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Tribal Tattoo Meanings, Designs, and History

Updated on August 7, 2015
The meaning behind tribal tattoos
The meaning behind tribal tattoos | Source

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

A Polynesian tattoo
A Polynesian tattoo | Source

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.

Polynesian Tatau

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.

Polynesian-inspired tattoos
Polynesian-inspired tattoos | Source

Maori Moko

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 Maori moko design
A Maori moko design | Source

Haida Tattoos

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.

A Haida-inspired tattoo
A Haida-inspired tattoo | Source

Borneo Tattoos

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

A Polynesian tattoo
A Polynesian tattoo | Source

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.

Gallery of Tribal Designs

The thick black lines of a tribal-style tattoo are difficult to remove.
The thick black lines of a tribal-style tattoo are difficult to remove. | Source
Upper arm tattoo
Upper arm tattoo | Source
Upper arm tattoo
Upper arm tattoo | Source
Polynesian full-arm tattoo
Polynesian full-arm tattoo | Source
Polynesian-style tattoo design of a shark
Polynesian-style tattoo design of a shark | Source
A jewelry-like tribal tattoo for women. These tattoos are still given to adolescent girls in Nadapa.
A jewelry-like tribal tattoo for women. These tattoos are still given to adolescent girls in Nadapa. | Source

What Do You Think About Tribal Tattoo Meanings?

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      Wolverine1978 7 months ago

      In our western culture people get tattoos for the same reasons, they look good, they give a person some edge and individuality and stand them out from the crowd. End of.

      Whether that be a tribal piece, a phoenix from the ashes, a koi swimming upwards, a skull and a rose, and so on so forth.

      Some may say their tattoos represent strength or courage to overcome obstacles and all that hullaballoo. But the main focus of any ink is the appearance...... how they look. That's our society we live in. No one would want a tattoo that meant a lot but looked an absolute mess.

      So tribal art is just body art like any other tattoo. It embellishes and is ornamental for the wearer. You could attach some meaning to them like they are representing power or masculinity but I don't buy it. They look good, the sharp edges and spiral patterns are pleasing to the eye. No different than colourful dragons, or day of the dead tats. Its all the same ......

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      Madison 16 months ago

      Hi im rally really interested in tribal art I think it's so so beautiful and I found something I'm very interested in bit I don't want to go getting it if I don't know the meaning. Could you help me out and I'll send you the picture?

      Madisonmarie110@hotmail.com is My email.Thank you!

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      nancy navarro fajardo 2 years ago

      It's so incridible tattoo because all they body have it..!! :D

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      Gym freak  2 years ago

      Body building at moment and very strong dedicated to keeping fit but have weekend down point frew teenage histry known to be violent and respected one who care . Always finding possibalitys to earn ! For better

      Kinda tribal tat suits that character .. Any size ?

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      @gaz1 2 years ago

      Anonymous...tribal tattoos went out of FASHION in 2003. What a load of bullshit. It's not a shirt sleeve. That's like saying spiders web over the elbow or flower design tattoos are like bell bottoms or platform boots.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Im not hawaiian but my daughter is. Im wanting a tribel tattoo with her hawaiian name running down my leg. I'd like your help to design it. I want it to have meaning. We have over come so much. Her hawaiian name is Ka Pua Ala Oka Lani. Email me if u have any ideas at okalani2004@gmail.com. Aloha

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Tribal tattoos went out of fashion back in 2003. Unless you look and are built like Dwayne Johnson, you're going to look like a tool with one on your body.

      End Of Line.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: a fucking lion eating your leo zodiac...bam

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Its not pointless. its art. You choose to what you want to have on your body. just because it doesn't tell a story doesn't mean that its pointless -__-

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: If they hold no meaning theor point less

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      @zoel_zaing: Tribal tattoos hold so much meaning considering your obviously an ignorant person you obviously dnt u.derstand they way there made each different design holds a different meaning such as struggle and over coming a hard tolime in yohr life. The photos above are what we hawaiians call the haole version of tribal until you take the time to understand their meaning and beauty dnt go trashing the hawaiian art. Stupid ppl like u dnt even derve to get tattoos cus ur to busy judging the style of a different culter rather than learning about it.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      I want to get a tattoo next to my leo zodiac and I want know which tribal tattoo signifies being prideful.. anyone

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Agreed

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      zoel_zaing 4 years ago

      I think tribal tattoos are not too elegant and too flashy, especially with the back position, I prefer a simple tattoo but have meaning.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Tattoo does not always *have* to mean something. Deal with it.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      i don't understand what the meaning of these things sre email me at ticklemepink227@gmail.com if you can help me

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Celtic tattoos are better.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: The artistic value that western culture has put emphasis on tribal tatoos is what takes away from the history and meaning of its spiritual and religious nature of which is not based on art. It is based on Tribes and tradtions which the most bearers are not a part of.

      Example: A very artistic and detailed "Jesus dying on the Cross" piece tatted on a buddist who says it's an artistic expression of himself and how he goes through life without understand of it's history and deeper meaning. It's like reverse Blasphemy. One may be a great artist but one can also miss the understanding that the Tribe and its culture comes first.

      Anthony Keidis (Great Artist) - Empathic

      Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (Tribe Native) - Traditional

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: All art is a form of expression, regardless what channels used in doing so. To say tribal ink is not artistic, makes absolutely no sense. Perhaps the people who have them "get it" and understand its true artistic nature and perhaps you may "not get it" Not all art if for everyone. But to say it not artistic that is absurd. Maybe you simply do not appreciate the art form of tribal ink instead of saying it is not artistic.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      tribals are not artistic and just wretched because one they are just black lines and two most people who have them don't even know what they stand for

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      sex, drugs, badass

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      sex, drugs, badass

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Tribal tattoo design gallery Tribal Tattoos and Tribal Pictures

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      in depth look at tribal meanings. visit: http://www.kottura.com

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      workfromhome555 5 years ago

      Wonderful Lens! Love the information on tattoos..How to Remove Tattoo at Home

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      workfromhome555 5 years ago

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      Mary 6 years ago from Midwest

      I really like this kind of stuff. My daughter will love your lens. And bet ya she will be getting that mind of hers a working.

      Great lens.