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Tribal Tattoo: More Than Just Ink on Your Arm

Updated on June 4, 2013

Tattooing is something that has been going on all over the world for centuries. In fact, it was going on in the days of the Bible, as evident in a verse in Leviticus, forbidding God’s people from doing it. Despite that, the tribal tattoo is one of the most popular tattoos today.

The History of the Tattoo

The word “tattoo” comes from two combined words – “ta,” which means “to strike” and “tatau,” a Tahitian word which means “to mark something.” For centuries, tattoos were given to people for various reasons. In some cultures, they told others what your rank was in a particular society. In other cultures, tattoos can be a symbol of a certain religion or as a symbol of your bravery. Tattoos have also been used as marks for slaves and convicts, as punishment, and even for identification purposes for Nazi concentration camps. Tattoos have also been known to be given to animals for decorative purposes or for identification purposes, but this rarely occurs.

Polynesia: Perfecting the Tribal Tattoo

There are many cultures throughout history that have used the tribal tattoo as a means of identifying their people. The Polynesian culture uses the tribal tattoo a great deal and their tattoos are recognized as the most skillful and intricate of all tribal tattoos. The Polynesian tribal tattoo typically consists of complicated geometric designs that are updated and added to during a person’s lifetime. The goal of the Polynesian tribal tattoo is to cover the entire body by the time the person dies as this is a symbol of the person’s spirituality.  A far cry from butterfly tattoos!


The Hawaiian culture, which springs from Polynesia, takes great pride in their tribal tattoo art, which is also known as “kakau.” To the Hawaiians, a tribal tattoo is more than just decoration or distinction. They regard the tribal tattoo as a way to protect their health and their spiritual wellness. Their tattoos typically consist of elaborate patterns around a man’s face, arms, legs and even their torso. Hawaiian women also receive tattoos, but they are usually placed on the wrists, fingers, hands and even the tongue. OUCH!


Unfortunately, many Polynesian cultures do not practice the art of the tribal tattoo as much as they once did. As the western cultures moved in and merged with the Polynesians, the tribal tattoo was discouraged because the church forbade the art of tattooing. In places like Borneo, though, traditional tribal tattoos are still practiced in much the same way they have done them for thousands of years because the culture has had limited contact with the western culture and the outside world as a whole. It is usually this culture’s design that people think of when they refer to a tribal tattoo.

A tribal tattoo.  Many free tattoo designs are available online.  Or you can have someone make one for you!
A tribal tattoo. Many free tattoo designs are available online. Or you can have someone make one for you!

Choosing a Body Part

When deciding where to put your tribal tattoo, the location you choose can be just as important as the design of the tattoo. The arm is the most popular place for a tribal tattoo these days. You can get a tat that circles around the entire arm with a design as simple or complex as you choose. Due to the amount of muscle in the arm, this is also one of the least painful places to get a tattoo, which is why many first-timers get a tattoo here. If you want a tribal tattoo but you are a little bit of a chicken, the upper arm is ideal. The wrist is also gaining in popularity as a place for a tribal tattoo, but this may hurt your chances of getting a job in certain industries. Some people get tribal tattoos on their back. Guys typically get it on their upper back while women often get tribal tattoo designs on their lower back. The feet and ankles are also good places for tribal tats, but the area can be rather sensitive and should only be suggested to people who have had experience getting tattoos before. There are even some who choose to get a tribal tattoo in their genital region, but we won’t even touch that!

Today’s Tribal Tattoo: Historical or Hysterical?

There is no doubt you have seen a tribal tattoo on the arms of many people these days. A tribal tattoo used to have great significance to tribal people and it was like a badge of honor. But it has lost its meaning because so many people these days get it because it “looks cool.” Many people who get a tribal tattoo know nothing of its significance or its traditional heritage. Others, however, decide to get their tribal tattoo inked on their body as a way to recognize their ancestry. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is one celebrity who is proud of his heritage and has a tribal tattoo to recognize his Samoan ancestry. Mike Tyson is another celebrity with a tribal tattoo.

A tribal tattoo is a great way to display your heritage on your body. It has been done for thousands of years and it will probably continue for thousands more. Whether you decide to get one on your body for ancestral reasons or just for decoration, knowing the history of the design that you choose can make the tattoo just that much more exciting.

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