10 Most Popular Tattoo Styles: A rundown of the most popular tattoo styles (pt 1)

Trying to make a list of styles of tattoos is like trying to make a list of every culture on earth. There’s overlap, and there’s contention. How broad or how narrow do you go? I’ve heard, “there are two types of tattoos: customer and stock (or flash).” I’ve also heard it claimed that there as many styles as there are artists. Still, we try to put lists like these together because they are a starting point to a conversation.


Flash Art Hearts

Flash Art Hearts

Flash tattoos are the simple stock designs that tattoo shops often have posted on their walls or in their books. A client can walk in, point to a flash and get it done, usually in a couple of hours. These are designs that the artist has normally done hundreds of time, and so can finish quickly.

While it’s impossible to actually quantify it, the vast majority of tattoos in the Western world are of the flash variety.

A few of the more common flash designs include hearts, roses, butterflies (we all remember the trendy tramp stamp), and a host of other subjects that are generally taken from the traditional tattoo style.

Traditional American

Homeward Bound tattoo in the Sailor Jerry style

Homeward Bound tattoo in the Sailor Jerry style

This style of tattooing is thought to have originated on American military bases in the 30s or 40s, but has become more associated with sailors than with military.

Big bold sections of black and solid colours feature prominently in these designs and the subjects are often maritime in nature, or celebrations of love or reflections on love lost. As such, anchors, hearts, pin-ups, ships (often all together) make up some of the most depicted subjects of this style.

In 2004, Christian Audigier took Ed Hardy’s traditional American tattoo work and turned it into a mainstream high fashion line of clothing, making some admirers of the style happy to see the work get that kind of recognition and others upset that one of the more well-known artists of the genre ‘sold out.’

Black and gray

Classic skull tattoo

Classic skull tattoo

a) Prison/biker

Any tattoo can be completed in black and gray, but as a style in and of itself, there are two specific branches of black and gray. The first has come to be known as prison or biker tats. It’s easy to assume that the reason for the naming is that because the style is only worn by prison inmates or members of biker gangs, but as with all forms of tattoos, prison/biker tats have gone mainstream.

However, their genesis does appear to go back to the American prison system where coloured ink was impossible to come by, and so the style was forced to evolve. How this eventually spilled over into biker culture is a link that the reader can make for him/herself.

Aside from not using colour, the defining characteristics of biker or prison tats are that they often of a more morbid nature featuring skulls, or of a memorial nature. To this end, many, but not necessarily all biker/prison style tattoos feature sayings or phrases in script, and sometimes are nothing but script.

Jesus black and gray by one of the masters of fine line: Jose Lopez

Jesus black and gray by one of the masters of fine line: Jose Lopez

b) Fine-line

The other major branch of black and gray is known as fine-line, or in some circles, Chicano-style. The style originated in the Hispanic communities of East LA in the ’70s. Arguably, this style is the evolution of the prison tattoo. It features fine lines with great depth of shading, all in tones of gray. Thanks to the warmth that the tones provide, this styles is often used for memorial pieces, and perhaps most effectively on portraits and other realistic pieces.


Tahitian tribal tattoo by Manu Farrarons

Tahitian tribal tattoo by Manu Farrarons

There is no debate that there is a style of tattooing that is tribal. However, lumping all tribal tattoos in one category is nearly blasphemous, as different tribes on different continents have used different designs to represent different meanings.

Tribal tattoos are without a doubt the oldest form of tattooing, with a 5,200 year old European mummy  displaying what looks like the ancestor of today’s tribal tattoos. Traditional tribal tattoos from Europe to Polynesia often used a bamboo needle and a hammer to inject the ink. Today, most tribal tattoos, even of the Samoan and Maori variety are done using the more efficient and less painful tattoo machines, with only a small number of practitioners of the bamboo method remaining.

Neotribal tattoos burst onto the scene in the late ’80s, borrowing from the traditional tribal designs of Polynesia and making them into mainstream bold designs, creating flash out of them. This adaptation often led to the final product losing the original tribal meaning.

We’ve covered five of the most popular tattoo styles, heck out part two of the most popular tattoo styles for another five.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. kellyt says:

    This is really clear and concise. I’ve been looking for something that would make these clarifications for awhile.

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