Tribal tattoos refer to the tattoos of tribal, warrior races and modern derivative designs that are influenced by ancient art. The modern word “tattoo” has its origins in the tribal Samoan word “tatau”. The first written reference to tribal tattoos is in the journal of Joseph Banks, an 18th century biologist and naturalist who travelled with Captain Cook aboard the HMS Observer. Banks wrote, “I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly” and described how Pacific Islanders marked their skins with inks.. The tribal tattoos described by Joseph Banks had by then been a tradition of the Samoan people for centuries.
The History of Tribal Tattoos
Tribal tattoos have existed for centuries, as indelible markings inked into the skin. On every continent, evidence has been found that reveals that tattoos were a part of almost every ancient culture. Tribal peoples all over the world created tattoo cultures independently of each other, which means that each continent has its own unique style of body art. Sometimes these ancient body markings used inks and powders to give the tattoos color, but often the tattoos were a form of decorative scarification.
Great Britain takes its name from the art of tattooing. The tribal name Briton can be translated literally as people of the designs. The Picts, another ancient British tribe, were named so because of their tattoos. Picts means painted people. The art of tattooing became less popular during the rise of Christianity in the west. It was only when Europeans began to explore the world, discovering tattoo art on other continents, that tattoos once again became popular in western countries. Up until the late 20th century, tattoos were considered taboo in many European social classes, and were worn mostly by sailors, prisoners and soldiers. Traditional British tattoos that are popular these days generally take their form from Celtic designs. The Celts were an ancient European race made up of hundreds of tribes stretching from the British Isles across the Mediterranean. The art work of these tribes is very popular as tattoo designs, especially the Celtic cross and Celtic knots. These lattice work designs are often worked into image of trees, birds or symbols to add an ancient, Celtic essence to the design.
The majority of tribal tattoos that are popular today have their origins in the tattoos of island people such as the Samoans. Samoan tattoos are divided into two groups, pe’a for male tattoos and malu for female tattoos. The Samoans use tattoos as a way to continue their cultural and ethnic traditions. Pe’a are large, intricate tattoos that can cover most of a man’s lower body, from the waist to the knees. Malu are not as large or as dark. These tattoo designs have existed for centuries, passed down from one generation to another.
Mayan tribal tattoos are also a popular modern tattoo choice. The Maya civilization stretched from Mexico to Guatemala, an area known as Mesoamerica. Mayan tattoos were less abstract than most tribal tattoos. The Maya people preferred to tattoo iconic art works of animals, ghosts and demons into their skin. These same designs could be seen carved into buildings and ceramics.
Types of Tribal Tattoos
Tribal tattoos come in a variety of styles, depending on where in the world the design came from, what the design means and whether the design is an abstract pattern or a representation of an animal or idea. Some tribal tattoos consist of swirls and tapered lines, whereas others are made up of a series of dots. Some tribal tattoos, especially those of South American origin, are stylized depictions of spirits and animals.
Tribal tattoos generally consist of thick, dark lines in a dark ink such as navy blue, brown or black. Black ink is the most popular color for tribal tattoos as it creates the greatest contrast, giving the finished tattoo a clean, crisp edge. Tribal tattoos are most popular among men, especially among athletes and fighters. The most common areas of the body to have tribal tattoos inked are the back, chest and arms. Most tribal tattoos are large and masculine, entirely dominating an area of the body. Linear tribal tattoos often don’t work well with other tattoos, and so a tribal tattoo is difficult to cover up or add to. Once the tattoo has been inked, little more can be done to it except to have it removed or to re-ink it and refresh the color.
The Meaning of Tribal Tattoos
Tribal style tattoos are easy to design, as they are made up of a series of curved lines and shapes. Because they are easy to design, there are thousands of tribal style tattoo designs available. Many of these designs are for purely decorative purposes, meaning that they have no deeper symbolism. However, a tattoo can have meaning to the owner, so if someone chooses a meaningless tattoo design and gives it a purpose; to compliment another tattoo or as a way to accentuate a body feature, then the tattoo has been given a meaning that is personal to the wearer.
Traditional tribal tattoos have deeper meanings, representing a life event, an achievement, a social status or a spiritual totem. Tattoos found on male mummies in the tomb of Seti show symbols of Neith, a war goddess who led men into battle. Tribal tattoos were often markings to show a man’s status as a warrior, or protective symbols that invoked the watchful eye of a benevolent god or goddess.
In Africa, tribal tattoos were markings to identify which tribe a person or warrior belonged to, and to mark rites of passage. Ceremonies to mark rites of passage would often include ritualistic tattooing. These tribal tattoos would sometimes start as a single tattoo on a boy and grow into a full body tattoo over the years as the design was added to each year to mark the growing man’s achievements in life.
Modern tribal tattoos are often chosen by male athletes, fighters and body builders, as the organic shapes and thick, masculine lines emphasize the musculature of a man’s body. These are the markings of warriors of old, making tribal tattoos a perfect way to honor the masculinity of ancestors and heroes of times gone by.
A tribal tattoo is a bold statement of physical strength or a spiritual attachment to a culture or country. Tribal tattoo designs come in a variety of sizes and styles, and like all tattoo design subjects, the best designs are those that are crisp and clear, and contain a personal meaning to the wearer of the tattoo.