Sal
The Alpaca I love tattoos and I wanted to make the process of finding the right tattoo artist as easy as possible.
6 min read

Ultimate Guide to Tattoo Styles: Popular styles explained with Images

Photo by Jake Davies on Unsplash

Here you'll find the most complete guide to understanding tattoo styles, their origins and random curiosities. And to help you better understand how they differ for each other, there will be an hand-drawn Alpaca so you can spot what changes from style to style!

Quick trivia:

  • Did you know the tattoos you generally see around the biceps of buff guy aren't actual Tribal tattoos?
  • That Anime tattoos have little to do with Japanese tattoos? 
  • Or that Lettering tattoos were used in prison camps?

Head on to discover everything you always wanted to know about styles.

Old School / Traditional 

The kind of stuff you see on sailors

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About

Also known as Traditional American, it derives from the sailors’ tattooing tradition which marked achievements at sea. For instance, tattooing a King Neptune meant you crossed the Equator. Another example is the Sparrow, which was earned for every 5,000 nautical miles traveled (which is roughly a quarter of the earth's circumference). 

This style encompasses the sailor’s traditions but isn't defined by it. These tattoos mostly sought to preserve memories and mark achievements, resembling the Tribal styles in its genesis and purpose.


Origin

These tattoos became popular during the early 20th century alongside the development of the electric tattooing machines and flash walls (template drawings exposed on the walls of each parlor for clients to choose the design from).  

The technological development allowed the wider public to access the tattooing tradition (mostly associated with sailors, circus freaks and indigenous tribes). With time, the general american audience started shaping this style with elements that were meaningful to the culture and, for this reason, the following elements repeated over and over again:

  • Patriotic symbols (eagles, flags), 
  • Lucky charms (horseshoes, clovers)
  • People (pin-up girls, sailors)
  • Elements with their own symbolism (daggers, roses, dice). 

Because there were limited amounts of tattoo options on flash walls (custom tattoos were not frequent back then) you probably have seen most of them.

With the development of parlors and techniques, the complexity of the images and the public perception of tattooing started evolving, giving birth to other styles such as New School, Neo traditional, Realism, amongst others. 


Design

These tattoos originally had bold black outlines, 2D images, simple shading work and were limited to the colors available. Today, artists dedicated to Old School preserve the characteristics of this style including the original motifs, symbols, and color palettes.


Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.


Artists who excel in this style

Almagro Tattooer

City:  Nicosia, Cyprus
Instagram: @almagrotattooer

Bobby Marck

City: Houston, United States of America
Instagram: @bobbymackart

Debbie Jones

City: Swansea, United Kingdom

 

New School

Old school turned rebel

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About

This style is like the rebel son of the Old School style. No longer bound by its limitations. No longer restricted by flash walls. By color palettes. By fear of experimenting. 

New school is strongly inspired by graffiti art, cartoons, hip hop, and pop art. 


Origin

It came about in the ’70s in a time when tatooers became more prone to sharing techniques and abandon the secrecy behind the art. Clients also wanted to be more involved in the process and influence the design. For these reasons, elements like shading, depth and 3D effects, not present in Old School, started to emerge.


Design

The tattoos are easily recognized by their vibrant colors, degradês, irreverent themes, and intentional disproportions. Generally, a cartoonish look is present, the customization is abundant and the theme is somewhat wild and creative.

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.

Artists who excel in this style

Sin Prisas

City: Los Angeles, United States of America
Instagram: @sinprisass

Jackles Douglas

City: Melbourne Australia
Instagram: @jacklesdouglas

Pedro Vieira

City:  Ponta Delgada, Portugal

 

Neo Traditional 

Like old school, but with an art major

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About

Also known as New Traditional, this style generally avoids bright and vibrant colors (present in New School) and focuses on more natural shapes and gradients. It recuperates some of the Old School imagery while incorporating new patriotic imaginarium, such as Native Americans, portraits and skulls.

The symbolism behind each tattoo has eroded and the focus is now on final aesthetics as well as the art of tattooing. 


Origin

If Old School was the infant years of western tattoo tradition, then New School was the teenage years for the western tradition. So...where does the Neo Traditional fit in? We’ll, this style is like the grown-up version of New School. It abandoned its cartoonish looks for a more serious one. Dropped it’s disproportionate ways and adopted a more accurate depiction of the themes.  

Neo Traditional started developing as a style of its own popular during the 80’s and 90’s and has only been increasing in popularity.


Design

Neo Traditional respects Old School’s technical ways. Back to the dark outlines, but cleaner. Back to using a limited range of colors, but using them more precisely. Back to 2D visuals, but with improved techniques.

What distinguishes this style from Illustrative is the inspiration behind it. Neo Traditional is strongly influenced by artistic movements of the early 20th century, such as Art Nouveau (strong curves, romanticized scenarios, and Japanese elements) and Art Deco (luxurious and filled with detail).

Far from being boring, this style resulted in a wider range of themes and symbols being used, imagery that’s loyal to the real world, smooth color transitions, beautiful compositions, and intricate details.

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.

Artists who excel in this style

Daniels Bauti

City: Beverly Hills, United States of America
Instagram: @danielsbauti

Kike Esteras

City: Barcelona, Spain
Instagram: @kike.esteras

Jean Le Roux

City: London, United Kingdom
Instagram: @jeanleroux

 

Tribal

Primitive tattoo art specific to a tribe

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About

Tribal as a style encompasses several indigenous and primitive tattoo traditions. 

Indigenous tribes would use symbols as a way to engrave the passing of rituals, to mark social status, to signal group belonging, wartime achievement and for spiritual and ceremonial reasons.

Today we can see the term being used interchangeably to describe several ancient tattoo art, such as:

  • Maori face tattoos
  • Aboriginal Dreamtime
  • Mayan and Aztec deities
  • Hawaiian kakau
  • Samoan abstract animals
  • Celtic crosses and knots  


Origin

Humans have been getting inked since the dawn of civilization. Mummies, bones, tools and other vestiges of elements related to tattooing tradition have been found in places like Egypt, Tibet, Chile, Italy, Polynesia, India, Japan, North America, North Africa, Sub-saharan Africa and many other places. So, basically, the whole world. And most of these traditions of body modification developed isolated and independentl


Design

Due to the simplicity of the techniques and instruments (bone fragments or thorns), indigenous tribes followed simple patterns, geometric shapes, and repetitive figures. Most commonly, they draw symbols significant to the population, like the fauna and flora available in the region and natural elements such as mountains and rivers or the moon and the sun.  

Today you can find many tattoos imitating ancient tribal art by reproducing the shapes, lines, and patterns. You know, the kind of tattoo that was popular in the 90’s, especially with gym dudes. Well, those are actually called New Tribal because they do not come from an indigenous tradition. That is, they do not hold and transmit meaning common to a group. Most people will still call them Tribal though. New Tribal mixes elements from several independent traditions and experiment with new patterns and shapes. 

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.

Artists who excel in this style

Tuigamala Andy

City: Wellington, New Zealand

Taku Oshima

City: The Hague, Netherlands

Mister Cleantat

City: Honolulu, United States of America
Instagram: @mistercleantat2

 

Blackwork

When the west picked up form tribal tradition

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About

Blackwork derives from the Tribal tradition. It’s characterised by the sole use of black ink and is one of the most common styles around.


Origin

The transition from Tribal to Blackwork happened when tattoos become widespread in the west and were dissociated fromt their Tribal roots. The tattoos no longer needed to follow a specific tradition (like Polynesian or Maori), nor marked transitions and achievements. The spiritual side of the process was abandoned in favor of aesthetics and design. 

This was a natural process and the lack of attachment to the traditions allowed individuals to determine their own designs and draw their own meanings. With this, tattooing wasn’t anymore a form of communicating with others but a tool for self-expression.

Design

This style has been constantly morphing. It evolved from simpler patterns (what most people associate with Tribal tattoos) to unique and complex tattoo designs (what people associate to geometric blackworks). Nowadays, Blackworks, define all tattoos that make use of only black ink (no shades of grey). You can find it to express anything, from geometric shapes mixed with animals, to full body parts painted black. 

It’s important to understand the distinction between Blackwork and Black & Grey tattoos: blackworks are made using solely the color black and empty space (much like you’d see on a Tribal tattoo), while the black & grey is created using black ink and several shades of grey made via grey washing (diluting black ink in a fluid such as distilled water).

You’ll frequently find Blackworks mixed with other styles, such as Dotwork or Geometric, as this helps creating a more complex and pleasing aesthetic experience. 

 

Artists who excel in this style

ROXX

City: San Francisco, United States of America
Instagram: @roxx_____

RUCO

City:  Rome, Italy
Instagram: @ruco__

Ufoo Tattooist

City:  Cracow, Poland
Instagram: @ufotattooist

 

Dotwork

Several dots put together to create an artwork

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About

In practical terms, all tattoos are a set of dots, inked with pigments that, together, create a bigger picture. So what makes Dotwork a style of its own? Simple: the artist’s ability to harmoniously use dots of different sizes to create sensations of depth, contrast, and continuity.

This is done by coordinating quantity, distance, position and the size of the dots per opposition to the traditional needle strokes (used to create solid areas or lines). 


Origin

Focusing solely on the use of black and grey ink, this style became popular during the ’90s and was inspired by post-impressionist techniques such as Pointillism.

This style should not be confused with handpoke, which refers to the technique used to create the tattoo. A dotwork can be made using electric tattooing machines as well as handpoke technique.
 

Design

The most common features of this style are symmetric patterns, 3D effects and the use of negative space (through the absence of dots). In any dotwork, a random dot’s presence is irrelevant per se, but all the small contributions produce the essence of this artwork.

Virtually any style can be used alongside dotwork, thought illustrations and blackwork are the most common ones. Almost all dotwork is made using solely the color black. 


Artists who excel in this style

Ann Sophie

City: Stuttgart, Germany
Instagram: @annso_what

Doctor Woo

City:  Arzachena, Italy
Instagram: @_dr_woo_

Tommy

City: Toronto, Canada
Instagram: @tommy_oh 

 

Geometric

The beauty of mathematics

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About

Think of this style as tribal on math….And I really mean math, from mathematics. This is the power of geometry being used to create a visually appealing whole. You can have rectangles, lines, fractals, small crosses... anything goes as long as they contribute to the creation of something bigger. 

Geometry can also be used to depict sacred motifs or to represent philosophical concepts. This connection to the transcendental, as well as the ordinary, make this style a primordial choice for those who seek to connect with the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of the tattooing experience.
 

Origin

Although you can see examples of depictions of geometric patterns in tribal traditions, Geometric, as a style of its own, is very recent, becoming popular in the 21st century. 

For a long time Geometry was an element of tattoos and as it evolved, artists started calling those tattoos geometric blackwork. Nowadays you can find Geometric works with colors due to being frequently mixed with other styles of tattooing, contributing to its present richer range of art forms.

Design

In this style, you can have repeating patterns. Or not. You can have symmetry. Or not. You can have real objects and figures. Or not. And the reason for this is that anything can be reduced into its basic geometrical shape - it’s building blocks.  

Some examples are illustrations “trapped” inside geometric figures. Or illustrations divided into half realistic and half geometric piece.

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style

Artists who excel in this style

Dom Ramalho

City: Lisbon, Portugal
Instagram: @domramalho


Rapha Lopes

City: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Instagram:@raphafons




Caco Menegaz

City: Curitiba, Brazil
Instagram:@cacobilltattoo

 

Illustration

Draws from really but doesn’t want to be realistic

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About

Labeling a tattoo as illustrative isn’t too hard:

  • If it could easily fit into a children’s book, it’s probably Illustrative.
  • If it’s 2D and colorful, it’s probably Illustrative.
  • If you draw it on paper and asked your tattooist to ink it, it’s probably Illustrative.


Design

This style isn’t defined by its shapes, symbols or colors, but rather by the feelings transmitted. And to create these feelings, artists generally reduce the shading detail and limit the color gradients. They stick with 2-dimensional drawing and define the boundaries with solid black outlines.

Much like American traditional, you’ll most often find concrete elements (figures, animals, plants). The main difference is that these elements are either a loyal reproduction of an original drawing (from TV, books, fantasy) or are an artwork shaped by the artist’s own style and imagination. 

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style. 

Artists who excel in this style

Dima Hazipov

City:  Odesa, Ukraine
Instagram: @dzo_lama

Dzo Lamka

City: Wroclaw, Poland
Instagram: @dzo_lama

Rachel Baldwin

City: Liverpool, United Kingdom

 

Sketch

Love for the creation process

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About

Mostly used to depict animals, plants, and landscapes, it easily embeds emotional charge and sensations of movement. 

Unlike minimalist style, it can depict several objects and present complexity and repetition of the lines.


Design

Mimicking hand-drawn features, this style has overlapping lines, incomplete strokes, and elements that do not fully close. The shading work is bold and rough and some parts of the drawing are just negative space. These elements create contrast and contribute to the style’s goal of not being perceived as perfect, but instead a natural process of creation.

When color is present, usually a softer gradient is used to preserve the sketchy features. 

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.

Artists who excel in this style

Vince Tatwo

City: Montpellier, France
Instagram: @vince_tatwo

Stan Plaga

City: Cancún, Mexico
Instagram: @s.leeray

Laurita

City: Palermo, Italy

 

Watercolor

 If ink on the skin behaved like watercolor on a canvas

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About

One of the fastest-growing styles, it mixes the aesthetics of traditional watercolor paintings with tattooing mastery. Being relatively new, many people still think these tattoos are made with a different technique from traditional tattoos. They are not. They just require the proper technique.


Design

This style is characterized by vivid colors that spread throughout the skin as if ink was spilled on a canvas. The colors can be used alongside a figure structured with black outlines and frequently the color spills over through this main image.

Despite the colors being the main attraction, it’s the work between shading and contrast that give this style it’s essence. The way the colors change gradient, flow through space and cross black lines, almost as if by mistakes, makes us forget that it was made with a needle and not a brush.  

Natural elements such as animals, plants, trees, and people are frequently present. Although not as common, you can also find abstract watercolor tattoos and mixes with other styles, such as surrealism or anime.

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.

Artists who excel in this style

Koray Karagozler

City: Antalya, Turkey

Deborah Genchi

City: Bari, Italy
Instagram: @debrartist

Adrian Bascur

City: Viña del Mar, Chile
Instagram: @adrianbascur

 

Japanese

Traditional Japanese, not just Yakuza style, not anime.

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About

Also known as Irezumi, it was born as a way to erase penal tattoos - markings on the body of criminals that would make them easily recognizable. Although penal tattooing died back in the 17th century, it gave rise to decorative tattooing in Japan.

Origin

This style evolved with a mystic of criminality, mafia and dangerousness associated with it and, for this reason, getting tattooed was forbidden in Japan for a long time. 

Irezumi as we know it, took off in Japan in 1827 when paintings and woodblock prints from Utagawa Kunioshy, known as the precursor of the manga, become vastly popular. Some of Utagawa’s works featured criminals and outlaws covered in tattoos that spread throughout the back and arms, which increased the popularity of the style among the general public. 

Among criminals, these tattoos were used as a rite of initiation and a sign of committed to the group.

Despite being outlawed up until 1948 and being strongly associated with the Yakuza, this  style has kept it’s traditional looks. The only major shift is that, unlike traditional Irezumi, the tattoo’s design is now more and more influenced by the clients instead of left to the artist.   
 

Design

Following Utugawa’s style, most Japanese tattoos are two dimensional, as if printed on fabric, with strong colors and curvy lines.  

The body is treated as a canvas with little to no empty space in the tattooed body part. The pieces have a central theme, which can including heroes, myths, scenic battles, samurais, monsters or dragons and, around the main theme, secondary motifs can be found, like flowers and koi fish or natural elements, like waves and clouds.

These tattoos can take long periods to become completed and turn very expensive. 

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.

Artists who excel in this style

Henning

City: Helsingør, Denmark

Ryan Ussher

City: Sydney, Australia
Instagram: @ryanussher

Caio Piñeiro

City: London, United Kingdom
Instagram: @caiopineiro

 

Anime

Manga and anime characters

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About

Sometimes called Cartoon, this style gives life to characters and memories from manga, cartoons, video games, and animations. 

They are usually tattooed by fans of the genre who want to materialize their love for certain characters and shows.

These works preserve nostalgic feelings, childhood memories or impactful moments from the shows such as:

  • Dragon ball
  • Naruto
  • Death Note
  • Sailor Moon
  • My Neighbour Totoro

 Although Anime tattoos can depict Japanese manga, this style should not be confused with the traditional Japanese tattooing style (which, interestingly enough, saw its popularity rise due to early manga piece in the 19th century).

Design

When doing anime tattoos, artists generally reproduce the original character’s style, respecting proportions and colors. This results in vivid and colorful pieces with defined lines. 

These tattoos can also be drawn from the original character but include a more complex composition, which is generally achieved by medling with other styles, such as blackwork, new school or even trash polka. 

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.

Artists who excel in this style

Adam K. Perjatel

City: Island Park, United States of America
Instagram: @perjtattoo

Lucas Leão

City: Nova Iguaçu, Brazil
Instagram: @lucasleaotattoo

BlackMoon

City: Nova Wuppertal, Germany

 

Lettering

Words, just like these

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About

This is one of the most common styles, and encapsulates several types of tattoos, as it refers to the writing content of any tattoo. Whether using Latin letters, Arabic alphabet, Cyrillic or Kanji, this style is characterized by the communication of written meaning. Therefore, you can see all kinds of numbers, words, and symbols made with virtually all types of fonts.


Origin

This is one of the oldest modern tattoo styles and has been once use in all sorts of ways. Sailors used Lettering to mark important dates. Soldiers, like the Wafen-SS, used them to mark their blood group...and also to catalog prisoners in prison camps. And today people use it to alert for diseases and conditions that may be important for a stranger to know, such as Type 1 Diabetes (which in case of an accident can be used to identify the condition and avoid administering the wrong kind of medication). 

The most common use nowadays is to preserve memories of dates, mottos, excerpts from poems, romances and holy scriptures and create homages to loved ones.

Design

For professionals, the challenge centers around typography - originality of the font, consistency of the lettering and composition.  

The content is almost always chosen by the client and follows a style (font, serif, size, etc.) agreed with the artist. And yes, there are Comic Sans tattoos out there. And no, I won’t link to them.

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.

Artists who excel in this style

Christopher Vasquez

City: New York, United States of America
Instagram: @tattoovasquez

Charles Oliveira

City: Goiânia, Brazil
Instagram: @charlestatuagem

Demon Dance

City: Leeds, United Kingdom
Instagram: @tattoovasquez

 

Minimalism

Less is more

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About

Out with the excesses. Generally single pieces, these tattoos are deconstructed into the most basic components. 

Many minimalist tattoos hide in unusual places in the human body, such as the inner lip, between fingers and inside of the ears.


Origin

This tattoo style derives from the minimalism art movement and follows the concept focusing on what is essential and eliminating everything that is not. Its appeal came from the desire to engrave faster, smaller and cheaper tattoos, as per opposition to other styles like the Japanese, that can be very expensive and take a long time to be completed.
 

Design

More often than not, only black ink will be present and fine lines will make up most of the image. Empty space is used to fill the main theme which allows details and secondary thematics to be included in the whole, without having them specifically drawn.

For a work to be minimalist, it's not the size of the tattoo that matters but following the philosophy of simplification.

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.
 

Artists who excel in this style

VADERS.DYE

City: Berlin, Germany
Instagram: @vadersdye

vanessa

City: Seul, South Korea
Instagram: @vane.tattoo_

Sanmao

City: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Instagram: @sanmao_yimin

 

Realism

You could confuse it with a photo

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About

Engraving the world on the skin, as accurately as possible. That’s the point of realistic tattoos. The problem is that they require a great deal of attention to detail, time and most importantly, technique. 

An artist working this style must be able to conjugate ink color with the client’s skin color, understand needle pressure and dominate shadow work, among many other skills. 

Funny enough, these tattoos are often described as being of “unreal quality”.

Origin

Realism as an art form started in Europe during the last decades of the 19th century when artists began to move away from Romanticism. Visual arts were strongly impacted as artists were now gaining the capacity to reproduce scenarios and objects with photographic precision and preferred to focus on the accurate depiction of ordinary life instead of the exotic and religious scenery. 

 The tattoo’s part in Realism came almost a century later in the USA when access to better machines, techniques, and skills became widespread and artists were looking for new ways to express their talent. 

Design

Portraits and depictions of animals are the most common themes for this style, with the first being one of the most challenging types of tattoos since proportions, asymmetry and reproduction of light sources are extremely important for an image to look realistic. 

To work this style artists have to use fine lines, contrast, shading and doing 3D is a must. Often, needles of different sizes will be used interchangeably and if the tattoo is colored, a wide range of tones are used (going all the way to white ink). If it’s black and grey, the artists will have to either use grey wash or have a color palette with grayscale to give life to perspectives and contrast. 

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.

Artists who excel in this style

TAMPA

City: Porto Alegre, Brazil
Instagram: @tampatattoo

Gabriel Godinez

City: San Diego, United States of America
Instagram: @gallosantiago

Oleg Shepelenko

City: Porto Rostov-on-Don, Russia
Instagram: @olegtattoo

 

Psychedelic

Just got my trip tattooed, bro

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About

This style can feature anything from fractals to mushrooms, to aliens, to third eyes, and seeks to capture a hallucinatory state of mind where anything can be seen and felt.

The patterns and figures are strongly associated with the LSD and DMT trip imaginarium (as well as other hallucinogenic drugs) and can be a product of either the artist’s or the client’s imagination.  

Design

Colorful. Fantastic. Trippy. Almost like you’re having a trip yourself. This style is characterized by a wide palette of strong colors that spread and mix throughout the tattoo. Design rules don’t have to be followed and optical Illusion are very welcomed. 

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.

Artists who excel in this style

Ilona Kochetkova

City: Minsk, Belarus
Instagram: @aknowi

David Peyote

City: Montreal, Canada
Instagram: @thedavidcote

Katie Shocrylas

City: Vancouver, Canada
Instagram: @kshocs

 

Surrealism

If Dali was a tattoo artist

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About

Surrealism can be described as a dream-like oddity. Or logical incoherence. Natural elements distorted into something that could be, but isn’t. 

As a tattoo style, it’s often used to represent dreams, disorganized ideas and fantastic ways of depicting the world.

It challenges logic and order and prioritizes creativity and awe. These tattoos generally express individuality and critical thinking.

Origin

This style became popular in the end of the 20th century, when tattoo artists started creating their own on-skin surrealist images. This appear both as mimic paintings from famous authors (like Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo or Max Ernst) and attempt to bring to life a client fantasy by mixing several elements in an unusual/incoherent manner. 
 

Design

These tattoos generally include some of the following elements: abstract landscapes, objects and elements of nature that do not exist (or do not function as depicted) and deformations and mixes between several species of animals (including humans or not). 

Surrealist tattoos should be aesthetically coherent and never completely chaotic or devoid of meaning. They balance elements of realism with elements of fantasy in order to give life to an unreal but understandable world, which can sometimes be used to depict a representation of the unconscious mind. 

Click here to see some artists who dominate this style.

Artists who excel in this style

Dimitris Panagopoulos

City:  Athens, Greece

davepaulo_tattooartist

City: Mira, Portugal

Paul Marino

City: New Jersey, United States of America

 

Disclaimers

Styles are not fixed entities. They are fluid concepts that help us organize visual cues into categories. They change according to our needs and they change across time. What was once Modern Style is today’s Old School.   

And styles have genres. Not all lettering is created equal and is realistic for me might be sketch for someone more experienced.

And they are not independent islands either. Tattoos often have traits from several different styles. You can draw an Anime style character using Watercolor style. Or get a Surrealism tattoo only in Dotwork. 

And, of course, there’s lots of other styles we didn’t cover. Here are some we’re considering digging into:

  • Portrait
  • Cover up
  • Chicano
  • Pinup
  • Comics
  • Bio mechanic
  • Art fusion
  • Ornamental
  • Floral
  • Trash Polka
  • Trashy
  • Mandala
  • Black & Grey
  • Sailor
  • Prison
  • Mafia
  • 3D
  • Religious 
  • Horror 

Which ones would you like to see explored? Or even drawn as an Alpaca? Let us know your favorites and we’ll start working on the next ones :)

And if you enjoy the images, show Patrick some love on instagram - he was the genius behind the drawings. Thank you Patrick!


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