Maybe you’re a bonafide rock star with plenty of ink. Or, perhaps, you wouldn’t get closer than 200 yards to a tattoo parlor. Regardless, knowing about tattoo styles goes way beyond skin deep, paradoxically. While they’re great to know if you’re thinking about a rapid makeover (don’t get that tribal!), they can also aid you in media projects. Why make all of your characters and actors look the same when you can give ’em cool tats and make them stand out immediately?

Tatoo styles are one of the greatest weapons in an illustrator’s arsenal. Not only are they a requirement for real-life tattoos (ever tried getting one from an inexperienced artist?), but also a major ace-in-the-hole for character design. Personality is king, after all, and few things say “cool,” or “bad” more than tattoos. Understandably, they still have to be well-done and memorable. Today, I’ll take you on a small inking voyage. We’ll get into the history and use of the most popular tattoo styles. Then, I’ll let you in on where to find awesome designers who really know their stuff.

Thinking about making a video, film, graphic novel, video game, or comic book, or getting ink yourself? Read on!

The History of Tattoo Styles

It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that tattoos have been with us for a very long time. How long? Well, every human culture that we know of has tried tattoos, for one. For a long time, we believed that tattoos dated back to the times of the mummies in ancient Egypt. The earliest known evidence dated back to around 4,000. That was until the accidental 1991 discovery of Ötzi, a frozen mummy that reshaped our knowledge. Now, tattoo styles are widely accepted to go back at least until the neolithic.

While tattoos have been around for a significant amount of time, their function wasn’t always stable. They meant different things for different cultures at different times in history. What was a symbol of status in one could mark dangerous prisoners in another. The McGill Office for Science and Society weighs in:

Ethnographic and historical texts reveal that tattooing has been practiced by just about every human culture in historic times. The ancient Greeks used tattoos from the 5th century on to communicate among spies; later, the Romans marked criminals and slaves with tattoos. In Japan, criminals were tattooed with a single line across their forehead for a first offence; for the second offence an arch was added, and finally, for the third offence, another line was tattooed which completed the symbol for “dog”: the original three strikes and you’re out!

Evidence suggests that the Maya, Inca and Aztec used tattooing in rituals, and that the early Britons used tattoos in certain ceremonies. The Danes, Norse and Saxons are known to have tattooed family crests onto their bodies. During the crusades, some Europeans tattooed a cross on their hands or arms to mark their participation and indicate their desire for a Christian burial should they not return.

tattoo styles

Where Does ‘Tattoo’ Come From Anyway?

‘Tattoo’ actually comes from the Tahitian ‘Tatau,’ which means ‘To strike.’ Throughout history, there were many ways to inscribe tattoos on the skin.

  • Tapping the ink into the skin by using sharp bones or sticks.
  • Using a needle to pull a carbon-embedded thread under the skin for linear designs.
  • Others would straight-out cut designs into the skin and rub them with ashes.

Nowadays, though, we have styles that allow for a far greater safety margin. Not only that, but they also free up the tattoo artists to create more intricate patterns and drawings on the skin. It boggles the mind to think that the modern tattoo machine only goes as far back as 1891. Samuel O’Reilly, the inventor, created his own version of Thomas Edison’s etching pen, and the rest is history. Nowadays, the sky’s the limit when it comes to tattoo styles thanks to these technological advances.

Have things stayed the same since 1891? Well, not quite; tattoo machines have gone through multiple iterations and improvements, of course. Still, getting tattooed is often a costly, time-consuming, and — depending on where you’re getting inked  — painful process. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart.

But, regardless of whether you yourself are getting a tattoo, or one of your characters, knowing about tattoo styles is a must. While there are many I won’t be able to cover due to space, being conversant in basic contemporary ‘Tattooese’ can help make things far smoother. Especially when going with fictional designs, quality, authenticity, and a lived-in feel can go a long way. And hey, it takes a very competent artist to make a tattoo look intentionally crappy; you might want to consider that when you’re designing the ink on your bad guys’ skin.

Basic Contemporary Tattoo Styles


When you think about tattoo styles, you’ve probably got the ‘ol ‘American Tatoo” in mind. These simple, colorful line designs are a stalwart of the art form, and with good reason. They’re eye-catching, age wonderfully, and never fail to impress. The quaint old designs like anchors, lady heads, and roses have a place even in our post-ironic age — or should I say “Especially”?

This tattoo style also falls within the “traditional” and even “neo-traditional” categories. Check out this sweet little documentary for a little more insight.

Make It Real!

Realism or realistic tattoos are all the rage right now. Be wary, though, it takes an extremely gifted artist to make an image look photo-realistic on the skin. If they’re not the right fit for the job, you might have yourself a bit of an ‘Ecce Homo‘ situation. Not a good look by any stretch of the imagination.

This tattoo style is all about making images that make you do a double-take. If you find yourself thinking that somebody had a photo printed out on their skin, then that’s a good realistic tattoo job right there. Of course, you’re also free to make your characters have botched realistic tattoos to make them look dumber and more incompetent. There’s nothing that tells a story quite as much as a bad tattoo.


This one of those tattoo styles that screams ‘fashionable.’ Well, maybe not as much if you’re reading this from 2072, but what do I know, maybe everything old is new again (yet again). What I do know, is that this style renders images as if they’d been done by a brush dabbed in watery pastels. As with anything tattoo-related, though, this is far harder to do convincingly on the skin than it is on paper or canvas.


As far as tattoo styles go, these are the oldest in the book, dating back to millennia ago, in pre-Christian times. They can represent a wide and diverse array of cultures, from Polynesian to Maori — there’s not a one-size-fits-all type of tribal tattoo. This style also encompasses body art distinctive to many cultures.  Of course, be aware that you might hurt or offend sensibilities with tribal tattoos. What was once everyone’s first tattoo can now be culturally insensitive, so keep that in mind.

Of course, that might be exactly what you might be going for with one of your characters, though. Nothing screams “out of it” like a shirtless German dude decked out with full-body Maori tattoos. “Go big or go home” is a nice rule of thumb with fiction.

New School

Well, it was new in the 80s or 90s, much like Millennials. It was all the rage back then because it was meant as an answer to stuffier, less abstract tattoo styles. These surrealistic, Dali-esque pieces of bold color could be anything from cartoonish to all-out psychedelic extravaganzas. If you’re — like me — a fan of Adult Swim and shows like The Midnight Gospel, you’ll love this style.


This is another of the tattoo styles that you’ve probably seen making the rounds. It got its start during the Edo period (1603-1868), and thus it represents a part of Japan’s ancient folklore. The depictions of dragons, tattooed heroes, geishas, and koi fishes are beautiful, colorful, and timeless. Needless to say, if you’re going for impact, there’s nothing like a well-done long-sleeve Japanese tattoo that really tells a story.


This is another striking style that instantly makes your head snap back to take another glimpse. While it’s a general term meant to convey tats done solely on black ink, it doesn’t mean a particular pictorial style. Anything from abstract art, geometrical shapes, or psychedelic-inspired extravaganzas can be portrayed through blackwork.


These are, simply put, illustrations. Anything from old expressionist paintings to cartoon drawings can fall under the umbrella of illustrative art, making the lines blurry. Some artists love to copy others’ styles, others are great at incorporating their own and creating something novel and spectacular.

Where Do I Find Great Artists?

If you’re looking for artists that can convey a great range of tattoo styles, we’ve got you. Bunny Studio is your go-to design and freelancing solution, offering plenty of talented designers, artists, and illustrators that can work on anything from a tattoo that’s going to end on your skin, to amazing characters that sport believable tats in any style. If you’re looking for the best, most cost-effective, and fastest artists in the business, you’ve found ’em.

Whether you’re working on a video game project that needs to be finished pronto, or you’ve scoured everything from DeviantArt to Pinterest for tat designs, but came up short, we can get an amazing team of artists that will design what you need — typically in less than 24 hours! If you’re looking to work with the best, there’s no place better around, guaranteed.