A Novice’s Guide to Tattoo Categories
Categories are artificial constructs. They’re parameters we’ve created to assist our tiny brains in making sense of an infinite universe. Be that as it may, they serve a purpose, and while artists may resent the restrictive box in which categories put them, they also rely on them to communicate their strengths and proclivities. Art defies classification but its commodification demands it. To meet that demand, we’ve summarized the most commonly agreed-upon tattoo categories for your convenience. We recommend you open the magazine to this page and leave it on the counter for your clients. Then, be sure to tell them that the information is incomplete. Of course, it is. Art is far too nuanced and steeped in historical context to cram into a single paragraph, but we did our best. Enjoy.
Old School Traditional
If your gramps has any tattoos from his Navy days, it’s almost definitely in the Old School Traditional vein. This is the style that started it all, at least on the American front. The origins can be traced back over centuries, but the style underwent a sort of renaissance in the 60s and 70s with the rise of artists like Norman Collins (AKA, Sailor Jerry), Bert Grimm, Lyle Tuttle and Don Ed Hardy. It’s defined by bold, black lines, bright colors and iconic imagery such as swallows, anchors, pin-up girls, hearts and roses.
Thanks in no small part to its role as the foundational style of Western tattoo culture, it will never go out of fashion, even if Ed Hardy apparel has, which was unfortunately hijacked by a subset of dudes who overspend on spray tans, hair gel, and Axe Body Spray.
Exactly what the name implies, Neo Traditional is an extension of the category that first made tattoos famous and is sometimes difficult to distinguish from its predecessor. The primary elements that delineate Neo Traditional from Traditional are a broader color palette, wider range in imagery and increased intricacy in designs. The style is heavy on the decorative and pulls elements from both the Art Nouveau and Art Deco traditions.
Though Realism has existed as a category in visual art for centuries, it’s only become prominent in the tattoo world in the last two decades, and its rise can arguably be connected to the simultaneous surge in popularity of the rotary machine. The easiest way to describe this category is as a photograph slapped on skin. It manifests most often in the form of celebrities, iconic characters, loved ones, or animals, but the style revolves more around form than subject, so pretty much anything that can be photographed is fair game.
Take a guess at what this category imitates. Did you guess “that paint medium I tampered with in kindergarten?” If so, you are correct, but don’t be so diminishing. Watercolor may be a beginner format on the canvas, but not on the skin. Techniques in this category break with a great many traditions and therefore require a degree of risk, as well as nuance and acute attention to detail. The “bold will hold”
crowd is quick to denounce the style, but it’s in high demand nonetheless and boasting some impressive output.
New School is basically neo-folk art. Pulling heavily from the Traditional and Neo Traditional categories, the style employs bold lines and vivid colors, but diverges with a focus on cartoonish, pop culture icons delivered with a significant amount of shading for depth and dimension. Since its origin in the 70s, the category has been on a roller coaster of popularity, rising and falling nearly as quickly as the subjects it most often depicts. It has recently enjoyed yet another rise in prominence, most likely as a result of the video game generation joining the ranks of both tattoo artists and collectors.
Originally, the word, “Chicano,” was a derogatory term ascribed to American-born Latinos of Mexican descent. The slur, however, was eventually embraced as a badge of honor by a portion of the community, and came to represent a specific movement of style and art that uniquely married a heavily Catholic sentimentalism with the gang culture of the emerging barrios of the 50s and 60s. Typically executed in fine line, black and gray work, Chicano tattoos are unmistakable with imagery rich in Mexican history, Catholic icons and various elements of cultural identity within the Mexican-American experience.
Also known as Irezumi, the Traditional Japanese style dates back to the 17th century. Lush with the imagery of Japanese mythology, tattoos in this vein are lavish and elaborate, often requiring a sizable portion of the body for execution. The power of the category lies in the fact that every piece tells a story that is steeped in Japan’s vibrant and colorful history. Traditionally a marking for the warrior class, the style was adopted by the nation’s legendary crime syndicates, which is the primary cause of the cultural stigmas on tattoos in Japan today.
How do you explain a realm that defies categorization? Such is the dilemma when discussing Illustrative tattoos. Ultimately, “Illustrative” is the catch-all term for tattoo art that doesn’t fit within any single category, either because the artist has pulled inspiration and techniques from several categories, or because they’ve ventured outside those realms altogether to create something entirely new. Most commonly, the category combines techniques of Traditional and Realism, but elements of all sorts of artistic disciplines can come into play, including but not limited to calligraphy, etching and engraving, charcoal, or even abstract expressionism.
Still think Traditional is the original tattoo style? Don’t be so ethnocentric. Tribal is the true OG, with a history stretching back over millennia. Though easily recognizable, the category is really a blanket term for any variety of tattoo art practiced by indigenous people groups over the centuries. Tribal tattoos are nearly always all black and usually consist of elaborate patterns that rely heavily on symbols and geometric shapes. Though it enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 90s, the style fell out of general favor in the 2000s and unfortunately became a punchline for hipsters who thought their Super Mario tattoos
were somehow more legitimate. It is beginning to make a comeback, and it’s one that’s well-deserved. The mother of all tattoo categories shouldn’t be relegated to the arms of white guys who wear iridescent Oakleys and worship Sublime.
The Blackwork category can encompass almost any tattoo that solely employs the color that is technically not a color (black). However, it is most commonly either an extension or merging of the Tribal and Illustrative categories, with most compositions consisting of geometric shapes, abstract patterns and/or elaborately detailed illustrations. Though limited on the color palette, the possibilities here are nearly limitless with plenty of room for experimentation, making the category one of the most diverse and awe-inspiring on the list.