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Tribal Tattoo Meanings, Designs, and History
Tribal Tattoo Meanings
Tribal tattoos have come to mean various things.
How is this possible?
First of all, consider where the word "tribal" comes from. It is an adjective that refers to things dealing with tribes. But it's likely that most people you know with a "tribal tattoo" aren't affiliated with a tribe. In this case, "tribal" refers more to the design or art style used in traditional tattoos in Polynesian and other cultures. This style of artwork may imitate the thick lines and geometric patterns while incorporating new elements.
Let's talk about the tribes that invented tribal tattoos.
The Origin and History
In ancient times, tribal tattoos were used:
- As a symbol that a person belonged to a certain tribe or social status.
- To express religious or spiritual belief.
- For self-protection, as camouflage in the woods.
- For medicinal purposes (a treatment similar to acupuncture, but leaving behind a pigment)
Cultures that used tattoos for these purposes were located all over the world. Now, modern tribal art usually adapts the styles of Aztec, Samoan, Polynesian, Indian, Hawaiian, Egyptian, Mayan, and Maori tattoos.
The word "tattoo" derives from the word "tatau" in Polynesian. All of the people living on Marquesan island in Polynesia were tattooed. They regarded the tattooed symbols as a form of language. Usually, the image was inspired by animals: for example, shark teeth represented protection, and shells meant wealth. Other common symbols included turtles, fish hooks, and lizards.
The Maori tribe, in New Zealand, had facial tribal tattoos called moko. Each one was unique, and they indicated high social status as well as the person's rank, job, and achievements. Male moko tattoos usually covered the whole face, while female versions usually only covered the area around the mouth and the chin.
Mokos represented the inner strength. This was because the Maori believed when you die, light will shine directly through you, and the tattoo will show who you are.
A Native American tribe called the Haida, who live on the Northwest coast of America, is known for their woodcarvings and tattoos of animals. The style of both the carvings and the tattoos are similar, and depict creatures such as beavers, fish, thunderbirds, and bears. The Haida believed that if you had a certain tattoo, you took on some of the strength of that animal. Therefore, the Haida style is forceful and masculine. The tattoos were also influenced by Native American astrology.
Borneo is a large island in Southeast Asia. Current political boundaries divide it between Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. The traditional tattoos of this region were symbols of protection and proof of achievement. They often depicted flowers, scorpions, spirals, dragons, or dogs in bold colors.
Tribal Tattoo Meanings Now
Today, tribal tattoos usually combine the styles of the origin tribes with modern images. While these tattoos once were signs of social status and achievement, now they are statements of individual artistic expression. And although modern designs still suggest some of the ancient or mythical qualities of the originals, the community no longer judges or classifies the tattoo owner by the symbols he or she uses.
Modern tribal tattoos usually have thick lines, dominated by or fully made in black. The design can be as simple or complex as you want. Nothing is considered wrong in making tribal tattoos. You will even find tribal tattoos with multiple colors or images of angels, fairies, butterflies, Chinese characters, stars, etc. The sky is the limit in terms of creativity.
Think twice or more before committing to a tribal tattoo, because the bold dark lines can be more difficult to remove. Learn as much as you can about the designs and their traditional meanings, to choose which one is the best for you.