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A Quick Guide to 10 Popular Tattoo Styles

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Although tattoos were a taboo subject in most communities just over a decade ago, they're now just casual dinner conversation for all but the most conservative groups. Gone are the days of ink being only for bikers and outlaws, with nearly every soccer mom and barista sporting back pieces and full sleeves.

With that boom in popularity came an explosion of tattooing styles, so here's a quick guide to 10 of the most popular styles. 

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American Traditional
When you think of old-school tattoos, you're probably thinking of American traditional (often just referred to as "traditional" or occasionally "trad") tattoos. They're the anchors, daggers, pinups, snakes, and everything else that dot just as many millennials today as they did sailors in WWII. The hardcore traditionalists will only use a color palette of black, brown, green, yellow, red, and blue, and they'll rarely do pieces you wouldn't see in a book of Sailor Jerry or Owen Jensen flash. They're bold, bright, and will hold up for longer than you'll be alive if done correctly.

If you understand the English language and read the previous paragraph, you should be able to guess what neo-traditional (although no one is too sure about the hyphen, so you'll see it as "neo traditional" and "neotraditional" as well) tattooing is. Neo-traditional tattoos have the same bold look and clear designs of American traditional pieces, but they offer a little more flexibility. Nearly any subject matter can be turned into a neo-traditional tattoo, more details are often included, and there's no limit to how many colors can be used. On the other side of neo-traditional is the land of illustrative tattooing, but those lines tend to cross and mingle more often than not. 

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Black and Gray
Saying that black and gray is a single style is a bit misleading, but there's no way to break it up into individual pieces. From the simpler traditional-esque pieces of street art legends like the late David Holland (aka Teen Angel) to detailed and complex fine-line tattoos, black-and-gray tattoos can be seen anywhere and everywhere. Whether you're looking for a piece of Chicano culture, a portrait of a loved one, or just some fine art, the vast realm of black and gray has you covered.

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Color Realism
Again, sometimes it's all in the name. Just as artists will do incredibly detailed and lifelike black-and-gray pieces, there are plenty of artists out there who can take nearly any photo or design and make it a reality on a client's skin. Realistic color tattoos can fade and blur a little quicker than others (black ink holds better than any color), so you're better off going a little bigger to give the details more room to breathe. As always, pick an artist you trust, and then take their advice on things.

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Although stylistically similar to traditional and neo-traditional tattoos, it's pretty easy to tell the difference between a Japanese tattoo and an American one. The subject matter (dragons, tigers, etc.) may have a bit of crossover, but Japanese tattoos tend to be bigger pieces that flow with the body and tell a story. Rather than having a bodysuit or sleeve made up of several smaller designs, a Japanese sleeve tends to tie everything together from the wrist all the way to the chest. The traditional art of Tebori is another increasingly popular Japanese tattooing form, in which the tattoo is applied by hand with a giant needle instead of a tattoo machine.

Trash Polka
Although decent trash-polka tattoos were primarily only available in Europe for a long time, hipsters have taken a liking to them, leading many artists across America to start adding them to their portfolios (and Instagram). Trash polka tends to be a vintage-looking tattoo style traditionally featuring a newspaper print-like font and semi-detailed imagery done entirely in black and red. The mostly black tattoo highlighted by splotches of red has a certain V for Vendetta quality about it, but generally with far less governmental destruction.

Remember the terrible "tribal" tattoos of the '90s? Well, those were loosely based on the intricate Polynesian tattoos that have marked Pacific Islanders for generations. The hand-poked tatau is part of a rite of passage ceremony for many Polynesian cultures, with the Samoan Pe'a being among the most famous. Regardless of how authentically Polynesian the application method of your tattoo is, the designs to be entirely black and a huge series of extremely elaborate patterns. If you're interested in Polynesian tattooing, do your research first and go to someone who knows what they're talking about before you just get random designs put on your body.

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If there's one style of tattooing that's really seen a boom in popularity over the last handful of years, it's blackwork. From American traditional designs done without the color to old-school scrimshaw tattoos based on carvings done on bones, all-black tattoos have become extremely popular recently. Thankfully, blackwork tattoos tend to be based on some solid fundamental principles of tattooing, so they'll age gracefully and stick around for a while (unlike some other trendy tattoos).

A photo posted by Marc Jackson (@xmarcxiex) on

Thanks to the internet (particularly Pinterest, it seems), mandala tattoos are popping up left and right. Although few of their wearers (or artists, for that matter) seem to really know or care about the designs' Indian roots, everyone wants a cutesy geometrically interesting design tattooed on their bodies. If you insist on getting a trendy geometry-based tattoo (unless you get a geometric equation tattooed on you, which could actually be pretty great), just make sure it's big enough that it won't look like a solid blur in a few years. Each of those tiny lines are going to expand over time (that's what tattoos do), so give it room to grow.

For every awful mandala tattoo out there, there are three watercolor pieces that are twice as bad. Watercolor tattoos tend to become popular once every decade or two, and a whole lot of people fall for the trend before remembering that there's a reason they don't stick around for long. Because black ink tends to be the thing that holds a tattoo together and watercolor tattoos don't tend to have much black ink, they end up looking like a pile of melted crayons in a few years' time. If you're just looking for something cool to get now before it's covered up or lasered off by the time Kanye runs for President in 2020, then go for it. If you're looking to get a lasting piece of respectable art on your body, find an alternative to watercolor tattoos.

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