Tattoo Styles. You know what you want, but you have no idea how to ask for it.


Sound Familiar? Fear not, tattoo lover. Once you’re armed with knowledge of different tattoo styles, you’ve got the right search terms to get down a rabbit hole and find the right artist.

This article gives you a jumping off point. Here I’m going to highlight the features of some popular tattoo styles so you can tell them apart, and show examples. Some from artists at Nomad Ink who specialise in that style, and some from great artists elsewhere.

I’ll also link plenty of articles that go in to further detail about your favourite style. There are many sub-categories to the tattoo styles highlighted here, particularly with illustration and realism tattooing.

So read on and click the links to learn what you love and what to ask for.

And as always, whether you’re sure or not, get in touch and I’ll help. Ask and you shall receive!


Black and Grey Realism

Realism tattoos by Lewis Sherlock, Nomad Ink, UK

See more of Lewis Sherlocks work here

Key Features

Shapes, shades and light. No outlines. Ever.

Tattoodo have a great article on realism tattooing and if you’re interested in this style I encourage you to take a look. They summarise, “one of the main methods of creating realism tattoos is the mapping of shadows, highlights and contrasts.”

Like realism art in all mediums, the goal is to re-create what exists in real life. It has dynamic range to create the 3D effect, and all features are created using different shading techniques to ensure there are no outlines.

Because in real life, there are no outlines. Your eye sees whatever the light shows it, so your artist’s knowledge of light sources, light direction and how light affects an image will allow them to create shadows to depict shape.

Realism is the basis for many subcategories, namely portraiture and surrealism. It can be achieved in both colour and black and grey and you’ll find more information on these in the linked article above.


Things to consider

Many people say realism is the least painful tattoo technique because it relies on varying depth and intensity to achieve the tattoo. Meaning not all of the area being tattooed is being hit with maximum needle depth with solid colour. Much of it is shallow and gentle.

Done well, it is seriously impressive and it’s great for covering large areas. The more space you can give realism the better, and you can use it to celebrate something you love as it is in real life.

Realism tattoos can take a long time to achieve, so buckle in for the long haul.

Portraits (and realism in general) can be a poor choice for cover ups.

This is the tattoo style most likely to need refreshing in a few years. Done well, they heal as they go in, but all tattoos lose intensity over time. In a few years the lighter softer areas you’re looking for in realism show that deterioration more than some other tattoo styles.

A good realism artist will ‘lock in’ certain features to ensure any fading or softening of detail in years to come doesn’t damage the integrity of the image, but it’s something to bear in kind.



Illustration tattoos by Sophie Burke, Nomad Ink, UK

See more of Sophie Burke’s work here

Key Features

No rules but lots of skill.

You’ll find a great article on illustrative tattooing here and as a genre, it’s vast.

As explained in the linked post, “within illustrative tattooing you will find artists who do blackwork, ornamental, abstract, traditional, figurative, Japanese, neo traditional, new school, chicano and more.”

Illustration is basically anything drawn, and it’s likeness to real life depends on the artist. Some (like the examples above) are very close to realism because colour is used in a multi-dimensional way to create shapes and shades.

But unlike realism there is an outline to most elements to flatten the image and give it that illustrated effect. Other illustration tattoos are completely abstract and heavily stylised. Some are 100% linework based and others are something in between.


Things to Consider

With the right artist you are limited only by your (or their) imagination. You are not bound by rules surrounding proportion, context or subject matter. Like with all images composition remains important but other than that, go for it!

The tattoo you want doesn’t have to be an image that already exists. And if you love this tattoo style but want a recognisable character, this can also be achieved by a skilled illustrator.

Illustration tattoos can be as detailed or as simple as you like, so you are free to go smaller with this style. They are drawn to suit.

The genre of illustration is so broad, any potential cons are down to choosing the right illustration artist for you. Make sure you do your due diligence and see if your artist works in the style you like. Want small delicate linework florals? Choose an artist who’s style of these you love. Same for full colour florals, portraits and everything in between.


Old School

Old school tattoos by Chaz Astbury, Nomad Ink, UK

See more of Chaz Astbury’s work here

Key Features

Also called ‘American Traditional’, Tatmag explain, “the story of the American traditional tattoo style is an interesting one filled with war, circus performers, new inventions, and world-changing tattoo artists that not only affected the tattoo style but also the way tattoos are viewed in society.” If you’re in to this style, read more about it here.

Effective and with great viewing distance, this tattoo style looks simple but it’s anything but. There are a lot of rules and traditions around old school tattooing and it takes real skill to achieve the crisp lines and solid, clean, saturated colour it requires.

Of course over time the style has evolved and you’ll find more artist interpretation when it comes to subject matter and in some cases, colour pallet. It’s important to remember that, “the array of colored pigments traditional tattooists used were tied mainly to what was available when tattoo ink was not at its highest quality or technological advancement.”

You can read more about that here

But it’s important not to wander too far from traditional old school. It looks great for a reason.


Things to Consider

Old school tattoos look great on their own or part of a whole sleeve or even back piece. For that reason your large project can be easily broken up in to individual elements, making time and budget constraints easier to manage.

With the right artist you can really tell your story with old school tattooing. Being lots of individual tattoos, you can cover numerous subject matter in one sleeve.

Old school tattoos, particularly those without colour, can be great for cover ups.

Achieving bold lines and solid saturated colour means heavy tattooing. This can be more painful and you’ll need a skilled artist who’s technique will achieve this yet not scar the skin.



Japanese tattoos by zumiism

See more of Zumiism’s work here

Key Features

Japanese tattooing is one of the oldest and most recognised styles of tattoo in the world. As explained by here

“Before World War II, Japanese tattoos were used to depict social status as well as spiritual devotion. They were also used as a form of a charm for protection and spirituality.

However, Japanese tattoos were also used as a form of punishment for criminals and slaves, which also directly referred to the social status of those social groups.

However such tattoo practices were banned by the Japanese Emperor in the Edo period. That is when tattoos became a symbol of crime, the Japanese underground, and the Yakuza.”

This is a fascinating genre and like old school tattoos, it is steeped in history and tradition. There is an excellent article in Tattoodo that covers many important factors but they interestingly explain how,

“West of Japan, in Europe and the United States, we often see Japanese tattoos as a stand alone large scale work, for example a sleeve or backpiece. However, the traditional Japanese application is one single tattoo that occupies the entire body as a suit of sorts, covering legs, arms, torso and back. In this traditional bodysuit style, a single strip of untouched skin is left visible from the collarline to the navel, made this way so the wearer’s tattoos are not visible in a kimono.”


Things to Consider

If tradition and accurate representation is important to you (and there’s an argument to say it should be if you’re choosing a Japanese tattoo style) do your research. Japanese tattooing has been heavily westernised and you’re gong to need an artist who is well read, knowledgeable and experienced.

Japanese tattoos are brilliant for cover ups.

Looking to capture certain sentiment or meaning in a tattoo? Look to Japanese tattooing, it’s full of profound messaging and meaning.

Full coverage tattooing with Japanese tattoos can be much quicker than many other styles.


Trash Poker

Trash Poker tattoos by various artists

Above tattoo examples found here

Key Features

According to Merschky,

“This tattoo style is a combination of “realism and trash; the nature and the abstract; technology and humanity; past, present and future; opposites that they are trying to urge into a creative dance to harmony and rhythm in tune with the body”. You can learn more about that here

In short. Trash Poker brings together realism (or surrealism), graphic motifs and lettering, usually in black and red. Originating in Germany, it allows photo realistic tattooing to be combined with more abstract shapes, brush strokes and geometric elements.


Things to Consider

Trash Poker is a great way of capturing emotion in a tattoo. It is often used to portray negative emotion or struggle.

You will need to commit a large area to a trash poker tattoo. They look best with space to breath.

If you can’t find a specialist trash poker tattoo artist, you will need a specialist realism/portrait artist because this is the key element to this style.

A great way to incorporate words/script.


So go ahead. Did a little deeper. Use this knowledge to inform your artist search, your consultation, and join the smug tattoo club.