New School Tattoos: A Complete Guide With 85 Images

New School Tattoos

New school tattoos are a modern evolution of an old age tradition for decorating one’s body. Designs are inspired by the pop culture of the 70s and 80s, with inks featuring busy scenes of cultural icons. The colorful drawings pop off the skin with bold outlines, saturated colors and a lot of attention to detail.

New school is fun, vibrant and attention-grabbing. Want to find out more? Let’s take a look.

A Short History of New School Tattoos

A short history indeed, for this modern style only emerged a few decades ago and is still evolving into multiple directions. Different stories are told that trace the origin of the style to the work of artists in the 70s and 80s with roots in the counterculture of the West Coast at that time.

Pioneers like Marcus Pacheco of the San Francisco Bay Area connected with the graffiti tradition that was becoming more and more visible around the time. 

The black and white imagery of the old school was brought to life in rich colors. Traditional images like eagles and crosses were replaced with icons from pop culture — cartoon characters, science fiction personas and also representations of contemporary celebrities. New school tattoos are bold, bright and light. 

In the 90s, the new school direction became established as a widely popular style of its own featuring an exaggerated subject matter, vivid color palettes and bold outlines. There is a distinctive 3D imagery and a sense of movement in this style that creates perspective and space — at times, the characters seem to reach right out of the picture. 

The New School Style

The iconographic images encountered in the new school are drawn from familiar subjects found in cartoons, graffiti and popular culture.

The most distinctive aspect of this style is the use of rich, solid colors everywhere, and so has a significant role in the new school. Color draws the eye, highlights shapes and adds perspective. 

Some artists have a preference for a dominant color, but the times of stark black lines are long gone.

Tattoos With Style

For tattoo artists, the new school style is an incentive to express their best skills with sometimes boundless creativity. Unashamedly stretching over large portions of the body, the colorful inked images are larger than life. The world of new school designs has left tradition behind and is filled with fantastical subjects, innovative patterns and is highly customized. The detail invested is simply exciting.

Elements remain from older tattooing traditions like folk art, old school and irezumi along with the heavy lines often still used. But new school tattoos use much brighter colors than the typically monochrome older styles. New school tattoos exaggerate details and shapes, to lose any sense of realism, just like seen in cartooning and graffiti art. The jagged edges and bubble letters are much more reminiscent of hip hop culture. 

As the new school style paralleled and came out of the graffiti tradition, it echoed the bold lines and exaggerated perspectives. Many 70s and 80s cartoon characters appeared with the same cleanly sculpted lines, but now completely filled with different colors. 

Modern designs have a strong sense of atmosphere and detailed line work that is often arranged in scenes with a distinct foreground, middle ground and background.

Perspective is integral with characters profiled, flipped or reaching across—sometimes morphing from one side to the other within the same image. 

Boundless Imagination

The imagery of new school tattoos reflects the boundless imagination of artists and their subjects. Nothing seems out of bounds that can be depicted with bold lines and colors. The tattoos are hypnotic as they draw the viewer down into imaginary worlds and spaces.

Stories in Ink

Cartoon characters appear, often distorted and discolored, locked in a struggle with other objects or figures. Or you can see mythical creatures like an octopus with tentacles wrapped around abstract objects. 

Lizards, dinosaurs and dragons, sometimes indistinguishable, bare their fangs at the observer. Raptors spreading wings or aliens with dripping canines are not for the faint-hearted.

Elegant Figures

Tattoos for women tend to be more enticing, with recognizable characters from anime or popular cartoons. Or you find yourself looking into the eyes of the mesmerizing faces of women elegantly draped over the subject’s body contours.

Another commonly found feature is intricate patterns that are clothing various parts of the body in mechanical, natural or traditional shapes. Sometimes indistinguishable from stretch fabric, it’s only the eyes and shapes of mysterious creatures that warn of the artist’s deception.

Intimidating Images

The true-to-life representation can be outright intimidating. A coiled snake with its hypnotic gaze fixed on you or a wolf poised ready to strike at you, attracts and repulses at the same time. Intense faces make you squirm or a grimacing skull leaves you shuddering with visual impressions you hope will not find their way into your dreams.

Less fearsome but no less breath-taking are iconic images taken from traditional culture. The all-seeing eye tattoos are popular with an eye representing the gaze of god placed inside a triangle evoking the holy trinity.

There are Polynesian masks with large eye cavities evoking a voodoo culture. Patterns and shapes taken from ancient South American cultural representations allude to human sacrifice. In new school, nothing is sacrosanct.

Skulls make frequent appearances. Sometimes they are clean out of a cartoon film; other times, they are strangely distorted or feature unreal adornments that suggest weird themes from out of this world. Skulls are wedged under ordinary household objects, breathing fire or are arranged along with bizarre collections of random items.

Diving Beneath the Surface

Sometimes the depicted scenes take the viewer below the surface in strange submarine settings with fish morphing into pirates, tall ships afloat or sunk beneath breaking waves, cute fish out of Disney World that on the second take have the jaws of sharks. Nothing is as it may appear at first sight.

The list of wild imagination is endless, with furniture that morphs into aliens, eyes on random objects and tentacles emerging from arbitrarily placed mouths.

Skin as Canvas

New school is an opportunity waiting for individual tattoo artists to express their own style, tradition and strengths. Skin is a unique canvas that invites artists to use forms and tones to accentuate shapes and patterns. Everyone’s body shape, skin texture and tone is different. Your body may be the inspiration that your artist is waiting for.

For tattoo artists, the new school elements add more complexity and challenge than traditional black and white styles. But the new school tattoo ink is extremely distinctive and personal, which explains its wide appeal. To become a walking piece of art, new school has incredible potential.

Choosing Your Artist

When it’s time to choose an artist to work with, you want their style to speak to you. Check out their portfolio, perhaps on Instagram or other online mediums they use, or ask to see photographs. Then look at how they use the ‘skin canvas’ to portray the images common to new school described above. 

Your preferred style will also depend on the placement you have in mind. A shoulder tattoo allows less space but can be shown or concealed as you choose. 

Give the artist room to expand, on your back or on your chest, and the scene can grow much more complex. The detail and the interaction within new school tattoos can make for stunning designs for the right kind of artist. 

With enough space, there is a lot of room for art and meaning. Your artist will have a repertoire of stylistic elements to draw on along with the whole tradition that preceded him or her. If you take the time to discuss your ideas and your values, then you will have the opportunity to find out if the artist will be able to capture that with ink. 

How to End Up With a Personalized Design

If you’re a fan of comic books, anime or just gaming, the new school style will appeal to you. When you go to your chosen artist, you are offering your body as a canvas to express their style. 

Give them inspiration by identifying a pop culture icon that resonates with you. It could be a cartoon character that acts out your aspirations. A graffiti image that makes a statement you want to echo. Or a shape from a dream you recently had.

The amount of content and detail of new school designs results in large tattoos covering entire limbs or body surfaces like the back or entire shoulder. The chosen body part will play an important role in determining the artist’s realization of the intended scene.

Artistic Freedom

New school is free from preconceived notions and requires artistic freedom to find the synergy between texture, form, moment and tradition to manifest itself in striking color and shape. 

If you are choosing a new school tattooist to work on your body, you can be sure to end up with a piece of art that will make a bold statement.

Best New School Tattoos