Tattoo art has been around for thousands of years but has often been considered a controversial art form depending on the time period and culture.
Many religions and cultures have banned or rejected tattoos throughout history. Like anything else that's declared taboo, these bans only created an increased interest in tattoos.
Despite the controversy, many talented artists have flocked to the art of tattoo design. Tattoo artists work with skin instead of canvas, making their artwork incredibly complex and diverse.
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And their work is permanently etched into someone’s skin for the rest of their life. That’s a lot of pressure!
There are countless styles of tattoos. In this article, we’ll talk about the most popular and influential styles throughout history.
A brief history of tattoos
Tattoos are made by inserting ink or other coloration substances underneath the second layer of the skin (the dermis), creating long-lasting marks on the body.
Tattoo tools range from needles, thorns, blades, and hammering tools made out of bone and wood.
Humans have been expressing themselves through a wide range of tattoo art for thousands of years. Various forms of body modification, including tattoos and piercings, have been a popular motif in many cultures all over the world.
The oldest discovered tattoo marks found on human remains dates back 5,200 years.
Ötzi the Iceman, a tattooed mummy, was found on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991 and was carbon-dated to be 5,200 years old. His tattoos feature various formations of lines and dots, and researchers believe that the practice of tattooing predates this Iceman.
There's also evidence that people in ancient Egypt had tattoos. Interestingly, tattoos seemed to be an exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt, perhaps thought to ward off evil and assist with childbirth.
But it wasn't only the ancient Egyptians who were known to get tattoos. Tattooing practices have been recorded on human remains in Alaska, Mongolia, China, Peru, Russia, and the Philippines, to name but a few.
Researchers are now looking to discover more tattoos on mummies. Of course, we can only speculate what tattoos really meant in ancient cultural practices.
Notably, several African cultures have also been practicing tattooing and cicatrization (also called scarification) for beautification, to mark tribal or clan affiliation, and for expressing personal traits or their social status.
It was Captain Cook who introduced the term "tattoo" to the modern West in the late 1700s based on the Tahitian word for the practice, "tatau". Even though tattooing was already being practiced in many European cultures, there was no universal term used for these body markings.
A tattooed Tahitian man, Omai, toured England for a few years with Cook, which is said to have greatly contributed to the rise in the popularity of tattoos in Europe, as well as the general use of the word "tattoo".
Many of Cook's crew engaged in the tattooing practices they saw on their seafaring journeys, and at the trial after the mutiny where Cook was murdered, the mutineers were pointed out by the tattoos they got in Tahiti.
In the 19th century, it became a popular roadside or circus attraction for people to cover themselves with a new ornamental design. Famous tattooed performers of this time include John O’Reilly and Emma de Burgh.
The first electric tattoo machine was patented by American Samuel F. O'Reilly in 1891, who based it on a rotary stencil pen invented by Thomas Edison.
Both John (Samuel's brother) and Emma, as well as her husband, Frank, were tattooed by Samuel O'Reilly.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of tattoos in many parts of the world were still only found on criminals, circus performers, sailors, and coal miners. At this time in American history, it wasn’t common for the average person to have a tattoo, and they were still considered taboo.
In the 1950s, it was a popular choice for “bad boys” to get tattoos as a way to buck societal expectations. Tattoos were not widely socially acceptable until the late-20th century.
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The 1970s and 1980s saw the first significant rise of tattoos in recent history, bringing the mainstream popularity of tattoos, as well as new, modern styles.
According to Ipsos, 40% of Americans between 18-34 years old have at least one tattoo.
That might not seem like a lot, but it’s a considerable increase from previous generations. Only 16% of participants in the same study over the age of 55 had tattoos.
There's a strong connection between art history and tattoos. The common tattoo styles and the overall social acceptance of tattoos reflect popular art and the sociocultural motifs of the time.
Let’s talk about why tattoo styles matter.
Why tattoo styles matter
As we've seen from a very brief introduction to tattooing, there's a rich history of tattoo art that spreads across the globe and goes back thousands of years.
Art of any kind says a lot about culture and history. It can tell us what daily life was like, how people entertained themselves, and what mattered in society.
Studying historical tattoo styles is one of the best ways to interpret how ancient communities functioned. And, the tattoo art we see today will play a part in the legacy we leave behind.
It’s essential for designers and artists of any kind, not only within the tattoo industry, to know about the history of tattooing and to learn the current trends and design elements, their influences, and inspirations.
Popular tattoo styles reflect what's important to people and how they creatively express themselves.
The contemporary tattoo scene is full of extraordinary artists. The work that tattoo artists do and the permanency of their art make tattooing an incredibly interesting creative industry.
Tattooed communities, and tattoos in general, were previously seen as taboo but have recently become more popular and well-respected for their art.
We’re excited to talk about this form of art and give you some background on each popular tattoo style.
Popular tattoo styles
Whether you’re looking to create your own tattoo designs or searching for your next tattoo idea, we’ve got you covered.
We did some research and gathered this list of the most popular tattoo styles. These styles range from classic and minimalist to eccentric and modern. You should be able to find the right type of tattoo to tell your unique story.
Classic Americana tattoos
Americana tattoos are classics for a reason. They’re the basis of contemporary Western tattoo design, and they’re likely what the average person pictures when they think about tattoos.
Also known as old school or traditional style, this classic tattoo style has stuck around and remains incredibly popular even today.
Classic Americana tattoos feature black outlines, striking colors, and lustrous imagery. Examples of common themes include pinup figures, animals, roses, daggers, flags with lettering, anchors, ships, compasses, and other similar motifs that would commonly be found in 'sailor tattoos'.
Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins popularized this cartoon tattoo style in the 1930s. Fuelled by the circumstances of World War II, there's a strong undercurrent of Japanese tattoo art in his work, along with familiar American and Hawaiian popular culture motifs. Sailor Jerry made his career in Honolulu, Hawaii, tattooing servicemen on shore leave.
New School tattoos
New School tattoos, sometimes confused with the Neo-traditional tattoo style, have a similar style to the traditional tattoos of Classic Americana, but with a more exaggerated flair.
Vivid colors, eye-catching characters, rounded shapes, and cartoonish concepts make up the style of New School tattoos. This style emerged in the 1970s/80s and has a graffiti element to it.
We still see a lot of bold outlines and similar color patterns to the Classic Americana style, but the New School's illustrative tattoos are more influenced by the pop culture of the day. This tattoo style draws inspiration from comic books, TV shows, and anime.
Common themes for New School styles of tattooing include animals in vivid color, superheroes, and fictional worlds.
The emergence of the New School in tattoo design also signaled more openness with tattoo studios sharing their trade secrets. In this sense, tattoo styles became much more collaborative.
Stick and poke tattoos
Stick and poke (AKA Stick-n-poke) is one of the oldest and most traditional tattoo styles. With stick and poke, a single needle is used to create simple designs, most often using black ink.
The stick and poke tattoo style has fluctuated in and out of popularity but has reemerged recently with the DIY movement. Stick and poke is unique because nearly anyone with a needle and some ink (and a little bit of creativity) can recreate this tattoo style.
However, this isn't simply an amateur style. Experienced tattoo artists are able to create impressive stick and poke designs with the kind of authenticity that can't easily be replicated with a tattoo machine.
Stick and poke designs feature bold lines and are typically small and monochromatic.
Surrealist tattoo style
Surrealist tattoos are a form of highly illustrative tattoo style that's full of bright colors and bizarre designs.
The movement was heavily inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis and is meant to activate the unconscious mind through dream-like imagery.
Sometimes incorrectly called 'abstract tattoos', surreal tattoos juxtapose realism with strangeness by creating out-of-this-world designs.
The surrealist tattoo style paints the picture of a bizarre fantasy world. It unnerves and intrigues those who see it, and is often a popular choice for those who are looking for deeply personal and meaningful tattoos.
Minimalist tattoo style
Minimalism has taken off lately in interior design, graphic design, and tattoo design.
Typically, minimalist tattoos are done with monochromatic linework using simple designs that make a big impact. Minimalist tattoos usually have a lot of white space and are stripped of unnecessary details.
The minimalistic tattoo style can incorporate any kind of imagery but most often features small and simple objects or portraits. These designs use a combination of fine lines and negative space to create an image.
Realism tattoo style
Realism has been prevalent in sculpture and painting since the Renaissance period, so it’s not a surprise that it's become trendy for tattoo design.
Nostalgic design can be seen everywhere today, and the resurgence of the popularity of realism is part of this meta-trend.
Common themes of realistic tattoos are scenery, animals, and people (portraiture). With portraiture, tattoo artists replicate an image of an individual with startling accuracy.
These designs can be colorful or done with just black ink. As you can imagine, creating a realistic image on the skin using ink requires a highly skilled tattoo artist.
Japanese tattoos have been popular for hundreds of years.
Japanese style tattoos use themes from Japanese culture and folklore to create beautiful and distinct designs. Cherry blossoms, warriors, and mythical creatures are common themes that you’ll see in the traditional Japanese tattoo style called Wabori.
The Japanese tattoo style called Irezumi, however, stems from penal tattooing that was practiced during the Edo period (1603 - 1868). Criminals were marked with tattoos that indicated their crime and where it took place.
The Yakuza (Japanese crime syndicate) also have a long history of tattooing, with members and their mistresses often bearing elaborate tattoos that have hidden meanings. After the Edo period ended and the Meiji period began with the opening of Japan's borders, tattoos were banned altogether in an attempt to help Japan become more Westernized.
It makes sense, then, that tattooing has a negative stigma attached to it even today!
Tattoos also bear spiritual meanings in Japan, though. Horimono are themed partial- or full-body tattoos carried by Choyukai (a group that makes sacred pilgrimages). Buddhist monks are also known to get tattoos of religious chants on their bodies.
Tattoo artists often look to Japanese design for inspiration and employ this style in the traditional sense and also create intriguing new spins on the original style.
Geometric designs of all kinds are super trendy right now, and we're totally here for it.
In the geometric tattoo style, designs are often done with black ink and involves sharp edges and distinct shapes. These black lines, sharp edges, and creative designs give a sense of three-dimensionality and stand out on the skin.
Geometric tattoo styles are incredibly eye-catching.
Sacred geometry is a common theme of geometric tattoos. We’ve also seen some fantastic combinations of geometric and organic elements done in this style, as you can see from the example above.
Blackwork tattooing is an incredibly broad category – technically, any tattoo done exclusively in black ink could be considered blackwork.
Essentially, blackwork describes all tattoos that are not done with any color pigments besides black.
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This genre took its influence from tribal tattoos and was inspired by the thick black lines and shapes used in these traditional styles.
A common thread in blackwork is the presence of big, solid areas of black ink. For this reason there are often also strong connections between blackwork tattoos and geometric tattoos, since many geometric tattoo designs cover large areas of skin and tend to be monochromatic.
The Watercolor tattoo style is a fairly recent trend, but this unique style is not an easy one for tattoo artists to recreate.
Creating a luminous painterly watercolor effect in a tattoo requires experience and patience, since the colors need to look like they're running into each other or were splashed onto the skin.
Recreating the style of watercolor paints using the medium of tattooing is not an easy task, but when done well the effect can be stunning.
Common watercolor tattoo designs have floral or natural themes.
Also known as indigenous body art, the tribal tattoo style represents the oldest tattoo styles in the world. These styles are thousands of years old.
Tribal tattoos, like tribal culture, isn’t one homogeneous style; there are multiple styles and different traditions that have been popular throughout history depending on the region.
Examples of tribal tattoos include Polynesian designs such as the warrior tattoos of the Maori and Marquesan people, Celtic crosses and knots, the beautification marks of the Republic of Benin, the headhunter tattoos of Borneo, Native American tattoo designs, and the traditional Croatian tattoos carried by women.
Chicano tattoos have a rich history and are steeped in the Chicano culture of Latin America. Moments in history like the Mexican Revolution and Pachuco culture can be seen in the elements of Chicano tattoo design.
This is a style that's prevalent in prison tattoos and was initially inspired by Pachuco gang culture in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Chicano tattoos are done with fine lines and black and grey color schemes and often include Catholic symbolism as well as elaborate calligraphy.
How to create a tattoo design with Linearity Curve (formerly Vectornator)
Now that we’ve covered some of the popular tattoo design styles, hopefully you’re inspired to create your own. Whether you’re a skilled tattoo artist or an apprentice learning the ropes, we’ve got a few essential tips and tricks up our sleeve (see what we did there?).
With Linearity Curve (formerly Vectornator), designing your own tattoo stencil is super simple. Our design software is easy to learn for beginners.
Here’s how you can use Linearity Curve (formerly Vectornator) to create your own tattoo design:
- Find inspiration: If you’re creating a design from scratch, you’ll need some inspiration. Use the list of styles above for inspiration, but be sure to create something unique. Pinterest is an excellent tool for finding inspiration for tattoo designs!
- Draft your design: Now that you have an idea, you can create a draft in Linearity Curve (formerly Vectornator) software using our Pen tool. Our Pen Tool makes Bézier curves that allow you to draw shapes and designs quickly.
- Get constructive feedback: You’re going to want to get a second opinion on your design before you permanently etch it into someone's skin (especially your own!). Ask your coworkers, friends, or the client for whom you’re creating the tattoo to give some input.
- Finalize your design: Once you've gotten some feedback, made a few adjustments, and you're happy with the design, it’s time to make some final tweaks to your tattoo image. You can use our fonts, the Auto Trace function, and Gesture Controls to finalize your initial draft.
- Download the digital files: When your design is complete, you’ll need to save it. With Linearity Curve (formerly Vectornator), it's easy to save and print your digital files.
- Create your stencil: Now that you’ve finished and saved your final design, use either a Thermofax to print your design onto a stencil, or simply draw it onto tracing paper by hand.
And that’s it! You’re ready to start the tattoo design process, and we can’t wait to see what you've come up with.
If you create a tattoo design using Linearity Curve (formerly Vectornator), post it on socials and tag us. We might even repost the image to our social media accounts.
Jumpstart your ideas with Linearity Curve
Take your designs to the next level.
Ben is a Content Lead for Linearity living in Berlin. His hobbies include board games, cooking, reading, and writing.