Neo Traditional Tattoo: What’s This Striking Tattoo Style About?


Traditional tattoo is steeped in American heritage. Usual imagery will be iconic images of patriotism, like the eagle and the American flag. Others tend to be symbolic tattoos of anchors, ships and pin up models, among others. Neo traditional tattoo images and themes aren’t far off the mark, and much like its predecessor, neo also has its roots in Japanese art.

What Does Neo Traditional Tattoo Mean?

tattooed person holding mic
Photo by Flavio Gasperini on Unsplash

Back when Japan closed its entire country from the rest of the world, part of the globe became obsessed with Japanese goods. Think of it as wanting what you can’t have — on a massive scale. The desire to possess anything Japanese is legitimate considering the country’s exquisite craftsmanship and the uniqueness of its culture.

After 250 years of “Go away, world,” Japan was ready to slowly work its way back into the international community. The country sent officials to Europe to talk about the probability of opening its doors to trading goods. And so ships sailed to and from Europe and Japan.

It wasn’t long before artists like Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh began embracing Japanese artwork into their own masterpieces. Add to this the renewed need to seek inspiration from nature, and the movement toward neo traditional was born.

It eventually made its way into tattooing. You’ll know a neo traditional tattoo by its lush details, heavy shading and striking colors done mostly in soft gradients. The linework and shading are so well defined, you’ll find yourself getting lost in every print and illustration.

This style of tattooing has gained momentum in recent years because you’ve got younger artists creating gnarly, inventive designs that may as well be fantasy art; you’ve also got access to new ways of inking, from 3D to the use of white ink. All these things contribute to the head turning and nearly hypnotic appeal of tattoos done in neo traditional style.

Is there meaning behind this type of tattoo?

No. Neo traditional tattoos don’t hold any kind of specific symbolism or message. It’s like other tattoo styles; each one holds a meaning known only to you.

What’s the Difference Between Traditional and Neo Traditional Tattoos?

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Traditional tattoo style is old school, and again, heavy on American heritage. Most of the subjects you’ll see under this style are typically masculine. Think sailor-type tattoos back in the old days when Popeye was hip.

Some subjects include:

  • Hot women
  • Fierce, aggressive-looking animals (typically a menacing eagle)
  • Daggers and roses
  • Maritime symbols, like anchors and ships

Traditional ink is known by its other names: Western traditional, American traditional and classic tattoo style. When you want skin art that ages well, this is the style of tattoo to get. Its bold, thick lines and saturated colors on iconic designs, from roses and swords to anchors and gorgeous women, create an eye-catching piece. You’ll see a lot reds, blacks and greens in traditional ink and many of its designs will stick to flash art, unlike neo.

So how does this style differ from neo traditional tattoo when it shares a similar aesthetic and uses the same thickened, bold outlines?

  1. Neo traditional has broader palettes to it whereas traditional tattoos only occasionally use bold colors. Neo uses more reds, yellows and oranges in soft gradient, blending its palettes in rich jewel tones. Unlike the high contrast pop of traditional, neo’s effect tends to be romantic and lush.
  2. The meaning of neo: new, recent, modern; indicates a move beyond the usual traditional motifs of anchors, pretty women and roses. So you’ll have other options for design with neo traditional.
  3. Neo traditional tattoos aren’t limited by the general badassery of traditional ink. This modern style of tattoo uses natural themes of animals (beyond the eagle) and flowers (so not just rose tattoos). The tattoo style is also flexible enough that subjects can include the unusual, from pop culture icons like John Wick to symbols of hobbies.
  4. Tattoo artists using this style are typically influenced by Art Nouveau, which is recognized for its natural forms and curves and linear designs, and Art Deco, which is noted for its use of technological innovation and embellished designs and came about after the former became old.

Let’s look at two examples per style here:

This traditional tattoo by Beau Brady depicts a common subject in the old school style: the beautiful lady. It uses heavy shading, with red as its boldest color. The effect is more cartoony.


Also using the usual motif, this neo traditional tattoo by Arielle Gagnon uses a lot more color palettes and looking a bit romanticized and more illustrated.


chest tattoo
This traditional tattoo by Shaun Topper features a few typical motifs: the American flag and animals, with the eagle and horses.


whole back tattoo
Anthony Fleming’s neo traditional tattoo focuses on just the horse with foliage as background. The illustration is almost like a portrait for its rich, dark ink and striking colors.


Because of neo traditional’s rich colors and super-detailed illustrations, it makes sense to compare it to realism tattoos.

Are Neo Traditional Inks Realism Tattoos?

tattoo design
Image from GPreece on Deviantart

Realism tattoo looks as real as a photo. That life-like piece on your arm, leg or back will seem like an ultra-thin photograph was stuck to your skin and made to look like skin art. But really, it’s the other way around: it’s skin art that looks a hell of a lot like a picture stuck to your skin.

Much like neo traditional, realism tattoos are done with painstaking detail and heavy shading. This style of tattoo mostly uses black and gray ink; some green ink may also be used. So unlike neo traditional tattoos, realism skin art isn’t as colorful or vibrant.

What if you want a black and gray tattoo but prefer the more modern, illustrative styling of neo traditional?

If you’re not too crazy about vibrant color, some neo traditional ink can come in black and gray. So if you want to represent a beloved figure in your life, neo traditional portraiture would work. If you prefer a darker, more sinister design, neo traditional skulls and demons are enticing.

You’ll have plenty of options for subjects when it comes to neo traditional ink. You can even combine it with some of the inspirations behind this style of tattoo.

For instance, ukiyo-e.

Other Tattoo Styles

Tatttoo by Hanna Flowers on Instagram

Ukiyo-e is a Japanese woodblock print and painting that came out of the Edo period. Much like neo traditional, ukiyo-e themes mainly illustrate:

  • Gorgeous women (usually, courtesans)
  • Natural elements (from plants to animals)
  • Landscapes

The highly crafted style can also get racy, depicting erotic scenes. It’s also modern in that this style illustrated life in the city, particularly the Edo district (today’s Tokyo). So if your into Japanese style tattoos, using ukiyo-e for your neo ink is bound to turn heads.

Another tattoo style to combine with your neo traditional tattoo is the new school style. In contrast to neo, new school tattoos are almost caricature-like and appearing 3D. It’s also more dynamic whereas neo is softer. But much like neo, new school also illustrates a lot of pop culture references and usually covers new designs. The colors are also saturated.

Art Deco and Art Nouveau are also other styles your tattoo artist can use with neo.

Tattoos are works of art, and no other style solidifies this argument better than the super detailed, creative and illustrative neo traditional tattoo. Be warned, if you’re just getting your first tattoo, that this style means spending a lot of time on the table and depending on where you put your tattoo, enduring plenty of discomfort.

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