The Many Styles of Tattooing | Jhaiho

The Many Styles of Tattooing

An old-school American classic tattoo of a girl sporting vintage fashion and hair

Tattoo Specializations refer to the various styles of tattooing an artist could specialize in. Most artists do more than one style, while many develop their own style by combining two or more existing ones. And some experimental artists who like to push the boundaries often go on to create new styles entirely!

Abstract

Abstract tattoos draw heavily from early surrealist painters. The word ‘abstract’ refers to ideas that do not have a physical form. In art, this represents work that is complex and layered, and often appears to not have any structure’. Abstract designs are therefore open to interpretation and usually have personal meaning for the wearers of such tattoos.

An abstract tattoo featuring a cat and teacups by Jessica Svartvit
Cat and Teacup Abstract Tattoo
An abstract blackwork and linework tattoo
Abstract Tattoo

Trash Polka

An emerging trend, trash-polka combines traditional art and realism with abstract imagery and ‘trash’, or smudges and smears, and further adds to the chaotic look with a script and often brushstrokes. These tattoos are almost always done in black and red, paying homage to the tattoos of ancient Egyptians as well as modern punk subcultures, though many artists experiment with various colours, elements, and designs within this style.

A blackwork trash polka tattoo featuring a skull and a rose
Trash Polka Skull Tattoo
A trash polka tattoo of a animal skull
Trash Polka Ram Skull Tattoo
A trash polka tattoo of a dinosaur skull
Trash Polka Dinosaur Tattoo

Blackwork

Blackwork, at its core, simply refers to work done using black ink. The style was heavily influenced by tribal Polynesian tattoos. Over time, blackwork has come to refer to a style that has a more macabre aesthetic featuring subjects from horror tales and surrealism.

A blackwork tattoo of the elephants featured in a painting series by surrealist Salvador Dali
Dali’s Elephant in a blackwork tattoo
A blackwork tattoo of a wolf by The Pumpkin Patch
Blackwork Wolf by The Pumpkin Patch
A blackwork thigh tattoo of a skull and a serpent
Skulls represent death, while serpents represent rebirth
Frankenstein's Bride
A tattoo by Judd Bowman, blackwork artist at the vegan Black Diamond Tattoo Studio, Southern California

Having said that, this is one of the most experimental styles, and blackwork artists often combine black art with various styles such as dotwork, abstract, geometric, and realism, among many others!

A blackwork tattoo of a ram by InkOverMatter
Blackwork Ram by InkOverMatter
A detailed sketch-style blackwork tattoo of a Celtic dragon on the bicep
Sketch-style blackwork Celtic dragon tattoo
An abstract dotwork tattoo of David and Goliath by tattoo artist Allan Gois of Aliens Tattoos
David and Goliath abstract dotwork and blackwork by Allan Gois (Aliens Tattoos)

Black & Grey/Greywash

Black, grey, and white inks are used to create a sense of realism in the tattoo and add density and depth without using colour. With greywash, black inks are diluted to create lighter tints which allow for shading to create a more 3D effect.

A blackwork grey dragon tattoo of a Celtic dragon on the shoulder blade
Black and grey dragon tattoo

Negative Space

This style uses the empty space in a pattern to create a design. The blackwork will be done around the ‘negative space’, drawing one’s eye to ‘what isn’t there’. This is a common technique seen in larger blackwork or blackout pieces.

A blackwork tattoo that uses negative space to add form to the design
Blackwork Negative Space Tattoo
A blackwork tattoo that uses negative space to add form to the design
Blackwork Negative Space Tattoo
A blackwork tattoo that uses negative space to add form to the design
Blackwork Negative Space Tattoo

Silhouette/Shadow

Using blackwork combined with white and grey shading, tattoos are created to look like silhouettes and shadows. These minimalist tattoos are great if you’re looking to get a tattoo that’s similar to realism but not quite as detailed or intense.

A minimalist blackwork tattoo that hints at a horse using a silhouette and shadows
Silhouette blackwork tattoo of a horse
A minimalist blackwork tattoo of a man and his shadow using a silhouette and shadows
Silhouette blackwork tattoo of a man and his shadow

Brushstroke

This style uses brushstrokes as part of the design to create some beautifully artistic pieces. Brushstrokes are often done in black, but colours are not uncommon in this style. Modern tattooists use brushstrokes in very interesting ways, combining it with a variety of subjects to create very unique pieces. This makes brushstroke designs one of the more difficult styles to replicate.

A blackwork abstract tattoo using a brushstroke done on the calf
Abstract brushstroke tattoo
A blackwork graffiti-style tattoo of a brushstroke over Japanese script by InkOverMatter
Graffiti and brushstroke tattoo by InkOverMatter

Watercolour

Just as the name suggests, watercolour tattoos are designs that look like they were painted directly onto your skin using watercolours and brushes. Because of this, ‘watercolour’ is often used interchangeably with ‘brushstroke’, since watercolour tattoos look like colour versions of brushstroke tattoos.

The Pride of the Galaxy
Watercolour pride tattoo featuring the planets

While watercolour tattoos might look abstract and simpler than other styles, it takes skill to create the brushstrokes and effects that make the tattoo look like a watercolour painting. This style is extremely popular right now due to its artistic look as well as its use of softer lines and shading.

A watercolour tattoo of Hogwarts featuring the Deathly Hallows and Snape's infamous 'Always'
A watercolour tattoo of Hogwarts featuring the Deathly Hallows and Snape’s infamous ‘Always’
A watercolour Japanese dragon tattoo featuring a constellation
Watercolour Japanese dragon and constellation tattoo

Dotwork

Unlike other styles that create designs using line-work, dotwork tattoos use individual dots to build the entire design in a tattoo. Many artists use a stick-and-poke method with a single needle instead of a tattoo machine to create dotwork tattoos. This style is often merged with others, such as blackwork, abstract, and realism, to create some very detailed pieces.

A blackwork dot work tattoo of a bulb by tattoo artist Vikash of Kraayonz
Dotwork Bulb by Vikash (Kraayonz Tattoos)
A blackwork dotwork tattoo of a memory by The Pumpkin Patch
Dotwork Memory by The Pumpkin Patch
A dotwork tattoo on the ribs and midriff featuring a man on a tightrope balancing his head versus his heart
Dotwork tattoo of a ‘balancing act’

Pointillism

Pointillism takes the concept of dotwork and expands on it. Using dots in tight clusters, pointillism creates dense shapes, blocks, shading, and much more, such that you sometimes can’t even tell it’s a dotwork piece until you get a bit closer!

An armband tattoo featuring pointillism dotwork of a forest and nightsky
Pointillism dotwork armband
A pointillism dotwork tattoo of a mandala-style flower done on the back
Pointillism tattoo
A pontillism dotwork tattoo of the character Yoda from the Star Wars film franchise
Pointillism dotwork tattoo of Yoda from Star Wars

Geometric

Geometric styles use basic geometric shapes to create everything from minimalistic to detailed tattoos using a wide range of subjects.

An intricate geometric eagle tattoo by Verve Tattoo Studio
Geometric eagle by Verve Studio
A minimalist geometric tattoo of a tiger featuring circles
Geometric tattoo of a tiger that uses circles
A minimalist watercolour tattoo of surrealist painter Salvador Dali's piece 'The Elephants' by Bryan Gutierrez
Dali’s Elephants makes an appearance once again, this time as a minimalist watercolour tattoo featuring a circle

The concept of geometric tattoos lies rooted in early science and mathematics as well as spirituality, which identified these shapes as being the core of all life – everything is made of the basic shapes if you know what to look for! Geometric styles often use sacred geometry as the basis for their designs and are usually combined with line-work to create intricate patterns.

A minimalism linework tattoo using geometry to depict the Fibonacci sequence
Geometric tattoo featuring the Fibonacci sequence

Mandalas are some of the most popular tattoo designs at present. The intricate patterns in a mandala represent the universe and the part we play in it.

Sacred geometry teaches us that all life is connected, such as this design featuring Saturn and a mandala
An ornamental neck tattoo using patterns from both mandala and henna designs
Ornamental mandala and henna tattoo

Polygon

Polygons use 2D shapes formed out of straight lines – such as triangles, quadrilaterals, pentagons, rectangles, and hexagons as the base on which a tattoo is built, often to create more abstract pieces with varying subjects.

A geometric rectangle tattoo featuring a fantasy nightsky
Rectangles represent trust and stability, a perfect frame for a meaningful memory!
A blackwork geometrick tattoo using dotwork and a diamond and triangles to create a scenery
Triangles represent harmony, creativity, and duality – the meaning of a triangle changes based on whether it points up or down

Illustrative

Yet another experimental style, illustrative tattoos draw from an extremely wide range of art styles – from abstract and surrealism to etching and even calligraphy. Like its name, this style tends to look quite like the illustrations one would see in a storybook. Because of how fluid the style is, it allows artists to be truly expressive and creative which leads to some really amazing designs!

A blackwork tattoo featuring an illustration of a girl smoking and a skull linework in the smoke
Illustrative blackwork tattoo
An illustrative tattoo of lemons
Illustrative tattoo of lemons
A colour tattoo featuring an illustration of a fairy girl
Illustrative tattoo of a fairy by Robson Carvalho
A colour tattoo featuring an illustration of waves and the sun
Illustrative tattoo of sun and waves by Robson Carvalho

Ornamental

Ornamental designs usually feature spiritual imagery, such as mandalas as the core of the tattoo, and usually add subjects like flowers and crystals around this design. These designs are usually very delicate and resemble dainty jewelry. But don’t take that to mean they’re only to be looked at! These designs can often have deep spiritual meanings.

An ornamental tattoo on the wrist of a charm bracelet
Ornamental tattoos mimic jewelry, such as this wrist tattoo that looks like a charm bracelet
An ornamental sleeve tattoo from Verve Tattoo Studio
Ornamental sleeve by Verve Studio
An ornamental tattoo of a mandala done on the back of the neck extending down the spine and shoulders
Mandalas represent unity and harmony and teach us that we are a tiny speck in the vastness of the universe
An ornamental tattoo of a filigree on the back of the neck
Filigree is a delicate jewellery pattern originating in Asia and popular across the world. They also make for stunning tattoos!

Minimalism

Simple and understated – that’s at the core of minimalism. These tattoos are almost always smaller in size and feature very simple linework or patterns as opposed to the detail-heavy styles like realism.

A minimalism tattoo of Khaleesi Daenerys' three dragons Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal from HBO TV show Game of Thrones
A tattoo of the three dragons from Game of Thrones
A minimalism tattoo on the feet featuring the symbol for yin and yang
Yin and yang – the symbol of balance
Two minimalism tattoos on the calves featuring world maps and planes in hearts
A minimal calf tattoo for a pair of wanderlusters!
A minimalism blackwork tattoo of a girl in the water under moonlight, her reflection is a skull
Blackwork and minimalism combine to bring you something truly macabre!
A minimalism tattoo on the back of the ankle featuring pine trees
The evergreen pine trees stand for longevity and solitude
A minimalism tattoo of a pencil done on the shin
Pencil tattoos represent endurance and the ability to stand the test of time
A minimalism tattoo of a bee on the hip bone
Bees represent community and personal power
A minimalism tattoo of a boat on the inner wrist
Boats represent a journey to where we want to be
A minimalism tattoo that says 'I am enough' in Braille
Braille for ‘I am enough’.

This doesn’t, however, mean you can’t get a minimalist tattoo that has some detail in it! What makes a tattoo minimalist is how understated it is.

A minimalist blackwork tattoo of the characters Harry Potter and his owl Hedwig from the Harry Potter franchise
A minimalist blackwork tattoo of Harry Potter and Hedwig
A microrealism tattoo of a painted plate from Fornasetti featuring operatic soprano Lina Cavalieri by Tattooist Yeono
A microrealism tattoo of a Fornasetti by Tattooist Yeono

Outline and Line-Work

If you’re more into basics, line-work is for you. This style uses simpler lines in very minimalistic designs, and very rarely incorporates more detailing or shading. If you’d like something even more understated, a simple outline with absolutely no filling or shading will be perfect for you!

A minimal line work Buddha from Ancient Tattoo Studio
Minimalist linework Buddha by Ancient Tattoos
A blackwork geometric tattoo of painter and artist Frida Kahlo by Dark Arts The Tattoo Studio
Illustrative linework of Frida Kahlo by Dark Arts Studio
A minimalism tattoo of a line done on the outer wrist
Minimalist line tattoos usually represent mourning and the fragility of life
A minimalism origami tattoo of paper cranes done on the back of the necl
Minimalist origami outline tattoo of paper cranes, a symbol of hope and healing
An outline tattoo of the Buddha on the back
Buddha tattoos have many meanings – rebirth, strength, enlightenment, or a sign of devotion
Do They Know It's Christmas Music Tattoo
Minimalist outline tattoo of a bandaid featuring musical notes

 

Fine-Line

Fine-lining is a relatively newer style that uses thin, delicate lines to create a design.

A fine line tattoo of a cat on the wrist
Minimalist fine line tattoo of a cat
A minimalism fine line tattoo of a woman's face in profile
Minimalist fine line tattoo
A minimalism fine line tattoo of a girl and space
Minimalist fine line tattoo

Sometimes used as is, this style can also be combined with more denser styles, such as realism, to add a more delicate look to what would otherwise be a very intense tattoo.

A fine line tattoo featuring realism of a lion's portrait
Realism fine line tattoo of a lion
A fine line tattoo featuring realism of a girl's face and a wolf in smoke
Realism and abstract fine line of a girl and a wolf
A fine line tattoo featuring realism and sacred geometry
Fine line realism tattoo featuring sacred geometry

Sketch-Style

Building on line-work, sketch-style has the quality of looking exactly like a sketch you’d find in your artist’s sketchbook. Sketches are often drafts, meant to be completed with details, shading, maybe even colours. The rough, unfinished look of sketch-style tattoos give off the vibe of something that is in progress, but still beautiful as is.

A detailed sketch-style blackwork tattoo of a Celtic dragon on the bicep
Sketch-style blackwork Celtic dragon tattoo
A sketch-style tattoo of a skeleton and a ballerina dancing
Sketch-style tattoo of a skeleton and a ballerina dancing
A sketch style tattoo of an Englishman
Sketch style tattoo of an Englishman
A detailed sketch-style deer tattoo by Ancient Tattoos
Sketch-style Deer by Ancient Tattoos

Neo-Traditional

This style evolved from the more traditional styles of tattooing. While it continues to use the same bold black lines and bright colours, it also features more modern styles such as illustrative and geometric and brings in more nature-inspired elements including floral patterns and animals. Due to this, the neo-traditional style has a much more artistic quality to it that makes it visually similar to early painters.

A neo-traditional tattoo featuring the colours and lines of old-school with the grandeur and floral patterns added in
A ‘classic’ (pun intended!) neo-traditional tattoo
A neo-traditional tattoo of a whale on the bicep
Neo-traditional tattoo of a whale

Glitch

This unique style features distorted imagery, kind of like a TV with bad reception. Often linked to the punk subculture due to it being a style that breaks all ‘tradition’, this style of tattooing takes designs from more traditional styles like blackwork and distorts them to create some truly unique pieces.

A neo-traditional glitch tattoo with a Greek sculpture as the subject
A glitch tattoo of an ancient Greek sculpture
A neo-traditional glitch tattoo that mimics a TV with bad reception
Neo-traditional glitch tattoo – talk about trippy!
A neo-traditional glitch and silhouette tattoo of a rose
Neo-traditional glitch tattoo of a rose silhouette by Adam F (iron.glacier)

New-School

New-School was an aesthetic that emerged in the 80s and 90s – and it shows! The style is extremely vibrant and colourful, often featuring an extremely cartoonish, animated style of inking. If you’re still into the electro-pop of the 80s or love the retro look, you’re probably going to adore this style!

A new school tattoo of the character Coraline from the animated film of the same name
New school tattoo of Coraline
A new school tattoo of an old vial with a cork head
New school tattoo of a vial
A new school tattoo of a pug wearing a crown and sunglasses
New school tattoo of king pug
A new school tattoo, featuring the vibrant colours and clean lines of classic styles, with Goddess Kali as the subject
Goddess Kali in a new school tattoo

New school takes elements from traditional styles, such as the bold lines and vibrant colours, as well as the neo-traditional styles’ lean towards more artsy designs, and throws in a retro vibe to tie the whole thing together.

Cartoon/Anime

Emerging in the 90s, this style uses more modern elements to create designs. The cartoon style draws inspiration from the animated cartoons of the 90s, which included Japanese anime and art styles from manga.

A new school cartoon tattoo by tattoo artist Oozy
Cartoon tattoo by Oozy
A new school cartoon tattoo of the character Blossom
Cartoon tattoo of Blossom from The Powerpuff Girls
A new-school style tattoo of a Japanese dragon done along the ribs
New-school style cartoon dragon tattoo
A new school cartoon tattoo of the cat avatars of the lead characters from the 80s anime Sailor Moon
Cartoon tattoo of Sailor Moon
A new school cartoon tattoo of an anime girl as seen in the anime Inuyasha
Cartoon tattoo of a character from Inuyasha

Graffiti

Graffiti uses street-style art to create tattoo designs that, much like the Glitch style, are often associated with a punk subculture due to graffiti itself being illegal. But unlike Glitch, Graffiti uses more traditional elements of black lines and structured designs, combined with more contemporary script and cartoon styles.

A new school graffiti tattoo that uses script
Graffiti tattoo featuring script of the name ‘Gonzales’
A new school graffiti tattoo of a skill
Graffiti tattoo of a skull
A new school graffiti tattoo featuring a tooth floating in a can of spray paint
Graffiti tattoo featuring a tooth floating in a can of spray paint
A new school graffiti tattoo with script that says 'Facade'
Graffiti tattoo that reads ‘Facade’

The graffiti style features common subjects usually seen in graffiti art, including pop-culture references, objects from the 80s, and popular memes and ideas.

A new school graffiti tattoo of an old robot
Graffiti tattoo of an old robot
A new school graffiti tattoo of a boombox from the 80s blaring loud music
Graffiti tattoo of an 80s boombox
A new school graffiti tattoo
Graffiti tattoo
A new school graffiti tattoo of an ape with a detonator
Graffiti tattoo of an ape about to blow something up!

Sticker/Patch

A new addition, sticker tattoos are all the rage right now. Using the same elements as other new school styles, sticker tattoos are designed to look exactly like you slapped a sticker on your body. These tattoos usually feature beloved pop-culture characters, and are also referred to as ‘patch tattoos’.

A new school sticker tattoo of the character Smurfette from The Smurfs
Sticker tattoo of Smurfette from The Smurfs

Some look more like the stickers we used to get as prizes, while others have an embroidered look.

A new school sticker tattoo of the minions from the animated film Despicable Me
Sticker tattoo of the Minions from Despicable Me
A new school sticker tattoo of the character Olive from the cartoon Popeye
Sticker tattoo of Olive from Popeye

Realism

Realism is an ancient style that dates back to the early painters of the Renaissance period – which, put simply, means it’s really old! As a style of tattooing, realism has taken the art of creating lifelike drawings and applied it within the art of inking. With subjects ranging from portraits of people and animals to nature-inspired imagery, to everyday objects and beyond, realism remains one of the most popular styles of tattooing.

A realism portrait tattoo of a white tiger done on the bicep
The magical white tiger in a realism portrait
A realism tattoo of a wolf using finelining and watercolours
Realism portrait of a wolf
A blackwork realism tattoo of the Greek snake-headed goddess Medua
Blackwork realism tattoo of Medusa

Realism doesn’t always have to be portraits though! It can also feature anatomical designs, such as this one.

A blackwork anatomical realism tattoo of a dancing skeleton
Blackwork realism tattoo of a skeleton dancing

Realism can also be used to depict objects.

A realism nautical tattoo of an anchor
Realism anchor tattoo

Hyperrealism

As the name suggests, hyperrealism is essentially an advanced version of realism. Realistic designs are transformed into 3D versions, full with shadows, highlights, and detailing and shading that makes them jump out at you – almost like a photograph! The most common designs done in this style are photorealistic portraits.

A hyperrealistic tattoo of comic and Marvel legend Stan Lee by Luke Cormier
A hyperrealistic tattoo of Stan Lee by Luke Cormier
A comic-style portrait of Ryuk from Death Note by tattoo artist Sameer Patange of Kraayonz Tattoos
Hyperrealism tattoo of Ryuk (Death Note) by Sameer Patange
A hyper-realism portrait tattoo of south Indian star Rajinikanth by tattoo artist Sanket Patel of Aliens Tattoos
Hyperrealism tattoo of Rajinikanth by Sanket Patel (Aliens Tattoos)
A biomechanical hyper-realism tattoo of a skeleton by Sunny Bhanushali of Aliens Tattoos
Hyperrealism tattoo of a biomechanical skeleton by Sunny Bhanushali (Aliens Tattoos)

Illusion

Taking hyperrealism even further are illusion tattoos, such as biomechanical body parts or optical illusions. These styles are characterized by great detail and depth that make the tattoos really pop and look real, often so real it makes you stop and think twice about what you’re looking at!

A hyperrealism tattoo of an optical illusion
Optical illusion tattoo
A hyperrealism 3D tattoo of a cobra going through the arm
Illusion tattoo of a cobra
A hyperrealism tattoo of a bio-mechanical arm
Illusion tattoo of a biomechanical arm
A hyperrealism illusion tattoo of a bio-mechanical hand
Illusion tattoo of a biomechanical hand

Script/Lettering

Script tattoos use text to create a design. While the most common script to get tattooed is a name, you can get anything inked a minimalist tattoo featuring the lyrics to your favourite song to a quote or word that inspires you to a religious scripture or passages from your favourite novel or poem!

A minimalism script tattoo with the word 'free' done on the hand
Script tattoo that says ‘free’
A minimalism script tattoo of the lyrics from the song 'Sign of the Times' by One Direction's Harry Styles
Script tattoo with the lyrics to Harry Styles’ ‘Sign of the TImes’
Trans man tattoo
Script tattoo that says ‘self made man’
A minimalism script tattoo of the word 'ohana' from the animated film Lilo & Stitch done on the foot
‘Ohana means family, family means no one gets left behind. Or forgotten.’
Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven
Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ as a script and realism tattoo

It’s important to point out here – if you’re getting a script tattoo, make sure you get the spelling right!

No Ragrets
Don’t be a Scotty!

Ambigram

Ambigram tattoos are text tattoos that can be read in multiple ways. For instance, a tattoo that says ‘love’ but when reversed (such as in a mirror-image) says ‘hate’. These designs are great for hiding a message within a tattoo!

An ambigram script tattoo that says 'One Love' and when flipped says 'Family'
Ambigram tattoo that says ‘One Love’ and ‘Family’
An ambigram script tattoo that says 'I'm Fine' one way and when flipped says 'Save Me'
Ambigram tattoo that says ‘I’m Fine’ and ‘Save Me’

Traditional

Traditional styles are characterized by bold black lines and bright colours, inspired by Polynesian tribal tattoos and traditional Japanese tattoo styles like Irezumi, respectively. The style became popular after British sailors that voyaged across the globe returned with tattoos from Polynesia and Asia. Eventually, this style travelled to America, where it came to be known as Old-School American (OSA). Now, the style is simply called ‘Classic’.

An old-school American classic tattoo of a girl in an updo wearing makeup, jewelry, and flowers
Old-school American tattoo
A classic old-school American tattoo of a sailing ship and an octopus
Old-school American tattoo
An old-school American classic tattoo of a potted plant
Old-school American tattoo of a potted plant
A traditional style tattoo of an antique gramophone
A traditional gramophone tattoo
An old-school American classic tattoo of a tiger versus a panther
Old-school American tattoo featuring a tiger and a panther
An old-school American classic tattoo of a girl sporting vintage fashion and hair
Old-school American tattoo of a vintage girl

Chicano

The term ‘chicano’ was originally a derogatory term used in America towards people of Hispanic descent. The group eventually reclaimed the term, and sometime during the 40s, the Chicano style of tattooing was born. The style was originally created using sewing needles steeped in black ink. It draws on the traditional use of black ink, but has a much more illustrative quality to it, making it something in between traditional and neo-traditional. Common subjects of this style include Christian imagery, flowers, and skulls. One design that is extremely popular is the extremely vibrant and decorative ‘sugar skulls’ or ‘Calavera’ which are used in the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead and the Roman Catholic holiday All Souls’ Day.

A traditional tattoo in the Chicano style
Chicano tattoo
A traditional tattoo of the Christian Virgin Mother Mary in the Chicano style
Chicano tattoo of Mother Mary

Japanese

Japanese styles of tattooing usually feature very large and detailed pieces full of colour. They have a flowing effect to them owing to the inclusiong of winds and waves within the background of each design. The subjects in these tattoos tell tales of Japan’s past. The most widely known Japanese style of tattooing is ‘Irezumi’, which means ‘inserting ink’.
During the 1800s, these styles became associated with criminal activity and tattooing was made illegal. Eventually, Japanese tattooing became popular internationally, and it is now one of the most sought-after styles.

An Irezumi-style tattoo of a Japanese dragon as a sleeve
A Japanese dragon in an Irezumi tattoo
A tiger tattoo done in the traditional Japanese tattooing style by master tattooist Kintaro Horiyoshi III
An Irezumi tiger tattoo by master tattooist Kintaro Horiyoshi III
East Asian tattoo styles tell stories through detail and colour
Japanese styles of tattooing are as colourful as they are intricate

Tribal

Tribal tattoos collectively refer to indigenous art that has been practiced in tribal and native communities for thousands of years. These styles of tattooing are characterized by bold, black lines and large areas of black shading and are done using traditional hand-made tools. This makes them extremely painful and time-consuming. Modern tattooists use a mix of traditional tools and modern machines.

Maori face tattoo session
A traditional Maori tattoo session, ca. 1910

East Asian

These tribal styles are very similar to Polynesian ones with big bold black designs but differ in their style and subjects, which usually feature culturally significant symbols, such as the sun. They also often feature imagery that tells their history.

South Asian

South Asian styles of tattooing are some of the most diverse, both in design and in the reason for tattooing. While some tribes tattoo for aesthetic reasons, others tattoo to record the history and glory of their tribes. Still others tattoo for more specific reasons, such as to make their women ‘less desirable to other tribes who might otherwise try to steal them’.

Women's facial tattoos were used to make them 'less desirable' to potential attackers
Women from the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh with facial tattoos

These styles usually draw heavily from nature and feature plants, animals, and elements, as well as the symbols and patterns in the objects around them – such as the embroidered patterns in their clothing.

Tribal tattoos among the Toda look very similar to their traditional embroidery
A woman from the Toda tribe displaying her tattoos and embroidered clothing

Modern tattooing in South Asia often combines local tribal themes and designs with traditional tattoo styles to create pieces unique to the region.

Tribal tattoo using south Asian designs
Indian tribal tattoo, done by Birthmark Tattoo ’n’ Customs in Bangalore, India

Native American

Native American tattooing is similar in many ways to Polynesian styles, but their designs are different. Each tribe had its own style of tattooing, with each design being unique and meaningful to the individual being tattooed. Native American tattooing was done for healing and protection and was deeply spiritual.

Mohawk Native American tattoos
Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, a Maquas (or Mohawk) chief, displays his tattoos
A traditional Native American tribal tattoo from the Inuit tribe done on a woman's face
Inuit woman with face tattoos

While much of the Native cultures and traditions were destroyed due to invaders and colonization, these ancient arts are making a comeback in recent times. The early methods of tattooing in Native communities use a sewing needle with a thread soaked in dye to poke the tattoo into the skin.

A traditional tribal tattoo of the Native American people done using a sewing needle and thread dipped in dye
“Holly Mititquq Nordlum shows off her partially completed tattoo during a live demonstration at Anchorage’s Above The Rest studio. Nordlum’s Inupiaq name, Mititquq, means a place where birds land, and she commemorates big life achievements with bird feet tattoos, like the two on her opposite wrist.”
A traditional Native American tribal tattoo on the chin of an Inuit woman
An Inuit woman displays her chin tattoos which to her represent a connection with her culture as well as beauty, strength, and bravery

Some subjects in Native tattoos are sacred to them, such as the wolf who is a deity for some of these communities. The wolf is now an extremely popular choice in tattoo designs.

Polynesian

The most popular of the tribal styles of tattooing are the Polynesian styles which became known to the world through the voyages of James Cook and his fellow sailors. This style features large extensive black tattoos and the designs usually include the tribe’s history as well as the individual’s accomplishments, social status, and family crest, and might also include imagery with deep personal meaning.
The Maori style, in particular, has inspired many other styles of tattooing, such as Old-School American and Blackwork, and continues to do so even today.

Maori face tattoos
A Māori chief with a full-face tattoo, called Tā Moko, as seen by Cook and his crew
Marquesan man with Polynesian tattoos
A Marquesan man with traditional tattoos
Tribal tattoos
Tribal clothing or traditional pe’a?
Traditional Polynesian tattoos are intricate and rely heavily on traditional imagery and blackwork
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson displaying his traditional Polynesian tattoo
Aquaman's tribal tattoo
Jason Momoa’s tatau features shark teeth to ‘take the darkness out of your heart and bring the light in’
Tatau using modern tools
Traditional Marquesan tattoos representing strength and courage, done using modern methods

Bands

Of Polynesian tribal tattoos, armband tattoos are one of the most popular. The simpler black armband tattoos usually imply loss and are worn as a symbol of mourning and remembrance. Over time, these bands have evolved to take on a wide range of meanings depending on the design and subject of the tattoo.

A traditional armband tattoo featuring very thick black lines
Traditional armband tattoo
An armband tattoo featuring triangles
Armband geometric tattoo
An armband tattoo that uses inspiration from Asian tribal tattoo designs
Armband tattoo featuring design
A minimalist armband tattoo featuring very thin lines
Minimalist armband tattoo

Armbands don’t always have to be strictly black lines or minimalist, though! Artists love to experiment with this type of tattoo, so we have a massive catalogue of armband tattoos to be inspired by!

An armband tattoo that features a realism portrait of a tiger's eyes within the band
Armband tattoo featuring a realism portrait of a tiger
A tribal blackwork tattoo featuring the elements as armbands by Birthmark Tattoo n' Customs
Elemental Bands by Birthmark Tattoo n Customs in Bangalore, India
Treble Clef Music Tattoo
An armband that uses the staves and a treble clef – now that’s thinking outside the box!

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Found the style for you? Head on over to jhaiho.com and book your tattoo appointment today!

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