The History of Tribal Tattoos (and Why They Are so Popular)

Updated on March 14, 2020
MakinBacon profile image

I love tattoos and have been writing about the topic for several years.

The Origins of Tribal Tattoos

While many tribes and peoples around the world have their own tattoo styles and meanings, "tribal tattoos" in modern culture generally means tattoos with areas of solid color (usually black) and curving abstract forms. This modern "tribal tattoo" style ultimately comes from Polynesian sources including Maori, Tahitian, and Hawaiian traditions.

Tribal tattoos figure in the fascinating history of tattooing, because tattooing as an art form had almost been lost to mainstream society until Don Ed Hardy, the San Franciso artist, got together with Leo Zulueta to resurrect the art form. Tattoo Times, a magazine launched by Hardy, had a strong focus on tribal tattoos and became wildly popular among certain portions of the population.

Leo Zulueta grew up in Hawaii and is of Filipino descent. He met Don Ed Hardy, who mentored and encouraged Zulueta in his desire to see more traditional and "pretechnological" themes in the tattooing field.

When Zulueta lived in Hawaii, he observed that Native Hawaiians had largely abandoned indigenous tattoo traditions, and he wanted to encourage them to embrace those traditions again.

Hardy's main role in the process was to encourage Zulueta to collect as many photos and drawings of native tattoos as he could. He would go to public libraries and photocopy anything he could find on tribal tattoos.

At that time (1977), Hardy started tattooing Zulueta, and in 1981 Zulueta ended up starting to tattoo punk kids living in Southern California. Their demands for unique styles pushed him further toward tribal tattoos as his main focus.

Enough of tribal tattoo history—let's take look at the unique art of tribal tattoos, which has moved quickly toward a very distinct style, which people immediately recognize, even if they don't know what it's called.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Leo ZuluetaEd Hardy
Leo Zulueta
Leo Zulueta | Source
Ed Hardy
Ed Hardy

Misunderstanding Tribal Tattoos

Some tattooers consider simple tribal tattoos a little beneath them just because they are simple. Simple tattoos offend their artistic sensibilities because they're not enough of a challenge; they don't want to look like amateur artists to their peers.

I'm talking about simple tribal tattoo designs when I mention this, not the more complex. The truth is that even simple tribal tattoos are in reality difficult to apply properly.

Because much of the tribal motif is black, the single color makes it even more important to keep the color even, which is not always easy to do.

And that's not all to the art either. Choosing the right place to put a tribal tattoo is also challenging, because of the flowing lines included in the style. These lines must flow along the shapes of the muscles to look right. You may have to do a little convincing to convince tattoo artists that you want a simple-looking tattoo.

Tribal tattoo on bicep
Tribal tattoo on bicep

Why Tribal Tattoos Are So Popular in the West

I think the reason there's been such a resurgence and growth in popularity of tribal tattoos is the yearning of people to be reminded they're not alone; they want to be part of something bigger than themselves—a tribe of some sort.

So to put the ink on in a tribal motif offers the feeling of belonging to a community of like-minded people, even if they don't always have direct physical connections. Because of that, tribal tattoos will continue to be a hot item in the tattooing world and will be one of the most popular ways people express themselves.

And it's just plain fun to have tribal tattoos put on your body, and that's a huge motivator as well.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Tribal dragonTribal tattoo of scorpionWild tribal tattoo surrounding Buddha face
Tribal dragon
Tribal dragon
Tribal tattoo of scorpion
Tribal tattoo of scorpion
Wild tribal tattoo surrounding Buddha face
Wild tribal tattoo surrounding Buddha face

Why Tribal Tattooing Will Remain Popular

As you can see, you can make an infinite variety of designs and blends incorporating tribal tattoos. And there's simply something about a tribal tattoo, even when it seems simple, that catches the eyes of those viewing, and for someone being tattooed, that's a key reason for getting one.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Thanks for this article. At first I did think that they were too "simple." You made a good point about the placement of these tattoos. I should give tribal designs some more thought when choosing my tattoos. Cheers.

    • MakinBacon profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Louisville Area

      That sword sounds pretty cool Rogue. Now that ancestry of yours is a pretty interesting mix.

    • Lady Rogue profile image

      Lady Rogue 

      11 years ago from Cleveland Heights, Ohio

      Interesting, Bacon. I have a tribal tatoo incorporating a sword on my right bicep. I wanted it to be tribal in theme to honor my Celtic ancestry as well as all the other tribes in my heritage (African, Jewish, Native American). But the sword was also so I could wear the warrior and concentrate less on BEING one. Thanks for the pics!


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)