"Tribal tattoos" can mean two different things: permanent skin art practiced within a cultural context or the modern tattoos that pay homage to the original styles.
In the historical context, "tribal tattooing" referred to specific practices of unique cultural groups or smaller demographics within a culture. In modern tattooing, the word "tribal" is used very loosely. Originally it meant designs that were replicas of specific ethnographic designs, but now it's become an umbrella term, replacing the previous phrase "blackwork," for bold, graphic, monochromatic designs often of an abstract nature.
This article will show you some information on the history of tribal tattoos—the styles of Borneo, Polynesia, Hawaii, and other places around the world—and explore the modern stylizations of these designs.
Bornean tattooing is the style that is the basis for most modern tribal-style tattooing.
I read a quote in one of Ed Hardy's tattoo magazines that said there were more punks in LA with Bornean tattoos on them than actual tribesmen in the jungle these days.
I wouldn't be surprised. The work of Leo Zulueta, as inspired by a notebook of Bornean work given to him by Ed Hardy, has changed the face of the American tattoo style. It's almost taken it over. Last summer, talking with tattooists in Vegas, each one lamented "the stupid tribal armband" when asked what tattoos they got requests for often.
The forearm tattoo above is a combination of two traditional Bornean shapes: one is a dog and one is a scorpion. I know my friend just liked how they looked and liked how the two together were as long as his forearm. This style of tattoo holds up very well over time, as the bold lines and simple coloring are less prone to fading and blurring than subtly shaded work with lots of colors.
Marquesan-Style Backpiece in Progress
This is a picture I took of a man who's in the process of having his whole back tattooed. The work being applied appears to be based on designs found in the Marquesas Islands.
The tattooist is working from bottom to top so that bleeding and weeping from freshly tattooed areas don't obscure the area he is working on.
Some sections of the design are outlined, meaning just the outline has been tattooed and healed. The two very dark and slightly shiny areas to the right of his spine are sections that have *just* been tattooed. The bits peeking out of the waistband of his leather jeans are tattooed areas that are already healed. A fullback piece takes many sessions spread out over weeks or months.
Maori Tattooing From New Zealand
The aboriginal people of New Zealand, the Maori, practiced some of the most distinctive tattooings in the world. Their culture evolved an extensive tradition of facial tattooing. These tribal patterns told everything about the wearer in a glance: family, social status, achievements, working skills, marriage and more. The influence of non-native culture nearly brought an end to these tattoo practices, but a small percentage of people have continued wearing traditional moko.
The Samoan Tattoos on the Rock
Dwayne Johnson, better known to wrestling and movie audiences as "The Rock," is not only the third generation in his family to go into professional wrestling, he's the third generation to get tattooed.
Both Johnson's grandfather and father wore traditional Samoan tattoos in their lives. The Rock now has a traditional Samoan half-sleeve, which wraps around his left shoulder and upper arm. The designs not only represent him and his family but his path in life and his protector gods as well.
The Rock also has a tattoo on his upper right arm. It's a bull emblem, which symbolizes his Zodiac birth sign of Taurus.
Traditional Hawaiian Tattooing
Like most of the Pacific Rim cultures, Hawaii had a tradition of tattooing that has faded through contact with Western culture. The designs had a lot of geometric elements and were a monochromatic black against skin tone. More elaborate tattoos were done for the upper and royal classes. One particular ancient Hawaiian custom was a type of tattoo done to honor the dead: a person who was grieving would have two rows of parallel dots tattooed on their tongue as a sign of their mourning.
You'll find lots of pages about the back tattoo worn by Red Hot Chili Pepper singer Anthony Kiedis. Some call it an Incan falcon; some say it's an Aztec design.
My research leads me to believe it's not any of those, but a Haida Thunderbird. I can say with more certainty that it was tattooed by Henk Schiffmacher, aka Hanky Panky, an Amsterdam tattooist. The Peppers collectively hung out in Schiffmacher's tattoo studios and all got work from him.
Kiedis has a variety of tattoo art that is Native American, in homage to his partial heritage. He's got Indian chief portraits on both upper arms, as well as stylized tribal armbands and dagger-like forearm tattoos.
Do YOU have any tribal-style tattoos?
Tattoos in the Movies
Cool tattoos are a mainstay of post-Apocalypse fiction, including in the science fiction-horror-action movie Doomsday, set in the post-infection world of northern Britain. As usual, the bad guys have all the best tattoos.
In From Dusk Til Dawn, George Clooney plays Seth Gecko, a professional thief on the lam who winds up confronting a barful of vampires down in Mexico. For most of the movie, you see a bit of a tribal-style tattoo peeking out of the collar of his jacket.
Gecko stays in that jacket, no matter what the carnage, until the last five minutes of the movie. At that point, you get to see that the little bit is just the very tip of a single full-sleeve tattoo. It's a modern tribal-style tattoo, a blackwork riff on a flame design. It was designed by tattooist Gil Montie and was painted on Clooney for filming, using makeup that had to be taken off with a kerosene-based makeup remover.
Tribal Tattoo Designs and Flash
Here are web sites and pages where you can see tribal tattoo designs, both free and for-pay, plus drawings and photos of tattoos from some lesser-known tribal traditions.