If you’re a tattoo enthusiast, you’ve probably heard the term Neo-traditional.
As with any kind of art, there are different approaches to the tattoo medium.
Neo-traditional is an umbrella term that exists within those approaches.
In short, it’s a style of tattoo art. And it’s awesome.
Typically, a Neo-traditional tattoo features bold lines, an illustrative look, highly saturated modern colors, and a feeling of dimension without being exaggerated or 3D.
Many Neo-traditional tattoos have a bit of a “wink” to them, a sense of humor, but some are just downright beautiful for its own sake.
There aren’t many “rules” when it comes to Neo-traditional art.
What makes it distinct is its blend of old school flash techniques and modern creative expression.
Neo-Traditional vs American Traditional: What’s The Difference?
Neo-traditional has defining characteristics, but you’re likely to see fluctuations from one artist’s work to another.
And that’s what makes the genre so appealing to some.
They’re excellent if you want to feel linked to years of tattoo history.
It’s kind of cool to have something that looks the same as it would have years ago, but some people want something a little more customized.
Neo-traditional tattoos allow for some rule-breaking.
An artist can have fun with the subject matter, colors, and line weights to bring the design to life.
It’s also a way to pay homage to the iconic images with personal meaning.
With an American Traditional tattoo, you’re bound to a certain aesthetic.
These tattoos pay homage to the sailors and circus performers who wore them first.
Perfect for an old soul, but a Neo-traditional tattoo can draw from more recent iconography.
In this style, you may see someone pay tribute to their favorite movie, or even a loyal pet.
Let’s break it down a little further:
One thing that makes a Neo-traditional piece similar to an old school/American traditional tattoo is the bold lines.
In an American traditional tattoo, the lines are uniform in width.
This is a distinct characteristic of the style, so it’s really important to nail it.
In a Neo-traditional piece, the lines are bold, but may differ in width.
This allows the artist to create a little more dimension while staying true to the traditional look of a bold outline.
A traditional tattoo is meant to look 2D, almost like a sticker.
This is part of the simplistic charm of these designs.
A Neo-traditional piece will look a bit smoother and have more of a dimensional look.
The placement of these designs will often highlight or accentuate a person’s body shape.
Neo-traditional tattoo designs aren’t as dimensional as New School tattoos, but they have areas that pop out and recede.
An American traditional piece needs to maintain a flat look, so it is pretty simple in terms of shading.
Some black shading or “pepper shading” will be added for decorative effect, but the design will remain more tattoo-like and less true to life.
A Neo-traditional piece features both black shading and white highlights.
This creates a slightly more realistic appearance while maintaining that bold, illustrated look.
Both traditional and Neo-traditional tattoos are known for their saturation.
Colors are packed in for maximum impact and go “wall to wall,” meaning they will fill an entire area right up to the outline.
When the first flash designs were created, there just weren’t that many color options for tattoos.
But as any artist knows, sometimes having restrictions is good for the creative process.
Because of their limited color palette, old school designs are iconic.
An American traditional design will typically feature black, red, yellow, and green.
As time went on, you may have seen a little purple on someone who was feeling fancy.
The cool thing about this is it makes American traditional designs easy to replicate.
If you want the exact same tattoo as your sailor grandfather, you’ll be able to get it.
The colors are high contrast, so they pop off of each other in a way that’s very pleasing to the eye.
As time went on, new pigments arrived on the scene.
In a Neo-traditional tattoo, you may see soft gradients from red to orange to yellow.
Neo-traditional tattoos tend to feature blends between rich jewel-tones and organic color palettes.
The overall effect is more luscious and romantic than a traditional piece.
This is the most fun part of Neo-traditional tattoos.
Some designs are completely original, while others are a play on traditional flash art.
American traditional tattoos have a lot of machismo.
The designs tend to be aggressively masculine in the classic sense of the word, and may feature:
- Snarling animals
- Bloody daggers
- Beautiful women
Neo-traditional tattoos cast different subject matter in the same light as traditional tattoos.
When done well, suddenly a ball of yarn and 2 knitting needles can look just as bad-ass as a skull and crossbones.
People often use the flexibility of Neo-traditional to pay homage to:
- Pop culture iconography
- Family members
- Beloved hobbies
- Loyal pets
- Beautiful women
Of course, one of the most popular designs across any art style is a beautiful woman’s face.
Women’s faces have been a muse for tattoo artists for hundreds of years, and they’re currently popular across all genders.
Who doesn’t love kissable lips, high cheekbones, dainty noses, and expressive eyes?
In a Neo-traditional tattoo, faces look less cartoony and more life-like.
But they never veer into portrait tattoo territory.
Neo-traditional tattoos will always look like an illustration, no matter how luscious the colors and dimensions are.
Summing Up the Differences
Before we move on to other influences on the Neo-traditional genre, let’s be sure you understand the difference between Neo-traditional and American traditional, shall we?
American Traditional tattoos:
- Old school, popularized in the 1910’s with sailors and circus performers.
- Wall to wall color in red, black, yellow, green (maybe purple)
- Bold, thick outline all the same width
- 2D look
- Based on traditional “flash,” won’t depart much from the original design
- Old school approach with new techniques.
- Wall to wall color in a variety of pigments.
- May see gradients or blends of color.
- Bold, thick outlines in different widths.
- Dimensional look (without being exaggerated or cartoonish like new school designs)
- Informed by traditional flash, but departs from the original design.
- May pay homage to modern iconography/pets/hobbies.
New School Tattoos vs Neo-Traditional Tattoos, What’s the Difference?
There aren’t nearly as many similarities between Neo-traditional and new school styles as there are between Neo-traditional and American traditional tattoos.
We’ve touched on it above, but it’s worth going over because, to the uninitiated, the names of the styles almost feel interchangeable.
New school tattoos are brightly colored and cartoonish.
They feature modern colors, even shades in the neon spectrum.
The subject matter is often heavily influenced by modern pop culture.
In a Neo-traditional piece, modern iconography is put through a classic art filter.
The tattoo will have an illustrative effect, but proportions will remain realistic.
In a new school piece, the cartoonish elements of that reference will be amped up and pushed to the limit, almost like a caricature.
Eyes become larger, lips fuller, and designs seem electric, like they’re going to leap off the skin.
Here is a comparison to sum up, and see which style may be best for you:
- Wall to wall saturation
- Illustrative style
- Feels romantic and artistic
- Soft dimension. May have a rich depth of field but still 2D
- Similar subject matter to American Traditional tattoos, or a play off of those references.
New School Tattoos
- Wall to wall saturation
- Cartoonish style, sometimes influenced by anime and comic books.
- Feels dynamic and exaggerated
- 3D dimension, like it’s popping off the skin.
- References to pop culture, or new designs entirely.
Other Influences on Neo-Traditional Tattoos
It is important to note that Neo-traditional tattoos can’t be summed up as “American traditional with a twist,” though that is a major ingredient in the recipe.
Neo-traditional picks up stylistic choices from other art genres.
Let’s take a look at a few of those styles now.
Art Nouveau translates from French to “New Art” in English.
It features a pleasing balance between twisting organic lines inspired by flowers, and geometric shapes inspired by textiles.
The colors in a Neo-traditional tattoo may feel “modern” compared to an American traditional piece, but the influence reaches back over 100 years.
Art Nouveau had its heyday in 1890-1910, mainly in Europe.
But it has stretched out across time and oceans, and it continues to inspire modern artists.
Many Neo-traditional tattooers are known for the muted, organic palettes and curving lines that are signature to Art Nouveau.
It is this introduction of curvaceousness that makes a Neo-traditional tattoo feel different than an American traditional piece.
They incorporate many of the same elements, but the lines in Neo-traditional tattoos feel natural, almost plant-like.
And there’s an important reason for that!
Art Nouveau was born out of the Arts and Crafts movement in England.
Industrial technology was developing at a rapid rate- and mass production was becoming the norm.
While this made items more affordable to the average consumer, they were often poorly made and designed.
William Morris led the rebellion against cheaply made items and started his own design company.
His goal was to have artisans take pride in their work and receive proper wages for it.
The alternative was working in a factory, often under unsafe conditions.
His designs were a hit and inspired the lively spirit of Art Nouveau.
This is similar to how, in our modern era of technology in excess, many people are turning to whimsical art forms and working with their hands.
Psychologically, it may be why so many people are drawn to Neo-Traditional tattoos.
We want something that feels artistic and alive, but not to the point of being robotic.
If you’re still scratching your head about Art Nouveau, you’ve likely had an encounter with a piece from this style and not even realized it.
Many of the most enduring works from that era are frequently sold as prints.
You’re likely to see one in a quaint coffee shop, or maybe the dorm room of a romantic youngster.
One of the infamous works is a poster for “Le Chat Noir,” a cabaret space that opened in Paris in 1882.
The piece has been duplicated hundreds of times but was originally designed by Théophile Steinlen, a Swiss painter and prolific artist on the Art Nouveau scene.
Much like Neo-traditional tattoo artists, each Art Nouveau artist had their own style within the genre.
Still, pieces all look like they belong to the same world.
These works are characterized by:
- Curving, asymmetrical lines
- Muted organic colors (mustard yellows, mossy greens, deep reds)
- Natural elements
- Geometric shapes and patterns
It’s no wonder this style made its way into the tattoo world.
The history of Art Nouveau has something in common with the history of tattooing: It takes a lot of inspiration from Japanese artists.
Which takes us to our next ingredient in the Neo-Traditional recipe.
Japanese Woodblock Prints
The Ukiyo-e art style is another one of those centuries-old practices that inspire today’s artists, both in and outside of the tattoo scene.
Ukiyo-e (a term that translates to “floating world”) dominated Japan after emerging in the 17th century.
It is an optimistic style, something that developed during a time of economic prosperity and an optimistic social climate in Japan.
Because the economy was doing well, prints could be made en masse and distributed in the markets.
These became popular fixtures in upper-class homes.
This, in turn, allowed the merchant class to do very well for themselves.
The term “floating world” refers to the care-free political climate at the time.
Though they are printed multiple times, a lot of craftsmanship goes into an Ukiyo-e art piece.
In just one piece, there are roles for at least 4 artisans.
There is a designer, a woodcarver, a printer (who would spread colored ink on the design), and a publisher.
The common themes in an Ukiyo-e piece are:
- Theatre actors (these prints were expressive and captured each actor’s personality.)
- Beautiful women
- Natural elements such as animals and plants.
This is another style you’re probably more familiar with than you realize.
The most famous print is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, or just The Great Wave.
This art piece is often used as inspiration for the waves in Japanese tattoo art.
The waves may look simple, but are very hard to master.
Many of the greatest Art Nouveau painters collected Ukiyo-e prints.
Art Deco came quickly after the Art Nouveau movement, and some even get the two confused.
They are both well known for their ornate, indulgent style.
But Art Deco is far more concerned with symmetry and geometric shapes.
One of the most famous examples of Art Deco is the Chrysler building in New York.
The series of crown-like shapes leading up to the top, each slightly smaller than the last, is very pleasing to the eye.
Art Deco is celebratory.
It moves away from the organic and artistic values of Art Nouveau and celebrates technological advancement.
It is both minimalist and purposefully splashy, a style inextricably tied to the roaring 1920’s.
It seems to always resurface in new ways, especially during times of widespread economic prosperity.
Baz Luhrmann leaned heavily on the style to portray wealth and excess in his interpretation of The Great Gatsby.
The architectural black and gold art on the promo poster is spot on for Art Deco.
The style is known for a few specific elements, often seen in modern tattooing as well:
- Geometric shapes including zig zags and chevrons.
- Repeating patterns
- Minimalist with decorative flairs
- Bold lines
- Synthetic in appearance
So, what do you get when you take American traditional tattoo art, then run it through Ukiyo-e, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco filters?
You get Neo-traditional tattoos, a style that is becoming increasingly popular on the scene.
Common Themes in Neo-Traditional Tattoos
Neo-traditional tattoo art comes from such a rich history of artistic expression among social peaks and valleys.
Here are the main themes in Neo-traditional tattoos, guaranteed to get your gears turning.
Animal & Fauna Tattoos
The earliest tattoos in the American traditional style were often of predatory animals.
Neo-traditional tattoos pay homage to nature’s greatest beasts, but they also veer outside the norm.
It is common to see foxes, lizards, insects, and other unconventional animals in this style.
Pet Tribute Tattoos
Domesticated animals are elevated to their rightful iconic status in a Neo-traditional tattoo.
Pets are part of the family, and they deserve to be treated as such.
You may see Neo-traditional cat tattoos, dog, or exotic pet tattoos.
And that’s what makes the style so special, you can give any subject matter the epic, tattoo treatment it deserves.
Stylized Portrait Tattoos
Portrait tattoos are a thing of beauty, but not everyone is into the photographic style.
Some people want their tattoos to look illustrative.
What’s great about a Neo-traditional portrait is that you can bring out the best in a loved one.
You don’t remember someone for their wrinkles, or the specific intricacies of their face.
You remember them for their expressive eyes, cool hairstyle, and smile.
These are all things you can highlight in a Neo-traditional piece.
Flowers are popular across any tattoo style.
They look beautiful on their own but can also add a finishing touch to the blank spaces in a piece.
Because of their muted, organic tones, Neo-traditional flowers can have an antique look to them.
They’re perfectly suited to someone who loves spending their Sunday afternoon at a vintage shop.
Is there anything more luscious and inviting than a Neo-traditional fruit tattoo?
Because of the color gradients and slight dimension of these designs, fruit can look especially juicy and delicious.
Bowls of fruit are the original artist’s muse, why mess with a classic?
Looking for something soft and romantic with a hint of mystic mystery?
Look no further than a glowing, Neo-traditional candle tattoo.
The candle can often represent life and a sense of hope, making it a meaningful addition to any tattoo collection.
There’s so much fun to be had with a mermaid design.
They can be beyond beautiful, with surreal elements that make for a striking overall piece.
Mermaids harken back to the seaworthy history of America’s first tattoos, and they never go out of style.
The ultimate temptress, Medusa is often depicted as a contradiction.
She is so beautiful that you want to look upon her, but so terrifying that you’ll turn to stone.
With her serpentine mane of hair, she makes for a striking image.
She is often used as a protective symbol to ward off the evil eye. Go to Medusa tattoos for more!
Kali Goddess Tattoos
Kali is a complicated goddess.
From the Hindu belief system, on one hand she represents maternal love.
On the other? Violence and destruction.
Perhaps the best known of the Hindu pantheon, she is a popular muse for tattoo artists.
Her blue skin, multiple arms, and cheeky expression make her fun to draw.
If you’re looking for a Neo-traditional tattoo that celebrates your Hindu faith, Kali is the perfect muse.
Go to Kali tattoos for more!
Demon Girl Tattoos
Beautiful but evil!
We will always be obsessed with this combination.
Sexy demon women often represent being overpowered by your vices, the things that feel seductive to you.
Have you recently overcome an addiction or toxic habit?
A sexy demon may be the Neo-traditional tattoo for you.
Or maybe you’re just a fan of beautiful, rebellious women.
Either way this is a striking design.
Human Heart Tattoos
In Neo-traditional tattoos, hearts are often a mash up between anatomical and pure fantasy.
This can be a wonderful way to pay homage to your romantic side and the things you’re passionate about.
The deep reds and slight dimensional look to a Neo-traditional tattoo make it a perfect style for heart designs.
Skulls are popular in every tattoo style, and they’re just plain bad-ass.
Skull tattoos remind us of our mortality, and to take advantage of what we have while we can.
It is common to see Neo-traditional skulls with some element of human personality to them, such as hairstyles or clothing choices.
Neo-traditional Tattoo Ideas
So, art lover, how do you feel about this iconic style?
So modern, yet so rooted in tattoo and fine art history.
Neo-traditional is a great choice when you want something that looks like a tattoo, but feels a little more soft and romantic than the traditional designs.
Still looking for inspiration?
Check out our gallery for some of the best Neo-traditional artwork online.
Large-scale Neo-traditional Tattoos
Neo-traditional Sleeve Tattoos
Small Neo-traditional Tattoos
Neo-traditional Neck Tattoos
Neo-traditional Sternum Tattoos
Neo-traditional Hip Tattoos
Rectangular Neo-traditional Tattoos
Neo-traditional Tattoo Artists
Emily Rose Murray
Isabella Chiara Filouino
- Hibiscus Tattoos
- Peony Tattoos
- Orchid Tattoos
- Daffodil Tattoos
- Plumeria Tattoos
- Sunflower Tattoos
- Rose Tattoos
- Nature Tattoos
- Butterfly Tattoos
- Watercolor Tattoos
- Tiger Tattoos
- Lion Tattoos
- Compass Tattoos
- Hourglass Tattoos
- Octopus Tattoos
- Arrow Tattoos
- Panther Tattoos
Neo-traditional Tattoos FAQ
Typically, a Neo-traditional tattoo features bold lines, an illustrative look, highly saturated modern colors, and a feeling of dimension without being exaggerated or 3D. There aren’t many “rules” when it comes to Neo-traditional art. What makes it distinct is its blend of old school flash techniques and modern creative expression.
American Traditional tattoos:
1. Old school, popularized in the 1910’s with sailors and circus performers.
2. Wall to wall color in red, black, yellow, green (maybe purple)
3. Bold, thick outline all the same width
5. 2D look
6. Based on traditional “flash,” won’t depart much from the original design
1. Old school approach with new techniques.
2. Wall to wall color in a variety of pigments.
3. May see gradients or blends of color.
4. Bold, thick outlines in different widths.
6. Dimensional look (without being exaggerated or cartoonish like new school designs)
7. Informed by traditional flash, but departs from the original design.
8. May pay homage to modern iconography/pets/hobbies.