The history of tribal tattoos is rooted as deep as during the beginning of civilization. Tribal tattoos are evident in the historical accounts of different places in the world.
Modern tribal tattoos draw their inspiration from these ancient designs and are mostly derived from ancient tribal art. Cultures that originated this style of tattooing are the Aztec and Borneo cultures, Samoa, Hawaii, India, Polynesia and the Maori people of New Zealand.
The main components of tribal tattooing are solid black dots and lines, usually meant for ritualistic or sacred places. Some modern artists incorporate shades and colors to bring a little spice to the design.
Different cultures have their own techniques and designs for their tattoos, and some still use their art to depict social status, family identification and rites of passage. In certain cultures, tribal tattoos are used for what people believe are medicinal benefits, while in others, they are drawn to represent a rite of passage.
History of Tribal Tattoos
Otzi the Iceman is probably the most famous man in the world of tribal tattoos. Otzi lived over 5000 years ago in a surprisingly advanced society. His body was found between Austria and Italy and it was covered in 61 simple tattoos, all consisting of horizontal or vertical lines. Each line was found to have been created by making small incisions and tracing charcoal.
The plants and herbs that were discovered with Otzi were notably medicinal and interestingly enough, the tattoos on his body lined up with acupuncture points. These are hints into how life was during the earlier stages of the Bronze Age, and he offered the world an exciting insight into how the first tribal tattoos were used, probably as a remedy for illness or pain.
Mummies have also been discovered with primitive examples of tribal tattoos from different locations across the globe, which date back to a variety of ages.
Some mummies in Egypt were discovered with tattoos, with the oldest displaying a simple pattern of dots around the lower abdomen. A more recent discovery, however, showed a preserved body that had more intricate designs such as animals, lotus flowers and the eye of Horus.
The woman, believed to be a priestess, is believed to have been mummified between 1070 and 1300 BCE. The ink on the priestess’ body is an eye-opener into the ritualistic and sacred symbology of the time, as well as the ethnology behind various communities’ tattoo practices.
Tribal Tattoo Artists
Whang-od Oggay, a Kalinga tattoo artist from Buscalan in the Philippines, is probably the most famous tribal tattooist. She turned 103 years old and is the last mambabatok. Mambabatok tattoos are composed of dots, lines and abstract symbols.
Haivarasly, or otherwise known as Aivaras Lee, uses the same graphic elements as Whang-od. He also uses large areas of black and shapes, creating larger work which often takes the form of bodysuits.
The interest in tribalist tattoos has been continually developing through the 1990s to the present day. Many tattoo artists either create their own interpretation of folk art or stick to the original art form.
Tribal tattoos cover a myriad of histories and cultures. Modern styles have emerged while many artists continue this age-old tradition. It is, however, essential to research the background and history of whichever tribe you wish to emulate your tattoo from. You may find yourself disrespecting a particular culture or tribe through cultural misappropriation.
Styles of Tribal Tattoos
Along with cave painting and pottery, tribal tattooing is one of the oldest surviving art forms of humanity. They are found all over the world and can date back thousands of years.
Clearly, mankind has always had a deep need to express themselves and find meaning, which was then reflected through wall paintings on caves and tattoos on bodies.
Tattoos still continue to be a medium of artistic self-expression that’s informed by a multitude of folk arts and aesthetics. Tattoos have grown in popularity so much so that they have become a symbol of contemporary pop culture.
This is clearly evident in a world experiencing constant advancements in technology and the emergence of an online culture where materials, techniques and information are freely shared.
Artists, however, continue to push the limit while remaining true to the black lines, dots and abstract shapes. They form new symbols by merging their own personal style with influences from ancient tattooing.
Types of Tribal Tattoos
There are different types of tribal tattoos and we will highlight six of them:
Samoan Animal Abstract Style
This is probably the most popular tribal tattoo style. Samoans have a set of designs that are dedicated to both genders. The male designs are usually inked towards the lower parts of the body to symbolize protection from wild animals and the sea. They are generally vast and less intricate than female designs.
The Marquesan cross, sun rays and ocean swirls are examples of popular Samoan styles.
Maori Face Tattoos
According to Maori culture, the head is a sacred part of the human being; therefore, many tattoos were drawn on the head. For one to have a face tattoo, it symbolized social status, rank, prestige and a rite of passage to the chosen few.
Maori tattoos are so intricate that no tattoos are alike. The Maori artists carve shapes and figures onto the skin with chisels and knives so be aware that should you get the Maori tattoo done by a native, it could be quite painful.
Celtic Cross and Knots
The Picts are an ancient Celtic-speaking tribe from Scotland. Their name is literally translated to “painted people.” The tribe was popular before the state religion was taken over by Christianity and tattoos were then thought of as taboo.
The fact that prisoners and societal rebels have been the highly common tattoo wearers these past two centuries has helped to enforce that taboo exclusion.
Celtic tribal design is characterized by its cross and knots. Birds and trees are also represented in ancient Celtic culture. One can sense a more profound religious influence when you come across Celtic tattoos, such as those designed with a pair of wings.
Iban’s Floral Inspired Motifs
The Iban tattoos draw a lot of spiritual energy from animals, plants and humans. The Dayak-Iban people have made the floral motif common in their culture.
The Iban tattoo is normally placed on the back of the shoulder, chest or legs and is normally drawn in a large size using pitch-black color. Drawing a sizeable Iban tattoo on the skin could take about 8 hours.
Eye of Horus
Tattoos were a sign of social status in ancient Egypt. Warriors and those who had noble blood could wear tattoos. Where the tattoos were placed on the body also gave the body art a deeper significance.
The Eye of Horus, as a tattoo, is inspired by an ancient Egyptian belief that gives the symbol the ability to protect the wearer against evil spirits. The ancient Egyptians were not restrictive against tattoos and drew other religious symbols such as Neith, the Goddess of War, normally seen on Egyptian men, as evidenced by the archaeological findings of mummies.
Modern Tribal Tattoos
Modern tribal tattoos have a crisp appearance with large thick lines that emphasize the muscles on the body. Modern Tribal Tattoos are masculine in appearance and are typically worn by male gym buffs, wrestlers and athletes.
The designs that dominate this style involve tigers, centipedes, dragons, spiders or a phoenix. You could, however, go for more abstract designs such as swirls and curves, geometric patterns, bicep sleeves, vertical masks and shields.
Choosing a Suitable Tribal Design
The critical thing to consider when selecting a tribal tattoo design is the contours of your body. The lines of the tattoo should flow with the shape and movements of the body part and accent it.
Another thing you need to think about is how simple or intricate you want the design.
Men tend to go for chunky lines and pointy shapes, whereas women prefer swirly patterns and thinner lines.
There are no specific restrictions as to where on the body you can place a tribal tattoo. Those who prefer to have larger tribal tattoos usually have them done on their backs. Men generally prefer to have them on the upper back while the ladies prefer the lower region.
Some of the smaller tribal tattoos look good on the wrists, fingers or side of the hand. For those who want to channel the tribal warrior energy, the feet and legs would prove to be good options. People who want a tribal tattoo that’s as large as a warrior’s body armor prefer to get the tattoo done on their chests.
All tribal tattoos, in the end, carry a particular significance that applies to a particular culture/ tribe. It is crucial to observe respect at all times because they bear physical strength or spiritual energy to some indigenous cultures. Because of that, choose a tribal tattoo design that mirrors your own beliefs so that it will be meaningful to you and the people around you.
Tribal Tattoo Examples
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