Tattoo Words You Should Know Before You Head to the Shop

Like any industry, tattooing has its own lingo and slang. When you’re new to tattoos, it can be overwhelming to interpret but have no fear. We’ve gathered some of the key tattoo words you need to know before you head to the shop for your first ink.
Tattoo Words
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General Tattoo Words You Should Know

  • Aftercare: New tattoos need attention to ensure that they heal well. This is called aftercare. Best practices include, among other things, keeping the ink clean and, for a short while, covered.
  • Apprentice: The art of tattooing is learned hands-on, with aspiring artists, called apprentices, working with experienced tattooers to learn the tricks and tools of the trade.
  • Autoclave: Good hygiene is key to tattoo safety and preventing infection. Many shops use an autoclave to sterilize all of the tools needed for tattooing and keep everything (and everyone) clean.
  • Blowout: A blowout is the haze of color that sometimes appears around a tattoo. It usually happens when an artist goes too deep into the skin.


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  • Cover-up: Not all tattoos are awesome on the first attempt (or stay loved forever). A cover-up is a tattoo on top of another tattoo, hiding it behind fresh ink.
  • Custom: When you want a unique design, you want a custom. This is a tattoo designed for and worn by you alone.
  • Flash: Those designs on the wall when you walk into a shop? That’s flash. They’re pre-designed tattoos that anyone can have inked on their body. The designs available may vary from shop to shop and artist to artist and often come in books chock full of designs.
  • Freehand: Tattoos are often guided with the aid of a stencil, but skilled artists can go freehand, using nothing but their own artistic talent to draw the tattoo directly on the person.
  • Ink: Ink is slang for tattoos, but it’s also what creates the tattoo under the skin. Ink is made of two components: the pigment, or color, and the carrier, the liquid that helps it travel to and in the skin. Check out Do you know what’s in your ink? for more!


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  • Scratcher: A scratcher is a rogue tattooer who works outside of industry standards for training, regulation, or even the proper tools needed to tattoo well and safely.
  • Single Needle: Tattoo machines usually work with a variety of needles, some with more than one tip. This allows the artist to create a thicker line or cover more ground at once. A single needle has just one tip and is used to create fine lines or details.
  • Sleeve: A full arm tattoo (or a collection of individual tattoos) covering shoulder to wrist, is called a sleeve. A half-sleeve stops or ends at the elbow and a leg sleeve is the same thing, but for the leg, covering hip to ankle.
  • Stick & Poke/Hand Poke: Hand poke and stick and poke both refer to a tattoo applied without a machine, using just a needle to poke ink into the skin. However, hand poke typically refers to a professional tattoo, while stick-and-poke is more of the at-home, DIY variety.
  • Tattoo Machine: The tattoo machine is an ink power tool, using an electromagnetic current to move the needles and send the ink into the skin. Pro tip: if you want to stay on good terms with your artist, don’t call it a “tattoo gun.” It’s considered derogatory.

Style-Focused Tattoo Lingo to Help You Describe Your Ink

  • Black and Grey: Black and grey tattoos use just one color ink: black. However, the artist will dilute the pigment as needed to create a full range of greys, applying them throughout the design.
  • Blackwork: Like black and grey, blackwork tattoos use only black ink. However, there’s no dilution in this style – only full-saturation black ink is used.


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  • Dot work: Using patterns of dots, dot work can add to or create a full tattoo design. It’s often used in shading or to add interest to basic shapes.
  • Fine line: Like with dot work, fine lines can be one element of the tattoo, or make up the whole design. These thin, delicate lines are a popular style right now.
  • Japanese: Japanese tattoos feature symbolism, characters, and creatures, drawn from the culture and mythology of Japan.
  • New School: Bright and colorful, new school tattoos draw their inspiration from comic books and other illustrations in a similar style.
  • Old School: Also called American or traditional, old school tattoos were popularized in the 1930s and use thick lines and bold colors. A pin-up girl or that ever-classic “mom” tattoo are examples of this still-popular style.


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  • Realism: Tattoos in the realism style are lifelike, representing the subject as accurately as possible to how it appears in the real world. Portraiture tattoos fall within the realism style.
  • Tribal: The tribal style draws inspiration from traditional designs of tribal communities, particularly those of Maori or Polynesian origin. It often features bold blackwork lines and patterns.
  • Watercolor: The distinctive look of watercolor tattoos is intended to mimic the effect of watercolor paints on paper. They are typically vibrant, using color alone or with black lines for a messy, painterly effect.


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(For more details about some of the most popular styles in tattooing, see 5 Tattoo Art Styles, and How to Choose One That’s Right for You!)
The list of tattoo words above isn’t totally comprehensive. It probably won’t cover all of the lingo (and definitely not all of the slang) you may encounter when you head to the studio. But it’s a start, especially for someone new to tattoos. With these basics, even the soon-to-be- and newly-tattooed will have the tools they need to better understand and communicate with their artist!
Want to show off your tattoos? Share your photos in the Tattooed Women Gallery!