Tattoo Styles and Genres: Which is Which? From Hyper-realism to Trash Polka!

Tattoo Styles

The days where tattoos all looked the same have long passed. Now there is a myriad of tattoo styles to choose. Old School, New School, Neotraditional, Hyper Realism, Maori, Polynesian, Trash Polka, Watercolour, West Coast Tribal, East Coast, Eastern European, Realism, Stick and Poke, Organica and so many more! It can become difficult to determine the difference between them. What’s the difference between realism and hyper-realism? Let’s try and figure the main ones out:

Old School Tattoo Style

Old school or Traditional tattoo styles use a simple black outline and a basic color selection of red, blue, yellow, green, and orange. They have basic designs with a single thickness linework. If you’re familiar with Sailor Jerry then this is old school. It goes back to the original designs of tattooing in the west sported by sailors. This is why most traditional imagery includes boats and travel related designs. It’s surprisingly hard because there are so many rules about lines and color.

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New School Tattoo Styles

New school designs are bubbly and cartoonish. They often have very bright colors and colored light sources to create designs which pop off the page. The images often include monkeys, space ships, rockets, and girls who are proportioned liked Jessica Rabbit. While any design can be made new school, artists like Joe Capobianco have dominated this style for years.

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Neo-Traditional Tattoo Styles

Neo is a compromise between Old School and New School. It often reflects the same simple linework and themes as Old School but the designs can feature brighter colors and may include new themes beyond travel. Timmy B is a great Neo Traditional artist. The designs use black outlines but may also couple them with areas that are not outlined at all in a semi-realistic design. Neo is one of the most popular styles currently because it pays homage to the original style of tattooing but with a bit more fun. It’s also quite easy to do.


This rather speaks for itself. Portraits and any designs that look almost photographic in quality are realism. They are exact copies of object or photos on the skin. Realism is challenging and most artists cannot do it which is why realistic tattoos often cost more. The artists need to be of a higher calibre to be able to pull it off. Hyper-Realism falls under this category but isn’t quite the same. The difference between realism and hyper realism is the “look” of the tattoo. Hyper realism commonly uses blurring around the edges and big swooshes of abstract area, while only a small area is actually “in focus”.

Trash Polka

Another fairly new style this is almost graphic in nature with some areas being broken down into dot work or lines and many images super imposed on each other. These are very surreal tattoos that often mix mostly black and gray with one bright color.


Back in the 90’s an artist called Guy Aitchison became quite famous for his particular stlye of tattoos. Many were abstract in design and had incredible texturing and light forms that made the skin look like something entirely different. His books and work are the source on this even today. Very few artists have managed to ape him successfully. Ty McEwan is one of them. Organica is not a very well known style but it takes skill in understanding light and texture to pull off without it looking terrible.


The days of solid black 90’s tribal have mostly passed with many people choosing instead to copy real styles of tribal work popular by various tribes or indigenous peoples. The most popular of this is Maori. Maori work uses leaves and swirls to represent water and nature. Their designs focus on telling stories of the warrior’s life and the world around him, though the western version simply looks pretty. Maori also uses gray shading in the design while versions like Polynesian are still solid black. West Coast Tribal on the other hand uses images from Pacific Native American tribes which usually include red or blue as well as the solid black.

There are literally hundreds of different “styles”, and while it might sound cool to know the difference with what you bring to your artist you can simply bring in ideas that show the style you’re looking for or find an artist who does that style and they will happily produce exactly what you want. Which is your favourite?

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