
Hand-poked tattoos—also known as stick-and-pokes or machine-free tattoos—are designs that are created manually. Rather than the tattoo artist using a rotary or coil machine to insert the ink into the skin, hand-poking is done by attaching a needle (professionals use tattoo-grade needles) to a rod-shaped element, like a pencil, to create an analog tattoo machine. They are less invasive, less painful, and “less intimidating” than a machine-done tattoo, notes Jamerson of Brooklyn-based tattoo studio Nascent Flash.
While hand-poking is a return to the origins of tattooing, the designs aren’t necessarily minimal or basic themselves; some may look “handmade,” says Jamerson, but there are artists whose hand-poked art almost looks like it was done by a machine. It’s best to find an artist whose portfolio you like first to ensure your stick-and-poke looks exactly how you want it.
Words and Phrases
Word and phrase tattoos, which are sometimes called "script" when referring to cursive designs, are popular because there are no real rules or structure to them—other than that they have to contain letters. You can take a word or phrase and add an image to it as well, essentially mixing different styles of tattoos into one. Of course, no matter what you want your word or phrase tattoo to look like, whether it’s large and dark or small and bright, it’s still a good idea to get it done by a tattoo artist experienced in words and phrases to make sure the spelling is accurate and the design looks good.
Floral tattoos have a range of meanings depending on the type of blossom you get (a lily, for example, represents both devotion and purity). On the other hand, floral tattoos could also be purely aesthetic, as flowers are a common love and tend to feel dainty in tattoo form. There are dozens of different options for what flowers you can get tattooed, so it can be as complex or simple as you want, with any design elements from vivid colors to heavy black outlines. Some common floral tattoos include roses, lavender, lotuses, and laurels, but there is no real limit to what florals you can get inked—as long as you find an experienced tattoo artist with the ability to create it.
Line Art Tattoos
“I noticed line art tattoos begin to blow up around 2015 on Instagram,” says Astrid Elisabeth, co-founder of Somewhere Tattoo in Queens, NY. “I actually taught myself to tattoo because I couldn't find anyone embracing this style. Since then, they seem to have exploded in popularity.”
Line art tattoos look as though the design is one continuous line that wraps around and even overlaps. Almost any design can be done in a line art style—as long as it’s the right size, says Elisabeth.
“Make sure your design is legible, has room to breathe, and isn't too complex for the size,” notes Elisabeth. “No matter what, just make sure you love the design and trust your artist.”
Watercolor tattoos are designs done in a way that mimics the look and fluidity of a watercolor painting with pigment. From ink with bold lines and abstract patterns to tattoos with a soft look and pastel color palette, any image looks good in a watercolor style; they can even work as cover-up tattoos because of their fluid look and the need to fill up space.
The watercolor effect is achieved by using the same general techniques as any other tattoo style, says tattoo artist Britta Christiansen. A common misconception is that less ink is used than in traditional designs, but the opposite is the case. The same needles and depth are used, notes Christiansen, but the design employs a wider range of ink colors to create a fading gradient effect.
“If a particular watercolor tattoo would include the color red, I will typically use at least five different red tones, from dark red to light red, in order to create a watercolor effect,” says Christiansen.
Although a large color gradient is one element of a successful watercolor tattoo, Christiansen says that the real way to create a good-looking and lasting watercolor tattoo is the contrast, not the color choice. The style can be achieved with black and shades of grey just as well as it can be with pastel or vivid colors the key is to have a thorough understanding of the underlying skin tone and how the colors mix together.
Abstract art is based around the idea of representing concepts through art that don’t necessarily represent the reality around us but instead focus on the shapes, colors, and textures that make up that reality. Abstract tattoos follow the same principles by using more aesthetic imagery, like random shapes, blobs of color, and different line styles. These designs tend to focus more on how it looks rather than what it means, and artists often develop their own styles based on their experiences and likes.
Because abstract tattoos stick to such specific concepts, the tattoo itself becomes a work of art and tends to represent the artist—like a signature on a painting. It’s important to find an experienced tattoo artist whose work you like when looking at abstract tattoos to be sure it fits your aesthetic and what you want for your ink.
UV tattoos, or glow-in-the-dark tattoos, use vivid, fluorescent pigments that are difficult to view in daylight. However, under ultraviolet (UV) lights, these designs seem to glow thanks to the specific wave of light they omit. While glow-in-the-dark tattoos sound like they’d light up anywhere, the truth is that the effect only happens when viewing them under UV lights.
This style of tattoo became popular in the 1990s thanks to the neon trend and is still being experimented with (professionally and safely) in today’s tattoo scene. When the process was developed, artists used ink containing a carcinogen called phosphorous; now, traditional—albeit extremely bright—pigments are used to create the effect rather than dangerous chemicals.
Geometric tattoos are inspired by tribal tattoos of many cultures, including Maori, Polynesian, and Thai. In modern geometric tattoos, however, aesthetics play a major part, as they help to make sure the design doesn’t just end up looking clunky or unbalanced. Any design can really be done in a geometric style, says Dana Shasho of Gida Tattoo in Tel Aviv, Israel—as long as you consider its composition.
“When I choose a geometric design, I try to understand what kind of shapes will suit the person and the body part,” Shasho says. “I ask ... what shapes they like more—sharp, flow, organic, mechanical—so the person will have a connection to the tattoo as well.”
It’s also important to consider the size of the tattoo, adds Shasho, as something small tends to be less complex to keep it from looking messy and a larger design tends to be more intricate. According to Shasho, what really makes a good geometric tattoo, though, is how it will flow with the body.
“A good tattoo will be placed correctly on the body, will have the right proportions, and will flatter the body shape,” adds Shasho.
Blackwork tattoos are done with heavy amounts of black ink. Elements of this style of tattoo include thick outlines, intense shading, and large, filled-in, black areas. While blackwork tattoos may sound heavy, they can actually create boldly delicate moments, as well. There are a variety of styles within the realm of blackwork tattoos—some artists prefer heavy gray shading, some prefer crisp, all-black designs—so it’s best to find an artist whose portfolio you like and book your appointment with them. This is especially important with blackwork tattoos, as the slightest over-reach in design, such as a line that’s too thick or an area that’s too filled-in, can completely change the feel of the tattoo.
American Traditional Tattoos
American traditional tattoos first started appearing on soldiers in the 1700s who got inked as a memento of travels to different countries and cultures. The style was made popular by Norman Collins, a.k.a. Sailor Jerry, a tattoo artist who worked from the 1940s to the 1970s and was heavily influenced by hand-poked tattoos and his deployment in the U.S Navy.
The style is also called old school, Americana, or Western style, and is composed of simple, clean designs with heavily saturated colors and images such as animal heads, roses, pin-ups, ships, and other military-related designs, says Tyler Nealeigh of Black Lotus Tattooers in Gilbert, AZ. These tattoos also tend to have bold black outlines and heavy but minimal black shading, and Nealeigh says it's such a common style because of its timeless designs.
“This style has been going on for so long that it will never die,” notes Nealeigh. “It’s always good to look at a well-done traditional tattoo and know that it will last the tests of time.”