All You Need to Know about Trash Polka Tattoos

Even after hundreds of years of ‘modern’ tattooing, the various types of tattooing styles can mesh together. While it’s true that you can distinguish between traditional tattoos and new school tattoos easily, this variation in style is nothing compared to the difference between classical and modern art. Trash polka tattoos are a breath of fresh air compared to the other styles. It drops the solid line that is so crucial to other tattoo styles and instead focuses on contrast, realism, and grunge effects. Since the style uses a heavy amount of black space, I recommend looking into tattoo numbing cream. But where did this style pop up, and how has it affected the tattoo scene? Today, we’ll be going into the details of its history and how the style can be emulated.

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Trash Polka Tattoo History

From the moment of their conception, trash polka tattoos were made to stand out from normal tattoo styles. In Würzburg, Germany, two tattoo artists searched for the perfect style to make their Buena Vista Tattoo club stand out from the similarly spectacular German tattoo scene. Instead of focusing on tattooing technique or technical prowess, they decided to make a statement. They took heavy inspiration from fine art collages (the type of art piece, not the type of school) and the modern art movement, focusing on both realism and abstractness simultaneously. After years of work, Simone Pfaff and Volko Merschky combined typography, photography, and grunge together to form what we know as trash polka tattoos. A little bit of lidocaine cream went a long way towards allowing artists the ability to create these complex types of tattoos.


Trash Polka Tattoo Style

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the trash polka tattoo style is a blend of many different art styles. The inspiration from black and white photography is the easiest style influence to spot. Classic photographs were often developed with high contrast in mind. This meant that the edges of figures and objects would be rimmed in white, making it easier to distinguish everything in the absence of color. Trash polka tattoos take this realistic style and run with it. There are no solid black lines except in the form of abstract shapes or silhouettes. Most objects are black or close to black, with white depicting lit areas or outlines. With some good aftercare and the best tattoo lotion out there, trash polka tattoos retain their solid shapes.

The abstract or grungy part of the tattoo style draws inspiration from modern graffiti. The dripping paint and stenciled shapes with solid colors draw to mind graffiti artists such as Banksy. Although graffiti is considered a nuisance to property owners and city maintenance, graffiti has historically told the story of the lower classes and the public opinion. The published works of writing that tend to be passed down are trimmed and edited to fit the prim and proper picture of that particular era’s preferences. Much of what we know of ancient cultures and lost cultures comes not from their written novels, but from the graffiti scrawled on murals or bathhouse walls. It has always contained unregulated speech—the perfect vector for making a statement.

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By Dimos Karagiannis


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By Dimos Karagiannis


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The mix of these two very different styles resembles a fine art collage, making the style of trash polka tattoos unique in the inked world. To compound that look, typography that resembles the Times New Roman or Courier of classic typewriters is the preferred way of adding text. Quotes appear to be excerpts from newspapers, words appear to be a mishmash of styles, and letters are a little rough around the edges to give the impression of slightly smudged ink.

Speaking of ink, only red ink and black ink are allowed to be used. This mimics classical printing, where red and black ink are the easiest two colors to print. This restriction makes it easy to spot trash polka tattoos from a mile away. The term ‘polka’ in trash polka tattoos refers to a shape that is both the most prominent and least prominent part of the tattoo designs—the polka dots. Well, that and its ties to the nearby Poland! In English, these dots are called halftones, and they add on to the collage theme. Halftones are used when printers are limited in the colors of ink they can use. They mesh colors using small polka dots of varying sizes placed next to each other without literally mixing the colors (which could ruin the printing machines). It also drastically cuts down on expensive ink consumption. The appearance of halftones is an immediate tell of a piece of art made after the 1920s or so—fitting the narrative of modern art perfectly.

All of these elements together give both a retro and a new age feel to the trash polka tattoo style! If you’re an artist, grab a tattoo chair or tattoo table and get ready to learn all about this new style!


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By Bamboo Tattoo Studio, Ontario


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By Nic Westfall, San Francisco


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Trash Polka Tattoo Artists

Pfaff and Merschky are still working at Buena Vista Tattoo Club, and the only way to get an authentic tattoo is to travel to Würzburg to commission them. If you are a huge fan of modern art, trash polka, or tattooing in general, the trip is worth it. Trash polka is the defining style of the current era of tattooing. Of course, there is no way it will overtake traditional or new school tattoo styles, but when people think of the turn of the century, they’re going to name trash polka as one of the defining tattoo styles. Getting an authentic trash polka tattoo is like getting a piece of history inked.

If you can’t make the trip to Germany, it’s not the end of the world. Many tattoo artists are starting to emulate the trash polka style, and for most seasoned artists, the style is easy to imitate. As long as it uses red and black ink, incorporates both abstract shapes and photorealism, and avoids cartoonish outlines, the design counts as a trash polka tattoo. Just like their fine art collage inspiration, trash polka tattoos make statements and inspire. If you have a drive in life, there is no better way to depict that than a trash polka tattoo.



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By Charles Huurman, Cork


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By Charles Huurman, Cork


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