Tattoo Styles - Do you know your Trad from your Tribal?

Tattoos, the earliest evidence of their existence dates back to 5000B.C. That’s a whopping 7024 years or so. Over the roughly 7 millennia tattoos have outlasted entire civilisations by changing and adapting, despite not always fitting within social norms of the age. Throughout history there have been times and places where tattoos were a sign of honour and achievement and others where they were associated with criminality and the fringes of society. Such a rich history and long journey of development has given us many different styles of tattooing, each having their own waves of popularity, rules and traditions. From traditional pieces that have stood the test of time to experimental and new iterations of old styles, we’ll take a look at a range of tattoo styles and what makes them unique. 

Tribal Tattoos 

You may be thinking of those dense black spikes and swirls so popular in the 90’s that they were featured in films like From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) where George Clooney showed off his tribal sleeve. That’s not really the kind of tribal tattoos we’re going to look at, as the bane of tattoo artists dealing with cover ups for the last 2 decades those things deserve to stay in the 90’s. Think more along the lines of Maui from Disneys hit film Moana (2016). 

As the oldest known style of tattooing and one with no real discernible origin Tribal tattoos are steeped in tradition and have many variations. ‘Tribal’ is used as an umbrella term that covers many ancient tattooing practices found all over the world. From the Māori of New Zealand and the Polynesian found on the islands between there and Hawaiis Kakau, to the Celtic and Norse of Northern Europe and Scandinavia, the Aztecs of Mesoameric, the many Native tribes of North America and Japans Jomon.

Rules for tribal tattoos

  • Research the kind of tribal tattoo you want to get (it’s not always acceptable to wear traditional markings of a tribe/culture if you’re not a member. For example a non Māori person should not get a Tāmoko unless given permission) 
  • Whether you’re looking to learn how to do tribal tattoos or get one, find an artist that specialises in the style you have in mind.
  • Most tribal tattoos are created with traditional tools, whilst they can be recreated with modern equipment you won’t get the same effect as using shark tooth, obsidian or bamboo etc. 
  • The application of tribal tattoos often involves an element of ritual or ceremony that should be respected, for an ‘outsider’ even being allowed to witness these practises is an honour.

Interesting facts about tribal tattoos

  • The word ‘Tattoo’ is Polynesian, it is derived from the Samoan and Tahitian words ‘Tatau’ and ‘Tatu’. 
  • The oldest evidence of tribal tattoos was found on Ötzi the Iceman, a frozen mummy discovered on September 19th 1991 in the Ötztal alps on the Austrian Italian border. He was frozen for around 5300 years. 
  • In 2020 Nanaia Cybele Mahuta became the first female MP in New Zealand to wear a Moko Kauae (a traditional Māori facial tattoo). 
One artist dips the tip of a wooden instrument in black ink and methodically taps it into the wearer's body while two others stretch his skin as tight as they can


Jōmon clay figures with designs on their face and body are the earliest depictions of tattoos in Japan. However it’s not the tattoos of the indigenous Ainu that are still popular today, more the decorative style that arose during the Edo period as a means to cover up tattoos that were given to criminals as punishment. From the end of the Edo period (1868) until just after World War II (1948) tattoos were banned in Japan. That’s just a taste of the extensive and complicated history of Japanese tattoos. Stigma and even being banned did not stop it from becoming one of the most iconic and instantly recognisable styles in modern tattooing.

Traditionally Japanese tattoos also known as Irezumi (入れ墨 ‘to insert ink’) are done with a hand poking technique called Tebori. Usually inspired by nature, religion and folklore, it is common for Japanese tattoo designs to take inspiration from the woodblock prints of Ukiyo-e art movement.

Common themes in Japanese/Irezumi tattoos

 Most elements of Japanese/Irezumi tattoos can be separated by seasons.

  • Spring: Sakura, Wisteria, Koi (koi flags are flown on May 5, Children's Day), lion dogs

  • Summer: Botan, Lotus, Iris, spider, butterfly, snake (spring, summer, fall)

  • Fall: Chrysanthemums, maple leaves, willow, deer, kitsune (because they're associated with fall rice harvest)

  • Winter: Plum, pine, crane, Ho-oh, Paulownia, bamboo, tiger (the last two can be all season, but they're strongly associated with each other and with winter).


    Rules for Japanese/Irezumi tattoos

    • There are many rules in Japanese tattooing but the biggest one is that seasons should not be mixed (although there are some exceptions) 
    • Background elements should be black and grey, for example waves  shouldn’t be coloured blue. 
    • If you want a true traditional Japanese tattoo, find an artist that has extensive knowledge of the many rules and intricacies associated with Japanese/Irezumi tattoos

    Interesting facts about Japanese/Irezumi tattoos

    • Whilst the traditional hand poking technique is called Tebori, the practise of using a modern electric tattoo machine is known as Yobori.
    • In 2020 Japans Supreme Court ruled that tattoo artists no longer need to obtain medical licenses.
    • Many public places in Japan still prohibit tattoos, if you’re planning to visit Japan it’s worth checking for information about tattoo friendly hotels, spas, beaches etc.
    • Masters of Japanese/Irezumi tattooing earn the title of Hori. 

    Japanese backpiece being created by the process of Tebori

    Traditional/Old School Tattoos

    It wasn’t until 1891 that Samuel O’Reilly patented the first Electric tattoo machine, a time where tattoos were only worn by those living on the fringes of society. So where would tattoos be these days without the foundations laid by legends like Norman Collins (a.k.a Sailor Jerry, Hori Smoku) George Burchett-Davis, Bert Grimm and many more? Coming out of an age where tattoos were almost unheard of in the west, sailors influenced by the tattoos of the East and Pacific island cultures were amongst the first to start wearing tattoos and it wouldn’t be until after World War II that tattoos became more widely available. Associated with counter culture, gangs and convicts through the 50’s & 60’s, then later the punk movements of the 70’s & 80’s. As tattoos have grown in popularity the stigma and negativity towards them has diminished but not entirely disappeared.

    The bold lines, limited colour pallet and repeated motifs make traditional tattoos distinct. Being a product of limited resources, most artists had to make their own machines, ink and even needles. Traditional designs were usually easy to repeat and quick to tattoo, with the main customers being sailors and soldiers with a little down time the idea was to get them in and out as quickly as possible. 

    Common themes in Traditional/Old School Tattoos

    • Swallows, Snakes, Sharks, Panthers, Dragons, Eagles, Pigs and Roosters
    • Lady heads, Pin Ups
    • Ships, Compasses, Anchors, Nautical Stars
    • Skulls, Daggers, Lucky 13
    • Flags, Banners, Hearts

    Rules of Traditional/Old School Tattoos

    • Traditional Tattoos should be 1/3 Black, 1/3 Colour or Grey shading and 1/3 Skin
    • Colour pallets were limited to Black, Red, Yellow & Green (Blue and Purple ink came later)

    Interesting facts about Traditional/Old School Tattoos

    • The worlds first tattoo shop was opened in New York in 1846 
    • Samuel O’Reillys electric tattoo machine was based on the Perforating Pen invented by Thomas Edison
    • As well as studying tattooing in Japan Ed Hardy was also heavily influenced by Norman Collins whom he had regular correspondence with
    • Norman Collins worked with Chemists to develop the first Purple tattoo ink 
    George Burchett tattooing a soldier during World War II

    New School Tattoos

    From the roots of American Traditional tattooing, New School crept up slowly before truly blooming in the 90’s! New School as a style took its first steps way back in the 70’s but it wasn’t until two decades later that it really grew into the bold and colourful style we know today. With a boom in public interest not only in tattoos but also pop culture, the 1990’s was a wonderful wacky cultural mixing pot that fueled the exponential rise in the number of tattoo artists. This new wave of artists brought in fresh influences and a shift from the traditional rules. Changes to inks also meant more freedom with colour palletes allowing artists to play with and explore colour theory. With the influences of Disney, Graffiti, Anime, Hot rods, mainstream pop culture and public demand artists moved away from the old tattoo flash. It was time for something new. New School! Many branches grew from Traditional tattooing, new school was and still is one of the most successful. 

    Common themes in New School Tattoos

    • Anime/Cartoons/Comics
    • Video Games
    • Graffiti
    • Tv/Film 
    • Animals

    Rules of New School Tattoos 

    (New School is a very free style so there are no set rules but some things are very common and make the new school style recognisable)
    • Exaggerated proportions 
    • Bright colours 
    • Bold lines
    • Multiple line weights
    • 3D effect

    Interesting facts about New School Tattoos

    Neo Trad Tattoos

    Geometric/Ornamental Tattoos

    Blackwork Tattoos

    Realism Tattoos

    Trash Polka

    Lettering/Script Tattoos

    Biomech Tattoos

    Chicano Tattoos

    Water Colour Tattoos

     This article is still being written, please bare with me whilst I work to complete

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