19 Tattoo Terms You Need to Know

19 Tattoo Terms You Need to Know
Credit: Instagram @francesco__ferrara_

Every industry has its own language. You may hear a waiter shouting “hot behind”, not realizing they’re telling the person in front of them about the hot plates they’re carrying. You might see a writer using shorthand like “TKTK” to indicate more details are to come. The tattoo industry is no different, and is full of terms customers and aspiring artists use on a daily basis. Here we cover some of those terms so you can understand the process, and better communicate your needs with an artist.


Fresh tattoos require specific care to make sure the area heals properly and does not get an infection. Artists will give clients aftercare instructions that must be followed to the letter. The instructions are specific to that tattoo and area of the body and, sometimes, you’ll be given a soap or ointment to apply with a list of dos and don’ts. On Inside Out, we have a whole section dedicated to aftercare.


You can’t just walk into a studio and get a job as an artist. In restaurants, you will be asked to trial or stage somewhere before being hired. In the tattoo industry, you’ll need to take an apprenticeship. Since there is no college major for tattooing — and if there is, most artists recommend staying away from tattoo schools — an apprenticeship is where newcomers will observe artists, learn how to disinfect tools, and maintain the studio while, eventually, being given the opportunity to tattoo customers.


Before getting a tattoo, make sure the studio and artist practice seriously safe hygiene. Fresh needles should be used for every tattoo and the rest of the equipment is cleaned in an autoclave, which combines steam and high pressure to sterilize all the equipment used before and after the tattoo is done.


There are numerous techniques to create a tattoo and they often differ depending on where on the body the tattoo will be. A biomechanical technique covers areas of the human anatomy with mechanical parts, like gears and pipes, giving the appearance that the client is part-machine.


A blowout is always a risk when getting a tattoo but also something you’d like to avoid entirely. If the artist uses too much pressure or stays on a single area too long, causing the needle to go too deep, it’s a blowout. As a result, the ink flows outward creating a blurry or cloudy appearance. On a large piece, a blowout can be covered, but smaller pieces are more difficult to fix unless you’re open to going bigger.


Don’t run if you hear an artist use the word carving. You’re not going to be filleted instead of tattooed. Some pros use the term carving when referring to tattooing, as both require different degrees of detail and artistry.

Cover up

Say you have an unsightly scar or the name of an ex you’d prefer not to be reminded of daily, an artist can create a cover up design to transform the area into something you’re proud to show off. Cover ups take longer, requiring more precision and a custom design that works with the original canvas. If this is what you’re looking for, be sure to let an artist know before making the appointment — they’ll likely want to see the area being covered beforehand.


Not all tattoos are custom — meaning they are a one-of-a-kind design that an artist has created especially for you. A lot of the time, clients will bring photos of exactly what they’d like and, if it’s not another tattoo artist’s work, they’ll replicate it. But for those looking for something totally unique, artists will ask the client questions that will inform their design. Other times, artists will draft custom designs on their own that will be available for a single client, not replicated dozens of times over, like a flash tattoo.

Dot work

Rather than creating a design through lines, which is more common, some artists will use dots of various sizes to produce a design. These designs tend to appear more abstract and delicate and are commonly seen in small or hand poked tattoos.

Fine line

For the Instagram set, fine line tattoos are increasingly popular. Different from single needle tattoos, a fine line technique is used for minimalistic designs, delicate tattoos, and for tattoos using type or handwriting. It’s also used to create realistic detail on portraits or more elaborate designs.


As opposed to custom tattoos, flash tattoos are either always available or available for a day or specified period of time, depending on the artist. Sometimes, flash tattoos are less expensive because the design is already complete. Studios may offer flash tattoos to introduce a new artist or apprentice to their clients. If you’re okay with having the same tattoo as other people in your neighborhood, this is a fun way to get a tattoo.


Often an artist will use a lightbox to create a stencil of a design to transfer onto your skin. But other times, or for parts of a design, artists will tattoo freehand as if they’re drawing on your skin. Simple designs, like a semicolon, may be done freehand because there isn’t much to it, or details for a portrait or abstract design benefit from freehand tattooing, keeping the flow more natural.

Hand poke

The original form of tattooing is hand poking. Most studios don’t offer hand poking, as artists have been trained using a machine. Hand poked tattoos use everything a machine tattoo does, except the machine. The needles and ink are the same, but hand poking takes more time and does not go as deep into the skin. Certain areas of the body, like the fingers, benefit from a hand poked tattoo because it will last longer. If you’re interested in knowing the difference between hand poked and machine tatttoos, check out this post.


Combining traditional and realism, the illustrative technique creates a design that’s lifelike. The lines are often bold, the designs are playful, and the shading realistic. The designs look like they were drawn directly on the skin, the same as it would be done on paper, appearing like something that could be washed off at the end of the day.


Yes, ink is what is used to create your tattoo, but here we mean an artist’s least favorite term. Some will refer to their tattoos as ink. In popular culture, ink is thrown around more than you’re likely to hear in real life and most artists won’t refer to anything but the small tubs of color they’re using in your tattoo as ink.

Old School

Otherwise known as Traditional, American Traditional, or Sailor Jerry, this isn’t actually a specific tattoo. It originated with Norman Keith Collins, a tattooist who helped popularize American Traditional tattooing. Collins learned to tattoo on Skid Row and, after joining the Navy, perfected his skills while tattooing his fellow sailors. The style is colorful and playful — cartoon-like, even — and a constant classic.


Finding an artist who’s perfected their realism technique is important if you’re looking to replicate your favorite photo as a tattoo. It requires nimble hands and extreme attention to detail, as it uses more shading than line work. Commonly used for portraits and done in black and grey, these tattoos can seem too real to be real. The technique is often combined with single needle tattooing.

Single needle

You may not realize it, but every tattoo needle comes in various sizes. The tip of the needle might actually be eight or 10 tips. But the single needle is very small, used for portraits or tattoos that demand subtle shading. Due to its size, single needle tattoos can blur and fade, so it’s not often recommended for less detailed pieces — though the style is increasingly popular with artists like Daniel Winter, who’s given celebrities seriously subtle numbers, letters, and symbols.

Stick and poke

See hand poked. The term stick and poke is used less, especially by professionals. You probably have a friend who offers stick and poke tattoos in exchange for beer, but artists who use the technique professionally usually stick to the hand poke label.

Related: The Best Questions to Ask Your Tattoo Artist Before Your Appointment

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