Trash Polka is, hands down, the most recognizable and unique tattoo style out there. With heavy influences from fine art and bold graphics, it’s a style of ink that’s slowly gaining traction in mainst...

How To Design Trash Polka Tattoos

Trash Polka is, hands down, the most recognizable and unique tattoo style out there. With heavy influences from fine art and bold graphics, it’s a style of ink that’s slowly gaining traction in mainstream Western tattooing. We’re providing an in-depth look into this tattoo style, from what it is, to what makes a design Trash Polka, to where to start with a design idea. Read on to find out everything you ever wanted to know about Trash Polka tattoos.

What is Trash Polka?

If there’s any tattoo style that stands alone as one of a kind, it’s Trash Polka. It’s all about bold patterns, heavy brush strokes, and chaos. Trash Polka tattoos have a very recognizable color scheme – they’re only done using black and red ink. Some tattoos use Trash Polka inspiration, substituting the red for another color, but a true Trash Polka piece is black and red. These designs are created with an overall theme in mind, much like a painting, but created as a killer collage-style tattoo incorporating various elements of the overarching theme.

Full Body Trash Polka Tattoo

Trash Polka was created in Würzburg, Germany in 1998 by graphic designers-turned-tattoo masters Simone Pfaff and Volko Merschky at Buena Vista Tattoo Club. Serbian artist Milan explains that “both of them are primarily designers (Merschky studied interior design, and Pfaff studied graphic design), who began tattooing. They [basically] decided to combine their talents from outside of tattoo studio into the new and unique style”.

Merschky himself describes Trash Polka as “realism and trash; the nature and the abstract; technology and humanity; past, present, and future; opposites that they are trying to urge into a creative dance to harmony and rhythm in tune with the body”. Trash Polka and its description are unofficially trademarked by the duo, but this unique and bold tattoo style is steadily gaining international attention.

Jero, a tattoo artist in Madrid, first heard about Trash Polka when he was living in the UK. He noticed a new tattoo style popping up, “…I started noticing this style in the early 2000’s; its chaotic style always grabbed my attention”. The eye catching juxtaposition focused artwork made its way across the pond throughout that decade. Fort Lauderdale tattooist Mully first became aware of the style around 2010, thanks to the Internet, when he, “came across the artwork of Volko & Simone…and fell in love immediately”. He has an affinity for European artists and the “looser, painterly style of tattooing”.

Key Elements of a Trash Polka Design

Trash Polka is like an abstract fine art collage on the skin, and there are some key elements that need to be involved in order to qualify as a Trash Polka tattoo design. These are things you want to keep in mind if you’re coming up with a design idea in this style. Milan describes Trash Polka as a “combination of graphic design elements, lettering, painting, illustrations and photos. Combination of realistic and abstract. It really depicts duality, versatility, antagonism, but also similarity between totally different nature of elements and styles. It’s quite paradoxical, but the paradox is also statement figure which combine all the elements into unity”.

Jero explains that it’s “the mix of black and red colours, graphic designs, lettering, artistic layers – that, combined together, make a full of sense composition. There [are] no rules, but they have to have [a] harmony between them”. These key elements are simple, but layered together as a whole, they create a fully complex work of art.

Mully breaks it down a little bit more, elaborating that the central component of a Trash Polka design is “…a main image, which can be anything from a skull, [an] eye, or even as random as a telephone pole….This image is then contrasted with large fields of shading and abstract coloring, using black ink and another color, usually red, giving it a real graphic design feel”.

To give the design an abstract look, Mully will “use halftones or stencil in some type of geometric pattern, and [draw] in some flow marks, so that the tattoo consumes the area of the body that we are tattooing”. The background details he does freehand while following the artistic inspiration of the tattoo and its overall theme. When prepping the design for inking, he’ll often “blow up certain words to make them stand out, and apply the stencils using different pieces here and there, [kind of] like a ransom note”. These individual pieces all come together to form a cohesive Trash Polka piece.

Where to Start with Your Idea

Skull and Time Trash Polka Design

Coming up with a tattoo design idea is the toughest part of the process, especially if you aren’t sure where to start. Mully suggests that you do some research, but look outside the typical search ideas, “…as you don’t want to replicate another tattoo.Think about something that can portray a story or emotion. Think of a main concept or image, and if there are words, song lyrics, a quote or date”. He adds that text can create a graphic effect that ties in well to the abstract essence of these kinds of designs.

Jero suggests a slightly different approach for coming up with ideas for this tattoo style, “Personally, I recommend [clients] to write down their ideas; Trash Polka designs are a great way of expressing your thoughts, and mixing ideas together”. The placement of your tattoo needs to be considered as well, “where [it] will go is key to make a great Trash Polka design that flows with the body, and doesn’t look like a stamp”. Think of the area where your tattoo will go as the canvas for a painting, and what story you want that painting to tell. From there, you can add specific elements or phrases that are meaningful to you and the story or theme of the overall design.

Things to Consider with Trash Polka Designs

There are things that you need to consider if you’re looking into getting a Trash Polka design. For one thing, Trash Polka artwork isn’t geared toward small designs, but it’s not impossible to have Trash Polka present in small tattoos, as Mully explains, “Generally Trash Polka tattoos are larger scale, but you can have a small tattoo done with a graphic look to give it the trash polka feel. I always tell my clients to get tattoos to fit the area”. If you want a smaller scale Trash Polka tattoo, don’t get it on your back, for instance, as “this is the largest canvas on the body, so a small tattoo looks out of place and lost in this space”. Jero agrees, saying that there are ways to incorporate the Trash Polka style into other areas, “I think [it] is better for larger scale work, but I have done some simple pieces and gap fillers that…look awesome as well”. Niko, a tattoo artist from Quebec, has a slightly different view. He thinks the smallest you should go with a Trash Polka design is “pieces [are] possible in half arms [or] the back in full…[it’s] better not to do [this style] small “because there are details to do”.

Skull and Compass Trash Polka Tattoo

Composition and harmony in the design are important, according to Jero, so he recommends taking photos of the part of your body where you want your tattoo to go, take the ideas or thoughts you have written down, and work with the artist on the design. Once he has a visual of the area, he will “start from there, layering objects, typography, accents and images”. Niko pays close attention to each detail of the design as well, to get the perfect “mix of realism and abstract…the geometric elements (round points, brush stroke lines, etc.)”. Depending on how bold you go with each component makes “the character [of] the tattoo more or less aggressive”.

Designing a true Trash Polka tattoo is a delicate and somewhat complex process, and isn’t a style that every tattoo artist is accustomed to. It’s important to find an artist who’s experienced with the style. Mully advises potential Trash Polka clients to “…pick the right artist for the job. To the right artist, this style will flow naturally, and if someone is not fluent in this style it will look too stiff or just messy”. He suggests finding a tattoo artist who has a “looser approach to their tattoos, as Trash Polka tattoos don’t fit ‘inside the box’”. Milan reiterates this idea, explaining that there are a number of things an artist needs to consider in this design process:

Considering [the] variety of different techniques which are used, it’s primary goal [is] to differentiate main elements from the ‘trash’ of Trash Polka. To create certain hierarchy between elements, and to find a way to accentuate important segments of the tattoo, but not to exclude them from the entire composition by overdoing it. Not necessarily, but usage of one color as accent upon grayscale layer, is usually quite valuable tool.

Having an artist that understands all of the complexities behind designing a Trash Polka tattoo is key, so ask question to ensure that you’re matched with the right artist for this style.

Most Popular Trash Polka Designs

Trash Polka tattoos are tailored to each person and made to be unique, so no two designs will ever be the same. Each one tells a different story, so it’s tough to pick out typical designs for this tattoo style. That being said, some common elements for Trash Polka tattoos tend to be skulls, eyes, clocks, and birds. Common themes for Trash Polka tattoos include war, death, remembrance, time, beauty and nature.

Trash Polka tattoos are the most unique of all the tattoo styles, and are steadily becoming more recognized on the mainstream tattoo scene. There are key elements that must be present for a design to be considered Trash Polka, namely the two-tone colors, and the abstract, collage look. If you’re considering a Trash Polka design for your next tattoo, make sure you start by deciding where to put the ink, and what story you want to tell with the tattoo, then find a tattooist who’s experienced with Trash Polka tattooing. Keep in mind that, ideally, the Trash Polka tattoo style is geared toward large-scale pieces, but can be worked into smaller designs as well.

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