As soon as someone says “tribal tattoos” odds are most of you already have an image of that person in your mind. It’s also very likely that you don’t think highly of the mental image you’ve conjured at the mention of a tribal tattoo. There’s a reason for that and we’ll get into that shortly, but first we’d like to encourage you to take a moment and learn about the one of the oldest most misunderstood art forms in the tattoo world.
Tribal Tattoos and Their History
Tribal tattoos get their bad reputation due to their resurgence in popular culture thanks to the “back to nature” mindset that began in the late 80’s and became a trademark of Generation X. Gen X-ers, particularly in the late 80’s and early 90’s, delved deep into indigenous cultures around the world. They co-opted a number of cultural assets ranging from clothing styles to food and, eventually, body modification which included tattoos and “gauged” earrings or “plugs”. The most important aspect of this cross-cultural adoption was the introduction of tribal tattooing to the modern American counter-culture that ultimately eliminated the historical and cultural ties between traditional tribal tattoos and the people choosing to have these designs tattooed on them.
The Origin and Tradition of Tattooing in Island Cultures
The style of tattooing commonly referred to as “tribal tattoos” has an incredibly long tradition reaching back over thousands of years. Many of the tattoo styles we are familiar with today were rooted in tribal tattooing in one form or another. Tribal tattooing began as a style of tattooing that is (or was, at least) unique to a particular culture or sub-culture, typically as a means of differentiating themselves from other local tribes or cultural groups.
The purpose of the tattoo in tribal culture
Of all the remaining primitive tribal tattoos left in the modern world, the styles we associate with the term are really a bastardized blend of traditional Maori, Polynesian, and Samoan tattoo styles. In their respective cultures, these tattoos were used to identify wearers as members of a specific tribe, displayed their social status, and in some cases were employed in medicinal and religious rituals. The figures and shapes used in these tribal tattoo styles were often representative of animals or other elements of nature and tribal life. Depending on the design elements used, these tattoos told a story. The tattoos of warriors often included animal and other nature-inspired designs that illustrated the warrior’s strength and prowess in battle. Images that represent the sea were also common as all of the cultures associated with tribal tattooing have traditionally lived near the ocean.
Tattoos before there were tattoo “guns”
The tattoos of indigenous cultures were typically created using only black ink and were implemented using a hollow needle made from local objects including bamboo, bone, porcupine quill, and other natural materials. Some cultures expanded their palates according to the availability of local pigments, often including red or yellow pigments, though most tribal decoration was done in black.
Traditional tribal tattoos: distinct styles
Most of us are familiar with the modern tribal tattoo, but you might be surprised to see how little the modern tattoo style resembles the traditional artwork. While modern tribal tattoos adhere to a barbed, flowing, and often “tangled” looking design, traditional artwork in the tribal style was incredibly varied. The variety of styles from one tribe to another and from culture to culture were necessary to serve their original intended purpose: to help give the wearer a distinct physical appearance that could quickly and easily associate them to a specific tribe.
Tribal styles often included short line elements, circles, patterns utilizing lines and/or chevrons, and in some cases large sections of solid black bands akin to the modern tattoo style called “blackwork”. All of these elements could be employed or just a single element depending on the tribe. Placement on the body was also of importance and could symbolize the wearer’s status within the tribe. It was very common to see patterns that formed a sort of “woven” look using a combination of patterns that set wearers apart not unlike the tartan plaids of Scottish clans.
Modern tribal tattoo designs
By and large, the tribal tattoo in modern culture is purely aesthetic. In addition to losing their original symbolism, modern tribal tattoos often incorporate modern images, designs, and subject matter, but employ the flowing shapes common to the traditional tribal tattoo style. There are a growing number of people who choose to wear these tattoos to celebrate their own cultural heritage, as well. The wearing of these tattoos by people who are not culturally or historically tied to them has tainted the art in the eyes of the general public, though those within tribal communities still respect them for their original purposes. In tattoo cultural at large, the modern tribal tattoo is mostly considered trite, a tired trope for the artistically ignorant or unimaginative. It’s not necessarily true for all tribal tattoo wearers, but its a common enough occurrence to warrant its widespread belief.
Don’t be “that guy”– learn more about tribal tattooing?
Tattoo.com has a fantastic article that examines the Tahitian practice of tattooing. It covers the history of this particular form of tattooing as well as adding some insight into how the tradition has survived in modern times. If you’re a real tattoo nerd, or an aspiring anthropologist, it’s a great read.