Classic Tattoo Motifs Styles You Need to Know

Posted January 28, 2022 by in Lifestyle

Thinking about getting a tattoo? There are so many different designs and styles to consider before making the decision.

If you’re looking to get into tattoo designing or you want to get a tattoo yourself, you need to know these classic motif styles. These tattoo styles are classics and are popular around the world:

Traditional Japanese Tattoos

Japanese tattoos are some of the oldest tattoos. The bold ink colours in their designs make them the most distinct. That said, you can also have these tattoos done in the more traditional blacks and grey hues.

The most popular Japanese tattoos are the Koi Fish, Dragons, and Geishas. Dragons portray a sense of power and strength, a Koi Fish tattoo acts as a good luck charm and symbolises perseverance, while Geisha tattoos are a symbol of divine beauty.     

These Japanese tattoos are large and are predominantly found on legs, arms and backs.

Man with traditional japanese tattoo on his back

Traditional American Tattoos

Traditional American tattoos feature bold outlines and a simple colour palette. Examples of tattoos in this category include:

  • Bald eagles – A symbol of the nation’s pride and freedom.
  • Swallows– Sailors had them tattooed to symbolise returning home.
  • Anchor– A portrayal of being grounded.
  • Skulls– These were popular with sailors, adventurers, and mercenaries. It showed that they did not fear death as they had come to terms with it.
  • Pin-up girls- They were also popular with sailors. They used them to remind themselves that women were waiting for them on the shore.
  • Snakes- They represent power and potency.

Neo-Traditional American Tattoos

These tattoos are the modernised version of the traditional tattoos. They feature bolder outlines with thick black lines, making their colours pop out more. Examples of neo-traditional tattoos include:

  • Bold animals such as lions and wolves
  • Classic portraits of nymphettes and goddesses
  • Ships
  • Flowers
  • Butterflies
  • Daggers and hearts
  • Lighthouses

Black and Grey

Black and grey tattoos create any design using different shades of black and grey. The combination of shades makes the tattoos look 3D and realistic.

black and grey lion tattoo on man's forearm


Realistic tattoos are also used to portray anything in a very natural form. They can be done in colour or black and grey shades. It’s a perfect tattoo to draw attention and emphasise something.


The portraiture motif is like realism. It involves portraits of people in their most natural form. The portrait tattoos can be done either in black and grey or in different colours.

Realism portrait tattoo on hand


Geometric tattoos create a sense of mystery and optical illusion. They combine lines and shapes to bring out the desired design. You can also combine geometry with natural elements and floral arrangements.

Woman with large geometric tattoo on her back


Tribal tattoos are created using black ink and have thick lines that stand out. There are different tribal designs depending on their culture of origin. Each culture places significance on its tribal tattoos.

The different tribal tattoo cultures include:

  • Polynesian
  • Samoan
  • Filipino
  • African
  • Hawaiian
  • Indian
  • Cherokee
  • Celtic
  • Mexican
  • Irish
  • Native American
Man with tribal tattoo on neck and chest

Script Lettering

This is where you can have initials or one or more words as your tattoo. You can use Latin, Arabic, Cyrillic, Japanese, or any other language of choice. In the past, sailors used script tattoos to mark important dates.

Petite script tattoo on woman's mid-back


Blackwork tattoos feature thick bold lines that combine geometric and tribal designs. You can only use black ink on these tattoos. Also, there is intense shading within the structure.

Blackwork tattoo of roses on a woman's arm


The artist tattoos many single dots to create an image. This gives the image a unique appearance. Black and grey are the most popular in dotwork. However, artists also use dark blue. It is rare to find bright colours used.

These are the most common classic style motifs you need to know. Learn more about them individually to understand them better.

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