The over-arching term “tribal tattoo” refers to an enormous group of styles and histories – throughout world history, tribes all over the world have practiced some form of body marking or another. The practice dates back at least 5,200 years, known to us through the existence of a frozen mummy from that era that sports tattoos. Most commonly, the significance of a tribal tattoo would have been:
To identify the wearer as a member of the tribe.
To make warriors more intimidating.
To represent status, either socio-economically or as a kind of badge system; meritorious or heroic actions may result in a tattoo signifying the act, etc. They may also signify genealogy and one’s place within the family.
To mark a rite of passage or coming of age.
To serve a religious or magical purpose.
Tattoos are a wordless language, and tribal tattoos transcended the language barriers of local communities. Today, too, the enduring legacy of tribal tattoos may stem in part from a desire to belong to a group in some vague sense.
What we might call “modern” or “Western” tribal tattoo has its roots in Maori and Celtic tribal patterns, though it’s often notably more jagged and angular than either. It is not associated with a particular historical tribe and is largely decorative in nature. For this reason, the artist or person with the tattoo is free to provide their own meaning to the design, if they so choose. It has been suggested that this modern form of tribal tattoo, in fact, marks its wearer as a part of a brand new tribe, one that is being newly created in the present day, a culture of those who appreciate this similar tattoo aesthetic.
Modern tribal tattoos may be worn anywhere on the body and by both men and women. Typically, feminine designs are more curved, using thinner lines, and feel less “aggressive” and intimidating. However, there are no rules in art, and some women choose designs that are much more imposing.
Fans of modern tribal tattoos tend to identify with the aspect of the “warrior markings” found in traditional tribal forms more than any other. Tribal tattoo designs really can change a person’s entire physical profile, giving them a fierce, powerful look.
The modern English word “tattoo” is derived from the Samoan word tatau, and throughout the Pacific islands were traditions of body marking. The term “Polynesian” does not refer to a single tribe, of course, but many Pacific island locales, including Samoa, Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, and dozens of others, each with their own tattoo culture. Often the differences between styles are difficult to spot or have overlapped; as time goes on the lines become less clear and the styles intermingle. Indeed, it’s not unusual to see someone design a “Maori tribal tattoo”, for example, that bears no resemblance at all to traditional Maori designs.
Samoans, both men and women, received tattoos, especially on the lower body. Even delicate places like the genitals were often tattooed. These tattoos are often dense, covering large swaths of skin in ink with only minimal exposed skin.
For the Maori people, tattoos were called moko and were also received on the legs and buttocks, but perhaps most famously on the face. Like the Samoans, Maori tattoo designs are used to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood, as well as for social and familial identification.
Shapes suggesting the god Tiki, turtles, and sharks are among a few reoccurring design elements in Polynesian tattoo designs, including Hawaiian tattoo designs. Hawaiian tattoo was one of the earliest to influence the direction of the modern western tribal tattoo design, unsurprising given Hawaii’s status as a United States state.
Celtic warriors were said to have been heavily tattooed, but historical records do not include actual drawings or descriptions of celtic tattoo designs. It is reasonable enough to presume that the art they put on their bodies was at least partially related to the art they created elsewhere, in terms of jewelry, manuscript decoration, and other artifacts. From this we get the idea of the knotwork that has become so recognizable as a cornerstone of the Celtic tattoo tradition.
Unlike many other tribal designs, Celtic designs are unlikely to have terminating endpoints. True Celtic knots are self-contained loops, and Celtic tribal designs will usually follow suit.
Increasingly popular are designs that incorporate tribal tattoo designs and other images. For example, using tribal shapes instead of feathers for a pair of wings, or to form a dragon, barbed wire arm band, or virtually any other shape.
Among the most common tribal tattoos are simple armbands, a stylish way to ink a small portion of the body. Most are simply black and solid, but more and more designs incorporate color and other images within or surrounding the band for added flair and a unique twist.
Most tribal tattoos do not incorporate color, and some even suggest that “true” tribal tattoos can never have color. But evolution in art has produced what we refer to as “tribal” today – the link to historical tribes is tenuous at best, and with this knowledge more designers are adding color, often for striking effects.
Another variation uses tribal lines (with or without color) to create specific shapes. This particular design is a Native American bird, but anything goes. Some designs are more immediately obvious than others. This method illustrates a good point about tribal tattoos (and tattoo design in general) – that it’s a creative medium, and thinking outside the box can produce a tattoo more unique and expressive (and ultimately, more personally meaningful) than simply following the pack.
These days, what we slip under the umbrella term of “tribal” is often more about a look and a style than a connection to a tribe or a historical legacy, and this is probably part of the reason that tribal designs are so readily adaptable and so often modified by artists to gain new and surprising artistic effects.