Tattoos are a way to outwardly express our sense of self, style, and interests. If bodies are temples, tats are the killer decorations. Butor those with little to no tattoo experience, navigating the vast possibilities of designs, styles, and placements can be overwhelming.

We break down the basics to help you better turn your dream ink into a reality. First things first, it’s important to have a vague idea of your preferred tattoo style.

American Traditional

Woman with full arm sleeve writing at desk

American Traditional or Old School-style tattoos are some of the easiest to identify. American Traditional tattoos’ crisp, thick black lines and highly-saturated pigments are meant to last (succinctly put: bold will hold).

Flash art, or pre-drawn traditional designs, dates back to the late 1800s and follows the same general themes: pin-up girls, eagles, ships, dragons, woman side profiles, and roses, to name a few. These designs are like miniature artifacts passed down through decades of tattooing history.

Neo-Traditional

Woman's arm with colorful tattoos
Melanie Davis/Oola

Branching off the American Traditional school is Neo-Traditional, which blends the same clean lines and rich pigment of Old School with an Art Nouveau twist. Neo-Traditional takes Old School imagery one step further with 3D design elements, non-traditional colors, and dramatic or lush background and framing.

Japanese

A woman showing her full body tattooed, possibly a member of the Japanese mafia or Yakuza, attends the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa district on May 20, 2018, Tokyo, Japan.

Another timeless, well-loved tattooing style is the Japanese school of design. Like American Traditional, Japanese tattoo designs have been passed down through centuries and include dragons, koi fish, phoenixes, tigers, water/waves, clouds, and more. Traditional Japanese designs incorporate lots of blacks, reds, and the use of negative space.

Blackwork

Woman with black dotwork tattoo on neck and collarbones

The blackwork style has gained popularity in recent years, and it’s easy to see why. The strikingly bold use of solid black ink and clever use of negative space makes a tattoo that is as eye-catching as it is long-lasting. Blackwork tattoos are sleek, unapologetic, and they also make excellent cover-ups, thanks to heavily-saturated patches of black.

Photorealistic

Photorealistic Back tattoo on a woman

Photorealistic tattoos are fairly self-explanatory. Photorealism refers to detailed, accurate depictions of real-life images like portraits, flowers, animals, and more. Lifelike light and shadow are created through meticulous gray shading, though many artists are starting to hone their technique to achieve unbelievably realistic full-color pieces.

Minimalistic

Minimalistic tattoos on woman's ribcage

Minimalistic tattoos are a popular choice for those easing into the tattooed world. In big or small minimalistic tattoos, thin, dainty lines of all colors create delicate, lightweight art pieces. Minimalistic tattoos are often easier to cover up and can be placed in smaller areas of the body like behind the ear, between fingers, and around the ankle.

Watercolor

Woman with a dragonfly tattoo

Featuring bright colors and soft, free-flowing lines, watercolor tattoos are highly sought after by lovers of feminine, delicate, and all-around Insta-worthy tats. Rather than using crisp, clean lines to depict an image, watercolor tattoos use fading, runs, blurs, and bleeds to create a tattoo that looks like it was painted directly onto the skin with a brush.

Tribal

A tattoo of a black tribal style seahorse with children's names wrapping around a woman's ribs.

Tribal tattoo designs have been around far longer than their 1990s surge in popularity. Modern tribal tattoos are based on ancient Borneo, Aztec, Indian, Hawaiin, Maori, Samoan, and Polynesian designs. Non-traditional images can be made “tribal” by incorporating geometric, all-black elements like the seahorse pictured above.

New School

Woman with tattoos on leg against black background, closeup

The New School design throws tradition to the wayside and basically does whatever the f&@# it wants. New School tattoos are easily identified by their vivid color schemes, bold lines, and off-the-wall subject matter. The style originated in the late '70s and early '80s on the West coast, and that free-flowing spirit is easy to see in these bold, zany pieces.

A good tattoo artist will be able to incorporate these design elements into any subject matter you choose, regardless of whether the imagery is traditional to that school of design.

Next, you need to know where you want to get your ink.

Sleeves: Arms and Legs

cropped image of stylish tattooed girl standing with bicycle at street

Arms and legs offer plenty of prime-time real estate for tattoos. Designs can be sparse and spread out or grouped in the same area (commonly referred to as an arm- or leg-sleeve). Depending on how often you go sleeveless or rock shorts, these tattoos will be some of the most exposed—which can be good or bad, depending on what you’re looking for.

Torso, Ribs, and Back

Woman's torso and ribs with tattoos
Melanie Davis/Oola

The torso, ribs, and back are optimal tat locations for those who still need to appear inkless from time to time. Due to our pesky need to breathe while getting tattooed, tattoos on the torso and ribs can take longer to complete as the artist works with the ribcage's natural rise and fall.

Hands and Feet

Abstract tattoo on male hand over white background

Tattoo artists have lightheartedly dubbed hand tattoos “job killers” for years now, but a societal shift away from tattoo taboos might make that nickname obsolete in the coming years. Subtle hand tattoos include between the fingers, on a single knuckle, or even on the palm itself.

After the midsection and tush, foot tattoos (particularly the ankles and sides) are likely the safest bet for those needing to maintain an inkless appearance.

Neck, Ears, and Face

Woman with curly black hair shows tattoo behind her ear

Another potential tattoo locale is on the back, sides, and front of the neck, behind or on the ears, and the face. (We can’t speak to how long it will take until face tats are accepted in most work environments, though.) With this area of the body, keep in mind that all tattoos naturally thicken over time as the ink spreads under the skin. Keeping the imagery simple and clean helps to keep the tattoo looking like new for longer.

Will It Hurt? Will It Look Good? Will I Love It in 20 Years?

Sunny shot of joyful young pretty blonde woman with tattoos showing cherfully tongue to camera while demonstrating her strong biceps, posing in front of big window

Unfortunately, there are no cut-and-dry answers to any of these questions. For me, my most painful tattoos were on my feet and sternum. For others, those areas might be a breeze. It all depends on your individual pain tolerance, the tattoo's duration, and the style. Thick lines require a heavier needle, thin lines, a lighter one.

However, you can take certain steps to ensure you absolutely adore your new ink. Take the time to research your tattoo artist thoroughly. Most artists feature recent work on their social media and websites. Look for clean lines (not wiggly or uneven), rich saturation, and overall composition. If you’re not completely sold, keep searching for the artist that’s right for you.

Another good way to guarantee a great tattoo is to treat it like what it is: an investment. Clothes? Thrift ‘em. Kitchenware? Garage sale, please and thanks. But tattoos? You’re going to want to splurge. Just because a tattoo is cheap does not mean you got a good deal.

Ultimately, tattoos are incredibly personal and can be as serious, sentimental, spontaneous, or silly as you like. It's your body and your temple; decorate it however the eff you want. Go with your gut, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions, and most importantly, have fun and enjoy that too-cool-for-school, freshly-inked feeling.

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