Tribal Tattoos

Updated on March 7, 2018

"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

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.

Marquesas-style back tattoo in progress
Marquesas-style back tattoo in progress

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 full backpiece 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 tattooing 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.

Samoan tattoos of The Rock
Samoan tattoos of The Rock

The Samoan Tattoos of 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.

Haida-style tattoo by Hanky Panky, worn by RHCP singer Anthony Kiedis
Haida-style tattoo by Hanky Panky, worn by RHCP singer Anthony Kiedis

Haida Thunderbird

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.

Tribal-Style Tattoo Poll

Sound off about your love of ink and what you're wearing!

Do YOU have any tribal-style tattoos?

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Tribal Tattoo Videos

Here are some short movies of people getting 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.

Share the Tribal Tattoo Love! Comments, Questions, Tributes to Tribal Tattoos

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    • profile image

      Nick Isaac Ngigi 5 months ago

      Tribal tattoos are awesome

    • sweetlifeishere1 profile image

      sweetlifeishere1 5 years ago

      Great information about tattoos.

    • Julia1000 profile image

      Julia1000 5 years ago

      Nice to see a piece about original tattoos rather than modern ones.

    • FarvyB LM profile image

      FarvyB LM 5 years ago

      Your lens gives us a wide coverage of Tribal Tattoos and their history. Great work. Thanks for your lens.

    • Rangoon House profile image

      AJ 5 years ago from Australia

      I understand and appreciate tribal tattoos, but I am a bit lost in relation to the prolific wider use.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Excellent lens. Thanks.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I work the youth at my church, I hope to get a better understanding of tattoo's. Thanks a very resourceful lens.

    • jadehorseshoe profile image

      jadehorseshoe 6 years ago

      Maori folks illustrate themselves the best.

    • TattooBaron profile image

      TattooBaron 6 years ago

      Very nice lens

    • oyningen profile image

      oyningen 6 years ago

      Informative Lens I must say :)

    • Davidfstillwagon profile image

      Davidfstillwagon 6 years ago

      Interesting lens!

    • JackNimble profile image

      JackNimble 6 years ago

      Cool lens. I enjoyed seeing the different styles of tribal tatoos. I think I might get one in the future.

    • profile image

      bsinical 7 years ago

      Love the lens Very informative

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      I have always loved the art of tatoo's and always love to get more info in the history and basis for tat! Loved your site!!!!

    • profile image

      JungleBaby 8 years ago

      Coool, informative lens, great photos.

    • profile image

      logo-design-czarina 9 years ago

      I love art and tribal tattoos are not my exemption! it's just so amazing how these tribal tattoos relate stories to you through images. nice lense:)

    • profile image

      anonymous 9 years ago

      it beauty art.....keep up the work????

    • profile image

      anonymous 9 years ago

      Traditional Tattooing is much painful than the machine one. I like the designs!

    • profile image

      Belindance 9 years ago

      Tribal tattoos I hope keep growing in popularity, they are truly beautiful and spiritual. They are true artwork, not trendy, or offensive. I think this is what tattooing should be.

    • DragonAsh profile image

      DragonAsh 9 years ago

      Very Good lens lens rolled on my tattoo lens

    • profile image

      romeorodriguez 9 years ago

      Nice lens!

    • profile image

      Ian-Blake 9 years ago

      Great lens. I just added to Cheers!