Considering a tattoo? Want tons of tattoo ideas and designs to choose from? This is the perfect guide for you.
Body art can be an fun way to show off your personality, but you want to make sure to pick a tattoo design you really love. I'll explain the different styles of tattooing and common sources of inspiration to help you brainstorm awesome tattoo ideas. We'll cover 17 awesome styles that are popular worldwide.
The tips and pictures in this post will guide you through envisioning a tattoo design that you'll be happy to display on your body for years to come.
Why Get a Tattoo?
Tattoos have exploded in popularity over the course of the past few years. In more and more instances, they're accepted in the workplace and in society in general as a common form of creative self-expression. Tattoos can serve as permanent reminders of something that’s meaningful to you or just decorations to spice up the blank canvas of your body.
Tattoo artists have developed all kinds of different styles and techniques to create unique pieces that are personal to each client. This guide will teach you all about the different subtypes of tattoo ideas and designs. I’ve divided them into four larger categories: abstract, illustrative, realistic, and lettering. Keep in mind that these aren't rigid categories - the styles often blend together and overlap, which is what makes creating your own personalized tattoo so much fun.
After you review the different tattoo designs and consider which ones appeal to you, you can brainstorm your own tattoo ideas. In the second part of the guide, I’ve included a list of various themes that may inspire you in your quest for a tattoo that perfectly compliments your personality!
Tattoo Ideas: 17 Cool Styles
This section contains a list of every possible tattoo style in categories that range from the completely abstract to the photorealistic. Use these styles as a jumping off point to think about which type of imagery will fit best with the content of your personalized tattoo idea.
Here's a table of contents for what we'll cover:
These tattoo ideas are comprised of shapes, patterns, dots, and splashes of color. While some of them may also include figurative elements, they are based in a spirit of freeform art and are usually concerned more with aesthetics than with conveying a specific meaning.
Style #1: Biomechanical and Bio-Organic
Biomechanical and bio-organic tattoos are designed based on the natural flow of systems in the human body. Biomechanical tattoo designs mimic the inner workings of the body through patterns that evoke some sort of half-cyborg alien creature. Bio-organic tattoos are similar to biomechanical tattoos except they feature patterns reminiscent of organic organisms rather than machines.
These tattoos are often extremely intricate, creating 3-D illusions that make it appear as though your skin has been ripped open to reveal the strange being within. They're great for sci-fi nerds, people who are interested in machines and robots, or anyone who is fascinated by the functioning of the human body.
Style #2: Blackwork (and Tribal Tattoos)
Blackwork tattoo ideas use only black ink to render images, designs or patterns. The style uses thick and bold black lines in a variety of geometric shapes. Blackwork tattoos are popular for their elegance and versatility and often come in the form of mandalas or other elaborate patterns. Blackwork tattoo designs derived from figurative line drawings are also common because the bold contrast created by the ink leads to a simple but powerful image.
Blackwork tattoo designs originally emerged out of the cultural tradition of tribal tattoos. These tattoos mainly come from the symbolism of Polynesian tribal peoples, including Maori and Samoans. You can make tribal tattoos more relevant to your identity if you find specific symbols that mean something to you to incorporate into the tattoo.
Style #3: Dotwork/Pointillism
This is a style of tattooing that renders images, designs and patterns entirely through the use of dots. Shading and depth is created by varying the distances between the dots. Though I've decided to put it in the abstract category, dotwork can be either abstract or realistic. Common imagery includes sacred geometry and portraiture. Like blackwork, this tattoo idea is a sophisticated and minimalist approach to tattooing.
Style #4: Geometric
Geometric tattoo designs are created using only lines and geometric shapes. They differ from blackwork because color is typically incorporated into the design.
These types of tattoo designs can vary dramatically in their look and feel, ranging from simple designs of single shapes to sleeves of intricate interlocking forms. They can make very powerful statements in subtle ways.
Style #5: Watercolor
Watercolor tattoos use splashes and streaks of color to give the impression of paint on canvas or paper. They lack all outlines and imitate the aesthetics of watercolor paintings. They are sometimes combined with realism or solid outlines and typically display bright colors and natural themes. These tattoos have gained popularity recently for their traditional artistic flair and delicate beauty.
This category includes tattoo ideas that depict recognizable objects in exaggerated or stylized forms. These styles provide an awesome means of customizing your own unique tattoo ideas.
Style #1: American Traditional
This style uses bold black outlines and a well-saturated color palette consisting mainly of primary colors. It was originally popularized by men in the US Navy. This is what most people picture when they imagine classic tattoos (think "Mom" in a heart on the bicep of an enormous dude).
Style #2: Traditional Japanese (Irezumi)
Like American traditional, the Japanese tattoo style is based on bold black outlines and minimal shading, but it typically features images inspired by traditional Japanese art and nature as well as creatures and characters from Japanese folklore. Imagery typically consists of lotus flowers, koi fish, tigers, warriors and waves. This is a sophisticated, intricate style of tattooing that can look beautiful and peaceful or totally badass (or even both at the same time!).
Style #3: New School
New School is an animated, exaggerated style of tattooing. Images are usually caricatures of characters doing unexpected things and are influenced by graffiti and hip-hop artistic techniques and styles. That means bright colors and amplified dimensions and features.
If you love cartoons and want a really fun and unusual tattoo idea, this might be a good tattoo design style for you.
Style #4: Sketch Work
Sketch work tattoos imitate the rough aesthetic of an artist’s sketchbook. They usually show unfinished images or designs including partially colored in sections and unclear outlines. If you’re really into comic books and the sketchy style of that world, you could get a tattoo that adopts the same style.
Style #5: Surrealism
This style consists of imaginary images, mashed up styles, and fantastical creations. If you’re familiar with surrealist artists (Salvador Dali being the most famous) you can see how this style has evolved as a byproduct of their work.
Surrealism is different from New School because it’s rarely cartoonish. It’s just strange combinations of objects or portraits that may be rendered in a realistic style but are combined in nonsensical ways. If you want a tattoo design that’s unnerving but not outright horrific you might look at surreal tattoos for inspiration.
Realism is a tattoo design style that recreates images as they would appear in life. It lacks the bold outlines found in more traditional forms of tattooing and instead uses shading and color contrasts to render the image. Some of the types of tattoos mentioned above may incorporate realistic elements, but the styles in this section are the ones that are most prone to using realism.
Style #1: Neo-Traditional
This is a modern twist on American traditional tattooing in which more realistic depth, shading, color and detail are added to traditional conventions. They present similar subject matter to traditional tattoos but with an updated stylistic flair. If you like American traditional tattoos but want to sport something that’s a bit more unique and up-to-date, you should investigate this style.
Style #2: Neo-Japanese
This is the same as neo-traditional tattooing except it’s an update to traditional Japanese tattoos. Again, more realistic depth, shading, color, and detail are added to traditional Japanese style conventions.
Similarly, if you like traditional Japanese tattoos but want a little more realism to make the images really pop, you should look into this style.
Style #3: Portraiture
In portraiture, a portrait of someone is recreated as a tattoo. Realistic portraits can be created either in color or black and grey. They’re often made by using a stencil over a pre-existing photograph or image in order to get an exact likeness.
Portraiture is used to memorialize people or depict iconic celebrities or personal heroes. Tattoo portraits are really tough to do well, so you should conduct quite a bit of research before settling on an artist that you trust.
Style #4: Black and Grey
Black and grey tattooing only uses black ink and water. Tattooists water down the black ink to make it softer and more grey so they can create shades, hues and color contrasts. Some artists also use actual grey ink and white ink for highlights.
Black and grey tattoos can be very evocative and creepy, so if you’re going with a more serious theme this is a good style tattoo idea.
Style #5: Horror
These are tattoos dealing with dark or morbid subject matter. Subjects include portraits of characters from horror films, freehanded monsters, and many other forms of creepy imagery. Typically, black and grey horror is done on a large scale as a full sleeve (like in the image below) or back piece.
If you’re a big horror fan and want to make yourself look kinda scary, check out these cool tattoo ideas.
Style #6: Trash Polka
Trash polka tattoos feature black and red color schemes characterized by collage-like images featuring moments of realism, lettering, and abstract or geometric shapes. They include painterly elements like smears and smudges as well as surreal and realistic images to create a chaotic look.
These tattoos are more about the overall look than the deeper meaning—they are often pure decorative pieces from the mind of the tattoo artist. This is a divisive new style, but some people really love it because it makes such a bold statement.
Lettering or Script Tattoos
Lettering ranges from simple tattoos of letters and words in standard fonts to highly stylized custom pieces. You can do many, many different things with script depending on how long the message is.
Some lettering tattoos are so elaborate that the words become art pieces that only read as letters when you look more closely. Others are just plain printing without any extra flair. It all depends on your personal style!
Brainstorming: What Are You Looking for in a Tattoo?
A tattoo idea doesn’t have to have deep metaphorical significance, but you should definitely make sure it’s something you're thrilled to display on your body indefinitely. Plenty of people get tattoos just because they look cool, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Think about exactly why you want a tattoo and what you hope to get out of it. Here’s a list of some themes and aesthetic qualities that you might consider incorporating into your tattoo design depending on what you want it to mean to you:
Depiction of a Hobby or Passion
Symbols of the activities you love can make great tattoos because these passions are unlikely to change too much throughout your life. For example, if you really enjoy kayaking, you could get a tattoo of a paddle. If you love knitting, you could get a tattoo of a yarn ball (and eventually be a super cool grandma).
Reminder of a Fun Experience
Tattoos can be a way to preserve memories of great times in your life. For example, if you and your friends went on an awesome hiking and camping trip, you could get a tattoo of the outline of the mountain range. If you went to Paris, you could get a little croissant tattoo (or a tattoo of a creepy mime if you’re weird like me). The tattoo idea could also be a reference to an experience from your childhood that you’ve treasured over the years.
Your Favorite [Fill in the Blank]
Favorite things make fun tattoos that can have all kinds of different connotations. Think about your favorite animal, food, flower, place, fictional character, book, movie, team, or game. Branch out from there to come up with a way of depicting your favorite thing in tattoo form. You can even decide to combine several favorite things into one tattoo design. If your favorite animal is a wolf, your favorite food is steak, and your favorite basketball team is the Miami Heat, you could get a tattoo of a wolf eating steak and wearing a Miami Heat hat. The more unique the better!
Honoring a Child, Friend, or Relative
Some people get tattoos as tributes to others who have made strong impacts on their lives. These tattoos often consist of portraits, significant dates (birth or death), or that person’s favorite animal or some other icon associated with them. A tattoo can help in the grieving process for a loved one, or it can celebrate new life.
Showing Pride in Your Identity or Struggles You’ve Overcome
Many people get tattoos to commemorate personal breakthroughs or turning points in their lives. This might mean a symbol of recovery from addiction or mental health problems or a marker of another positive achievement in your life like graduating from college or embracing your sexuality.
This theme ties into tattoo designs that are about identity. These could include religious iconography, the flag of your home country or a symbol of the state in which you were born, a symbol of your ancestral heritage, the symbol of a group you belong to or support, or an astrological sign.
A Significant Phrase or Quote
Is there a quote that you feel sums up your life philosophy (or your goals for your life philosophy)? Many people get lettering tattoos of quotes or meaningful sayings to remind them of what they stand for and how they hope to approach challenges in their lives.
These quotes or sayings might be verses from religious texts, a quote from a favorite author or thinker, an adage, or a song lyric.
Maybe your more interested in a tattoo that just looks a certain way? There are a lot of different aesthetics for tattoo designs — you can choose whichever appeals to you.
Something Beautiful or Cute
If you just want your tattoo to look pretty, you have many options. Choosing an image from nature is usually a safe bet if you want the tattoo to have staying power. You might consider koi fish, birds, roses or other flowers, trees, a moon or sun, a dreamcatcher, a butterfly, a wave, or anything else you can think of that looks cute. When you’re judging tattoo ideas based on aesthetics it’s a good idea to search extensively for inspiration so you can get an idea of what different images look like in certain places on the body.
Something Funny or Goofy
Maybe you’re looking for tattoo ideas that take themselves a little less seriously. Cartoonish monsters, animals wearing clothing, or other surreal tattoos that are more amusing than creepy are all fun options. Just make sure you're confident that it will still be funny a few years from now! Jokes usually have expiration dates, but tattoos definitely don't.
Something Badass, Scary, or Just Plain Awesome
Want to terrify people and/or leave them completely awestruck? Tattoo artists can create crazy horror scenes that incorporate many different elements (or subtler small but scary tattoos if you’re less of a showman). Some elements you might consider weaving into these types of tattoos are skulls and skeletons, weapons, vicious animals, zombies, the grim reaper and other symbols of death (gravestones, etc), clocks, pentagrams, your favorite horror characters, haunted houses, eyeballs, insects and other creepy crawlies, demons and gargoyles, dragons, and more!
Designs make great tattoos even if they’re just random creations from the mind of the artist. If you want this type of tattoo, think about whether you would like it to be black and white or in color. If it’s in color, which colors do you want to include? Do you want a design that evokes organic flow and movement or a more rigid geometric or mechanical design? Do you just want the design, or would you like to incorporate figurative elements into the tattoo as well? Even very simple abstract tattoos can be extremely cool, like this one:
Practical Concerns for Tattoo Ideas
Style and content aren't the only things you should take into account if you're considering getting a tattoo. Ensuring that the procedure is within your budget and the tattoo has staying power are factors that are less fun to think about but are just as crucial if you want to avoid buyer's remorse in an industry where there are no easy returns.
The cost of a tattoo can vary depending on the artist, the tattoo's location, the number of colors that are used, and the size. Some tattoo artists charge more than others because they can afford to do so based on their reputations. Usually, tattoo artists in big cities charge more than those who are less centrally located. Established tattoo artists typically charge at least $150 an hour for their work, and in most cases you will have to pay the fee for one hour regardless of whether it takes the artist the full 60 minutes to complete your design. Even if you go to a beginner tattoo artist, you'll probably spend at least $80 on your tattoo.
The more colorful the tattoo design, the more expensive it will be. Incorporating lots of colors means more time, and most tattoo artists charge by the hour in case a project takes longer than anticipated. If you want a cheaper tattoo, you should go with blackwork. Tattoos that are done on sensitive areas of the body are also more expensive because the tattoo artist has to be more careful. Sensitive areas include your hands, feet, neck, sternum, and genitals. Perhaps the biggest factor that will impact the cost of the tattoo is its size and level of detail. A full back tattoo with a ton of detail will obviously take way more time than a tattoo of a couple of triangles on your arm.'
There's a reason why some tattoos last longer than others. Darker colors are less likely to fade over time while very vibrant and very pale colors will fade more quickly (like in the picture below). In general, warm colors fade faster than cool colors. However, any tattoo can fade if you don't take good care of it. Listening to the tattoo artist and providing the correct aftercare for your tattoo is extremely important if you want the colors to pop for a long time. If you're a fan of tanning, you should also know that tattoos fade more quickly with exposure to the sun.
The location of the tattoo also plays a part in how well it ages - tattoos on the legs, upper arms, and chest are most likely to get warped with age because these are the areas of your body that change the most over time. Tattoos on your fingers can also fade because we use our hands so frequently and the skin is closer to the bone, so if you're planning to get a cute little hipster triangle on your finger, you should keep this in mind.
Size can also play a part in a tattoo's longevity. A common mistake that people make with their first tattoo is that they get it too small. If a tattoo is really small, especially if it involves lettering, it can all start to mush together over time and look like nothing. Don't shy away from making your tattoo a little bigger and bolder so that it won't become a random splotch years down the road.
Deciding on a Tattoo Design
Hopefully this article gave you some inspiration for the design of what is sure to be your latest and greatest tattoo! If you've come up with a tattoo idea you love, you can start searching for tattoo artists in your area and ask for a consultation to see if they have any suggestions for improving your design.
If you're not ready to take that step quite yet, you can experiment with temporary tattoos to see how you feel about your design and how it looks on your body without making a long-term commitment. Some people think about a tattoo idea for years before actually going through with it. It's always smart to put a lot of thought into the process so that you end up with a tattoo that's meaningful to you (and also makes your friends incredibly jealous).
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.