A Beginners Guide: Here's a quick rundown on the major tattoo styles of the contemporary tattoo scene.
Not every tattoo has a meaning and purpose, but most of them do. Some people get tattoos to remind them to stay true to themselves while others get inked in memory of someone they’ve lost. Some people may even get inked to commemorate their personal or shared experiences or to remind themselves of personal milestones or achievements.
Tattoos became popular in from various cultures in America, Asia, Africa and Oceania. There’s also evidence that tattoos originated from Europe approximately 5,000 years ago. Sometimes, tattoos have a meaning in a particular culture. Sometimes, tattoos were used to show religious affiliations, strength or social status. The practice of tattoos came from sailors and other working class members. Years later, tattoos became a symbol of affiliations to certain groups such as inmates or bikers. After 1980, people started using tattoos as a sign of the punk and gay movement. The movement used tattoos as a protest against conservative people.
Some of the most popular types of tattoos are realism, traditional, tribal, Japanese, watercolor, script and geometric. Before you walk in a tattoo parlor, you want to be sure that you know what you’re talking about. After you read this article, you’ll be able to tell the difference between a traditional tattoo and a Japanese tattoo. You’ll no longer have to guess what tattoo you’re looking at.
Old School, Traditional
The traditional style was born on the high seas during the 1700s, after sailors like those who sailed with Capitan James Cook first encountered indigenous communities with tattoos and, becoming inspired by their bodily markings, decided to start collecting body art as mementos of their long voyages. Over the course of the 19th century, the style became more refined taking on the boldly lined and brightly colored aesthetic seen in the work of well-known American tattooists of the 1900s like Sailor Jerry.
Though classic realism has been a part of the fine art since as far back as the Renaissance, it only found its way to the world of tattoos recently, cropping up around the latter half of the 20th century. Since then, the style has become increasingly refined and extremely popular. As it now stands, you can find jaw-dropping color and black and grey portraits of pretty much any celebrity you can think of as well as realistic depictions of nature and just about anything else imaginable, even the surreal.
The watercolor style is currently in vogue. It's in extremely high demand by the most recent generation of tattoo enthusiasts, who seem to be looking for something new to match the new millennium. It looks like what it sounds like, as if rendered with a brush dabbled in watery pastels. However, looks can be deceiving, while it's easy to create this aesthetic when working with actual watercolors on paper or canvas, doing it with ink on the human body is no simple feat. Still, artists make all sorts of whimsical and poetic pieces using this innovative approach to tattooing.
Tribal tattoos — i.e. indigenous body art — are the oldest in the world, dating back thousands of years. This style should actually be thought of as multiple styles or more so different traditions of tattooing from aboriginal communities all around the globe. These diverse and beautiful styles are frequently referred to under the umbrella term "tribal," but to the trained eye, Polynesian body art is distinctive from Marquesan just like tattoos on Inupiaq matriarchs' faces are different from those found on Berber women. Though these styles are all unique, they are somewhat similar— almost always done in black with elaborate patterns.
Don't let the name fool you, new school isn't really all that new anymore. It rose to prominence in the weirdness that was the late '80s and early '90s, but lately it has waned in popularity. This is probably because it was very much a product of its time, featuring a highly animated aesthetic that takes after popular entertainment from that period in American history. The style is cartoonish and wacky, featuring caricatures and other exaggerated figures. If you're the sort of person who likes their body art injected with the spirit of Ren and Stimpy, then this comic style is for you.
Neo-traditional, as the name implies, is an evolution of the traditional style. It features the core properties of its predecessor, like pronounced linework and extremely vibrant colors but it also has a illustrative quality to it. This is because neo-traditional artists employ various line weights to achieve a more textured and detailed aesthetic. In pieces done in this style, you'll also find more blended colors schemes, giving primary figures a plush appearance, which is why it's so ideal for depicting things like animals and lively imagery.
The traditional Japanese style, aka Irezumi, originated during the Edo period (1603-1868) alongside ukiyo-e — woodblock prints that were hugely popular among the merchant class at the time. Because of this, the icons found in this time-tested genre of body art come from the country's age-old folklore, featuring tattooed heroes from the Suikodenand mythological creatures like dragons, kirins, and phoenixes. In short, every tattoo done in this style tells a story about Japans rich past, and beyond their dramatic smoke and wave filled appearance, this is what makes Irezumi masterpieces so powerful.
Stylistically speaking, blackwork is a very broad categorical term. It applies almost any body art that's created using solely black ink, but as you can imagine, a lot can be done with this versatile and striking color. Looking through blackwork artists portfolios, you'll see everything from ancient sacred geometry to modern abstract ornamental designs to extremely detailed illustrative pieces. It is hands down the style where the most experimentation is currently occurring in the industry, and some of the work being produced today is absolutely mind-blowing.
Black & Gray
Black and grey is a style that only uses black and white ink in varying shades. Typically, the tattoo is made by diluting the black ink with distilled water in various proportions, creating a "wash" of lighter shades. Some artists mix white with black ink to produce a gray shade, but it is not the traditional method. White ink can also be used to smooth out sharp transitions between the different shades, or as a highlight. This style supposedly originated in prison, where inmates had limited access to different colors of ink.
Fine line tattooing is one of the newer styles you’ll find in tattoo shops and has been achievable because of the improvements made with tattoo machines, inks, and needles. Artists today are able to add more detail and special effects to their artwork. Fine line is often used in portrait tattoos or to achieve a delicate look.
This is a modern style of art, it usually doesn’t have any type of outline or any real structure. It breaks away from the traditional representation of animals, people, and the world around us.
Surrealist / Horror
This style covers everything from Salvador Dali to Fantasy monsters and incoherent nightmares. Full of symbolic scenes, strange dream-like scenarios, humor (sometimes the humor is gleeful, impish or sometimes it can have a sarcastic or cruel twist). Using bizarre creatures and people to create continuity between the images, some are single images used to shock or catch your attention. It can also be known as "Lowbrow art" or "Pop Surrealism."
Geometric tattoos focus on patterns and shapes found in the world. Geometric tattoos also have ties with history of religious iconography. You may want to be careful if you go and get one of these tattoos too. Some people used the term sacred geometry when they tell the tattoo artist what they want. Tattoo artists around the world have a range of interpretations when it comes to using sacred geometry tattoo. Sacred geometric tattoos cause tattoo artists to have different meanings about what the customer really wants.
Geometric tattoos come in a variety of styles, especially if you tell the tattoo artist that you want a sacred geometric tattoo. A sacred geometric tattoo can mean the flower of life, metatron’s cube, mathematical patterns and more. Be sure to be specific when you go to get a geometric tattoo.
Script tattoos are usually in tattooed in black ink, but any color can be used. These types of tattoos can be letters, numbers or special characters that are tattooed on someone. Script tattoos can be tattooed in hundreds of thousands of fonts. Script tattoos can be Japanese, Chinese, French and any other language you can think of.
People often get script tattoos to brand themselves with a person’s name or a quote of a saying that they admire. You should be careful before you go out and get one of these tattoos, especially if you want a foreign language tattooed on your body. Be sure that you know what the tattoo says before you get inked. Some tattoo artists mistake foreign languages with other words. If you get a foreign language tattooed on yourself, you may be putting something on your body that means something completely different, especially if you aren’t able to translate it.
Sometimes a tattoo incorporates some words or letters, such as initials of a loved one on a larger design. Other times, the lettering makes up the entirety of the design, and the font used will have the largest effect until the words are read.
Either way, lettering is an important design element that every tattoo artist needs to master. The technical aspects of producing high quality letters for a tattoo are definitely simpler than doing an intricate gray wash, but they do have their own set of complications.
The biggest complication is fixing mistakes. With most designs, if a mistake is made it can be hidden under ink, or incorporated into the rest of the design. Unfortunately, this is rarely true with lettering. Just like trying to correct the spelling of a word written with pen on paper, reworking lettering after the ink has been applied is next to impossible. Because of this, extreme care should be taken to ensure that not only the words are to the client’s liking, but that the tattooing itself is done precisely.
Lettering Best Practices
The first thing to learn about lettering is how to properly space the words and letters in order to make the total effect pleasing to the eye. This needs to be planned in advance, and because of this, no matter how simple the request a stencil should still be used. A stencil will give the artist time to pre-plan the lettering, and also to allow the client to consent to the style and placement.
The Most Important Aspect of Lettering When drawing up lettering, the most important thing to remember is the midpoint. The midpoint, like it sounds, is the middle point of the word or sentence. The midpoint will fall in the precise middle of the area being tattooed. If more letters are on one side of the midpoint than the other, the design may look poorly done. It will feel like it is weighted to one side, and the off balanced look will be unpleasing to the eye.
We hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about each of these styles. They are by no means all of the ones currently circulating throughout the contemporary tattoo scene, but they are some of the most prominent.
Tattoo Tips and Techniques
Touch-Ups and Fixes
It’s not unusual for a tattoo to require a bit of touch-up after it has healed a bit. There are plenty of legitimate reasons that an artist might want to touch up a piece. After all, the finished product will forever be associated with you, and you certainly want it to look its very best.
Some artists will ask the client to come back in after the healing process to take a look at the tattoo and to photograph it for the portfolio. At this time, you might notice that a line got missed or that there is some color missing. It is common to charge a small fee for some touchup work, although some shops will offer free touchups for up to a year after the tattoo is completed.
Oftentimes, the need for a touchup or fix is really the fault of the client who hasn’t followed the aftercare instructions properly. In these cases, however, it’s unlikely that he or she will admit to doing something wrong. You must determine how you want to approach the situation. Laying blame isn’t likely to win you repeat business, so you may prefer to just do the touchup without commenting too much on the cause for fading from spending time in the sun or loss of color from scratching at scabs.
You may also be asked to touch up or “fix” a tattoo that was done by another artist. Again, it is your choice whether or not to offer this type of service. Some artists have a strict “hands-off” policy because if they are not able to get the original tattoo up to their own standards, they don’t want their reputation to be associated with it.
Of course, if the mistake is your own, it’s in your best interest to fix it. It’s also good practice to apologize for the mistake and make sure that the customer understands that you want to do everything you can, within reason, to make the situation right.
Tattoo artists generally see refunding a client’s money as a last resort. Instead, it is far more important to always to your best-quality work. Work with the client to find out exactly what it is that he doesn’t like about the tattoo and see if it is something that can be rectified. If it is an issue with color, you might be able to easily fix it, either for free or at a discounted rate. If a client does threaten legal action, however, you may find that it would cost more to defend yourself in court than it would to provide the refund.
Camouflage Tattoos (Cower up)
If you do choose to help clients who want to hide or cover up an old tattoo, be aware that it can be a really fun artistic challenge. It used to be that you had to more or less blot out the old tattoo with a new design that was primarily black, but that’s not necessarily the case today.
When you first think about it, it seems like you would be placing ink over the top of the old tattoo and simply covering it up, but that’s not really the case. Instead, you are adding new ink to the same layer of dermis where the original was placed however many years ago. This means that the colors are actually able to mix together, rather than just having one cover the other. Of course, if you’re adding a very dark color, it can overpower what was already there to give you the effect you’re going for.
Instead of simply covering up the old tattoo or trying to find some way to incorporate it into a new design, you might just want to change it entirely. By looking at the overall shape and colors that have already been used, you can work on new design options that complement this and work to cleverly hide the old one.
In order to do this, it’s a good idea to use tracing paper or acetate over the top of the old tattoo to trace it. The artist can then copy this drawing or place it on a light table with a clean sheet of paper over the top to start coming up with new design ideas that will cover the old design without being obvious. Do your best to incorporate already existing shapes into the new design, turning it into something else completely.
The artistry involved in the tattoo industry has come so far in the past several years (and decades) that it is possible to take something old and unattractive and turn it into something completely different and beautiful. What you need is the artistic eye to see the potential in what is already there.
Finding The Right Depth
In the earlier biology section, you learned quite a bit about skin, but now that you’re getting ready to actually apply ink, it’s a good idea to review what was covered, as well as to take a look at it with the knowledge you’ve gained as you’ve continued reading. This will help reinforce what you’ve learned, as well as to put it into more practical terms for your personal process.
Tattooing requires that the needle pierce the skin so that ink can be deposited. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, however. In order for a tattoo to be professional and to last, the needles need to deposit the ink at the proper depth within the skin. If the ink is too shallow, it may seep out of the holes and leave a washed out design. If the ink is placed too deep, the skin may be damaged far more than it needs to be, leading to pain, scarring, and excessive bleeding. Clearly, either set of circumstances would be terrible for the client and also affect the artist’s reputation.
In order to know what is too shallow and what is too deep, it is important to understand skin. Skin is the canvas the tattoo artist works upon, and the artist will work on the skin of thousands of people throughout a career. Like any artist, understanding the materials involved in the artistic process allows those materials to be used to their fullest potential. This is just as much the case with skin as it is with paper or a canvas, only the stakes are higher—skin cannot be replaced.
The skin is composed of three primary layers. The first layer is called the epidermis. The epidermis is the layer we see on the surface. It is waterproof, it protects us from bacteria, viruses, and parasites, and it also allows us to touch our world. This layer has a remarkable ability to heal, but does not always do so without leaving marks, or scars. The epidermis itself is composed of four layers of cells. These cells are constantly being created, and as the top layer dies, it is sloughed off to reveal a new layer underneath, while the newest layer of cells is being generated at the very bottom portion of the epidermis. This process is a continual cycle, ensuring that there will always be new skin ready to protect the body.
Going Into The Skin and Healing
It takes about two weeks for the top layer of the epidermis to journey form being new cells to being the top layer being sloughed off, which is the amount of time it takes to heal from a shallow cut. Because this layer is sloughed off regularly, a tattoo placed in the epidermis will not last. Some of the ink may seep deeper into the skin, but most of the tattoo will, like any other wound, heal over time and disappear.
Under the layers of the epidermis is another layer of skin called the dermis. The dermis is itself composed of two layers, called the papillary (top) and reticular dermis (bottom). These layers do not regenerate as quickly as the layers of the epidermis do, and they never slough off. This layer is remarkably stable, and it will hold ink very well. It may be surprising that we can see ink through multiple layers of skin, but skin itself is actually quite thin when taken as a whole. Not only this, but skin is translucent. Holding a flashlight next to the skin in a dark room will reveal veins, arteries, and capillaries, and illustrates just how easy it really is to see through the skin. Ink isn’t luminescent, of course, but it is deep enough in color to be able to show through many layers of skin, which is how a tattoo works.
Underneath the dermis is the final layer of skin, which is made up of subcutaneous fat. Subcutaneous simply means under the skin, and it is a thin layer all over the body directly under the skin. It offers cushion over bones and joints even in areas that rarely have much other body fat, such as elbows or the top of the feet. The tissue here isn’t as stable as other layers of the skin. In fact, it tends to move around a little bit, and can even deflate if the body loses weight. Because of this, tattoos placed here will become blurry and vague over time as the cells move about or deflate. Also, when this level of the skin is damaged, it can take more time to heal than the other layers. It also bruises and bleeds, creating unwanted damage during a tattoo. Clearly a tattoo breaks the skin, but doing the minimal amount of damage necessary to leave proper pigmentation should always be the goal.
Some artists will use a standardized approach. 1/16 of an inch, or 1 millimeter are common measurements listed for proper tattoo depth that will hit the dermis yet won’t go into the subcutaneous fat layer. The problem with this method is that every piece of skin is different. Some people are skinnier, and some have more fat.
Tattooing even a slender person’s belly will give the artist an area with thicker skin than tattooing the top of the same person’s foot. An artist can estimate all that they want, but ultimately there is no way to come up with a common measurement for all people, or even all parts of the same body.
Thankfully, learning how to feel for the proper depth is something that can be learned through a comprehensive apprenticeship.A master tattoo artist knows how to work with skin, and how to tell by feel what the proper depth of the needle should be. This skill is taught to the apprentice, who will spend quite a bit of time assessing skin until it becomes second nature to him or her as well.
There are also some tell-tale signs that can be seen during the tattoo when the depth is incorrect. The color may be too vibrant if it is not deep enough, rather than having the slightly murkier tone that is expected when the ink is placed into the dermis. Ink welling up out of the punctures is also another sign that the depth is too shallow. Some ink will seep during any tattoo, but too much of it is a sure sign that the needle adjustment needs some fine-tuning.
If the client has an unusual amount of bleeding, or seems to be experiencing more pain than would be expected for the area of skin being tattooed, it is possible that the needle is going in too deep. Different people have different pain thresholds, but tattoo artists work with many people, and should have a pretty good idea of when the pain is just too much. There is no cut and dry method for predicting needle depth, but quality training and experience will give the artist the ability to tell when to increase and when to shorten the depth of the needles.
Tattooing Different Skin Tones
Human skin tone certainly varies from person to person. What looks stunning on one skin color just simply might not work well on another. Designs tend to be clearer and easier to read on light colored skin than on darker skin, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t provide amazing tattoos to clients with darker skin tones.
A big part of the issue has to do with where the ink is placed. Because the needle delivers it below the epidermis and into the dermis, when it heals up, there will be a layer of dermis over the top. This isn’t as much of a problem when the client’s skin is lighter in tone, but for clients of color, this means that the natural pigmentation of the epidermis will mute some of the tattoo color placed below. Additionally, the “canvas” itself is darker, which means that the colors will not necessarily “pop” as well as on lighter-skinned clients.
Go for Contrast!
Instead of focusing so much on ink color, artists working with darker-skinned clients should direct their efforts more into thicker lines and a larger design. Dark, thick lines and larger-scaled tattoos look incredible on dark skin. On the other hand, small designs and light colors tend to get overpowered and will likely be a disappointment. Use a larger needle grouping to make your lines thicker and more substantial so they will stand out from the skin’s natural coloration.
Of course, the client generally has the final say in what will be going on his or her skin; but your job as the professional is to offer as much knowledge and expert advice as the client will accept. You might want to use photographic examples of different tattoo styles on various skin tones to illustrate to the client why it would be a good idea to revamp his or her original idea into something that reads better as a finished piece.
Some artists may be tempted to go over the same area a few times or to move the needles more slowly across the skin in order to make the ink appear darker, but this should be avoided. Darker skin is more likely to scar than lighter skin, so you want to avoid causing extra trauma.
Just as not every tattoo will require color, not every tattoo will require an outline, or even a picture. Some tattoos are created using only the gradients of white to black in order to give a result much like a black and white photograph. Other tattoos are only words, but are done in a way that the lettering itself makes as much of a statement as the meaning does. These types of tattoos call for specialized skills, and in the case of black and white tattooing, some artists choose to perform these and little else.