What to look for when picking a tattoo or tattoo styles

First things first: you need to find out what you like. The style of tattoos is important, and using the right language when talking to an artist can make or break your tattoo. When I say make or break, I mean that for you personally, it might be a great tattoo. But if it’s not what you wanted, it’s not great! It truly is all about the client and giving you what you want within reason, but some clients can ruin a good tattoo by not listening to an artist.

Styles go anywhere from very simple to very detailed. Make no mistake – when I say simple, there is no such thing as a simple tattoo. But here are some things to consider and try to stay away from.


Well, size is key for multiple reasons. Without enough room to actually do the detail, you lose it, or the artist will try to cram it in there and then you lose it anyway due to spreading and just overall aging of the tattoo. This is something that needs to be figured out after you figure out a style, but you still need to keep in mind if you’re a lifer or a weekend warrior. If you’re looking for something small, then you may as well stay away from realistic, 3D, or anything of that nature. To do a nice tattoo, you have to be reasonable and not put 10 pounds of shit in a half-pound bag! Most artists know their capabilities and will tell you, but just in case they don’t, do some homework and look at what tattoos look like in 5 or 10 years. If you don’t care and you just walk into Joe Blow’s shop and you want to trust the first guy you meet, that’s not a good plan.



This is horrible line work as well as placement. I really can’t find one thing that is good about this tattoo at all.


This tattoo is much better in all areas: placement, clean lines, and the flow is there.

Water Color Style

Well, here is a fad that will be gone soon. For the love of God I hope it is. This tattoo right here looks like someone puked a blue Gatorade on himself. Nothing aside from the actual color is any kind of good. The flow is off, and the placement could have been saved by just tilting it a little. I understand that some of these are pretty, but buy a painting and hang it on your wall. It will look better than being 40 years old and looking like you got in a paintball battle. Now, in some of these, there is enough black in it. It can be okay and hold up over time, but it takes a certain touch.


Water color tattoo. Artist unknown, but nice job.


This one in the picture below will be okay over time. The black is strong, and there is a small amount of puke substance in it. Nice job on the flow and placement. I have no complaints about this one.



Traditional tattoo by Jake Burton

The picture to the right is a traditional tattoo. These tattoos are easy to spot: they have been around since the beginning of tattoo and is still here and strong today. Any artist that says it’s boring or easy is just full of shit. Most artists that say that mean they can’t take an image and put it in photoshop and do paint by number. To do a good traditional piece, you need all of the skills that tattooing has to offer. You need flow, super clean line work, and good, smooth shading able to go from solid black to yellow sometimes, and that can be a challenge. All of these skills are there for the world to see. You can’t just put a bunch of color together and call it a day. It takes real skills and talent to do this right. (Tattoo by Jake Burton)

New School


New school tattoo by Jake Burton

These are tattoos that are traditional in one sense, but have a twist of sorts. A lot of the time, that’s exactly what it is: take it and change the angle, add some depth, and then twist it a bit. This is something that takes all the skills of a traditional tattoo and then some, adding things like sculpting of lines to create depth. You need art skills to pull this off. Sculpting is the combination of thick and thin lines to create an effect of depth. Most of these tattoos need to be drawn from scratch. That alone takes away about 50% of the tattooers out there. Then factor in the people that are not good at it, and that’s another 40%. That leaves you with a 10% chance of getting a good tattoo, so do your homework on your artists. This tattoo was done by Jake Burton and looks like it is moving fast just standing still. Great job on this one.


This is a simple one to know if you want. It’s basically taking a photo and copying it. It’s pretty cut and dry. There is a limited field of artists that can do this, but in color can be easily faked, and it can be tricky to find someone who is good at it. You need a trained eye to see the faults in it, but when done right, it can be amazing. The problem with someone who fakes it is the healing and the lack of artistic ability to take a photo and make it a tattoo. You need to know what to add and what to take out as far as detail, and make certain things really pop and capture the photo. Most people that are really good at this only focus on this type of tattoo, so make sure you don’t have a guy with a traditional portfolio doing your portraits. It never ends well. Even if their color is bright, don’t be fooled. It does not matter in realistic style to have crazy bright colors. It matters that the proportions are right and everything that needs to be there is there. This tattoo was done by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company.

Lincoln Portrait

Portrait/realism tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company


This tattoo was done by a shit artist. I don’t know who it was, but it does not matter!

3D Tattoo

Realistic/ 3D tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company

Realistic/3D tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company

This one is a fun one to do but sort of kills me. Everyone seems to think 3D tattoos are something new, when almost every artist I knows tries to make every tattoo pop off the skin by some sort of shadow, and that’s all it is. So make no mistake that a 3D tattoo is just a realistic tattoo with a shadow. Try to keep this in mind when talking with an artist. Sometimes it can be a little harsh to call someone’s work flat and ask if they can do 3D.

Tribal or Solid Black


Cover up tribal tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company

These are tattoos that are exactly what it says: solid black, and can be done any way the artist sees fit. Tribal can be anything from animals to hearts to the traditional style tribal that is sharp points and curves. Remember the word FLOW because that is the most important part of tribal and solid black tattoos. It’s not just a guessing game of putting lines together. All the elements work with one another and tell a story in the negative space as well as in the black. The negative space is as important, if not more important, than the actual tattooed areas. This is where I jump into Polynesian tattoos.

Polynesian Tatttoos

I am the first to admit I in no way understand Polynesian tattoos. I have a great respect for their art, and only a few people know what everything means. They have come out with books, and with good old google, we can start to scratch the surface, but it was actually very secretive for a long time, and still is. The art is amazing and really can’t be done in large spaces without free handing and drawing it on. The negative space in this art is absolutely critical. Make sure when doing this on yourself that you find the right artist.

Polynesian style tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo co.

Polynesian style tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company

Polynesian style tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo co.

Polynesian style tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company

Japanese Tattoo

Japanese tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo co.

Japanese tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company

Yes, this is a category all on its own. This is one thing that you can cover your whole body in and never use the same thing twice. It is one of my personal favorites, and you can also do them with traditional style or even with a new school or realistic twist. This was something worth mentioning because most people don’t know how much stuff there is, and most tattoos these days have a whole bunch of Japanese style or origins.

Cover Ups

Cover up tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo co

Cover up tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company

This is tricky. Not everyone has the eye for this one. All these styles have specialists, and cover ups are no exception. If you are looking to cover a mistake, beware: you don’t want to have to do it again. The more you go over something, the more scar tissue builds up and the darker it will get. A good rule of thumb is that you need to go twice as big as the original tattoo, and the only thing that covers black is black. Artists seem to think sometimes that they can put white over tattoos and lighten it. While this might be somewhat true, it’s not the best option unless you want to do this time and time again. Eventually, the black comes back and you are right where you started.

Fix Ups

Fix up tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo co.

Fix up tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company

This is just going and making a poor or faded tattoo better. I personally do quite a bit of this because of the amount of poor tattoo artists in my area. You would be surprised what a good artist can do to help out a tattoo that was done poorly. Make sure that, just like a cover up, you have the right person for the job. It can’t be done too many times without it looking like a blob.

Black and Grey

While this is mostly black ink and watered down black, it’s still called black and grey. This is where you can get most of your detail and get the longest shelf life out of a tattoo. By using thin lines and good shading, you can get really cool stuff going on without overworking the skin and making things too dark and solid, making it much easier to keep looking good throughout your life. As line work is hard to learn, it can take up to 10 years to figure out how to make a smooth shaded of black, and that’s if you ever figure it out. Most artists don’t, so be careful when picking out an artist for black and grey. If they have nothing but color in their portfolio, then stay away and find the right artist for the job.

Black and grey tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo co.

Black and grey tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company

Black and Grey/ realistic/ 3D tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo co.

Black and Grey/ realistic/ 3D tattoo by Greg Votaw at Galveston Tattoo Company

Remember, you can mix almost any of these styles. So try and get creative! There is much more to come on this blog, but I am done for now. There are many more styles and a lot of tattoo lingo left for you to learn, but I hope this has helped a little.