Tribal Tattoos

Classic tribal tattoo design (round)

Tribal tattoos have been in vogue for quite a while now (since the early 1990s), and while their popularity is diminishing, they are still going strong.

These are the Advantages of getting a tribal tattoo:

  • There's a lot of black ink in tribal tattoos, which has the advantage that it holds up well, black tattoo ink doesn't fade as fast as other colors.
  • Tribal tattoo designs are extremely popular, so as long as you don't want a specific or traditional tribal, you shouldn't have a hard time finding a reputable tattoo artist that can design your custom tattoo.
  • It's easier to design your own tattoo or at least a mockup of your own tribal than it is with other tattoo designs.
  • Tribal tattoos have a bold visual appeal: their thick, black curving lines and interlocking patterns lend themselves well to many of the standard tattoo locations, such as the upper arm (in the form of a tribal armband, for example), the back or the lower back.


Lower Back Tribal


Disadvantages of tribal tattoos:

  • Tattoo removal is not working very good on those large patches of black ink.
  • Covering them up with another tattoo ain't working either.
  • Finding a tattoo artist or tattoo parlor is not easy when you want a traditional design of a specific tribe.
  • When you're getting a tattoo that is an imitation of a traditional tribal design, keep in mind that you might be insulting the original tribe members. This is especially the case with Ta Moko, which is a form of family and personal identification of the Maori people. Copying their designs is a form of identity theft.


In this gallery you will find some examples of modern tribals:


Click to enlarge...

Tribal Foot Tat Feminine tribal tattoo Tribal Snake Tattoo
Tribal Tattoo Pattern Tribal Color Tattoo Tribal Tattoo Pattern


 You will find more modern tribals here: Tribal Tattoo Designs


The tribal styles we see today originate from various old tribes like those from Borneo, the Haida, the Native Americans, the Celtic tribes, the Maori and other Polynesian tribes.

The shapes and motifs of these tribal tattoos are deeply rooted in the tribe's mythology and view of the world. The traditional tattoo artist aims to reflect the social and religious values of the tribe in his tattoo designs. Recurring themes are the rituals of the tribe, the ancestors, the origins of the world and the relationship with the gods.



Tribal tattoo

The tattoos of an Indian tribal woman


What are tattoos used for in tribal communities?

  • Identification: each tribe and family has its own tattoo motifs that read like a book: they tell a lot about the origin and the social hierarchy of the person who wears them. Tribe members can identify each other by their tattoos, in this life and the afterlife.
  • Social status: the style and size of a tribal tattoo says a lot about a person's social status in the group. A person with a big tattoo usually has a higher rank in the society compared to one with a simple tattoo.
  • Rite of passage: getting a tattoo is part of the ritual that turns a boy into a man, a girl into a woman.
  • Magic, healing and protection: tribal tattoos are believed to have magical powers. In some tribes the boy gets assigned a totem animal during his rights of passage. By tattooing that animal it is believed that the wearer inherits some of the powers of his totem animal.


Tribal tattoos


Modern tribal tattoos are not strongly associated with any particular tribe and are usually stripped of their social meaning. The designs we see in the Western world today are often based on:

  • Polynesian tattoo designs.
  • The tattoo designs of the tribes of Borneo, namely the Iban and Kayan (Sarawak) and the Kenyah (Kalimantan).


Tattoo artists like Leo Zulueta (an American with Filipino roots) and Alex Binnie (from London) had a strong influence on the development of this modern tribal tattoo style.

Traditional application of a tribal tattoo

Traditional application of a tribal tattoo

Luckily for today's tribal tattoo lovers, the methods used to apply the tattoos have changed. Bone needles and plant or animal dyes have been replaced by tattoo machines. Also, the circumstances in which a tattoo artist today works are generally more hygienic than those of a tribal community. Some people want to go all the way though, and prefer to be tattooed using the traditional methods.





Traditional Tribal Tattoo Art

Here's an overview of tribes where tattoos play or played a prominent role in society:


Tattooing in Borneo (one of islands of Indonesia/Malaysia) is an important form of body modification. The tattoos are believed to protect against pain and diseases. The Iban, Kayan en Kenyah tribes, all headhunters, share the same style of tattoos. The Kayan used carved wood blocks or carved skulls to transfer the designs onto the skin.

Here are some tribal rose patterns (or rosettes) from Borneo:

Click to enlarge...

Rosette Tattoo Pattern From Borneo Rose Tattoo Pattern From Borneo Borneo Tattoo



 Polynesian Tattoos

Polynesian tribal tattoo

Polynesia is a group of over 1000 islands in the Pacific Ocean. The most famous Polynesian tattoo styles are the Maori, Marquesan, Tahitian, Samoan and Hawaiian styles.

The notion that sailors like Captain Cook were responsible for spreading the art of tattoo throughout the Pacific islands is false. True, European seamen were fascinated by the tattoos they saw during their island visits. They quickly adopted them into their own seafaring culture, often marking their bodies to commemorate the places they had visited with symbolic representations. But while mariners may have helped to revive existing tattoo practices, tattoos were common in many island cultures long before European sailors discovered them.

Click here for Polynesian Tattoos

 Maori Tattoos

The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. They use a form of personal identification called Ta Moko. Tattoos are used to carve the family history into the skin.

Learn more about Ta Moko and Maori Tattoos

 Marquesan Tattoos

The Marquesa islands are a group of islands situated in French Polynesia. The Marquesan tattoo art greatly influenced today's tattoo artists. The hands are an important tattoo spot in the Marquesan tattoo tradition, as well as the ears, the shoulders and the lips.

 Hawaiian Tribal Tattoos

Like the other tribal tattoos, tattoos in Hawaii have a hidden meaning and are believed to have magical power. They are applied during a ritual ceremony. Both men and women are tattooed with motifs like triangles, squares, crescents and animals like sharks and lizards.

More about Hawaiian Tattoos

 Taino Tattoos

The Taino were Indians that lived in the area of the Caribbean Sea: the Dominican, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, ... They were the first people Christopher Columbus came in contact with in 1492.

Tattoos were an expression of faith for the Taino people, the higher the tattoos were on their body, the closer they were to god. Tattoos were usually worn by men; the women wore piercings.

Click to enlarge...

Taino Tattoo Tribal Taino Tattoos Taino Sun Tattoos


Here are more Tribal Taino Tattoos...


 Native American Tattoos

Tattoos played a significant role in the culture of the American Indians. They were used for identification, to give praise, magical powers or protection. Typical Native American tattoo designs include animals (eagles, snakes, bears), feathers and mythical creatures.

 Aztec Tribal Tattoos

The Aztecs were another group of Native Americans. They lived in central America from the 13th to the 16th century and used tattoos to mark a warrior's rank and differentiate between the various tribes. Typical Aztec tattoos include gods like Quetzalcoatl and Huitilopochtili, suns and eagles.

Learn more about Aztec Tattoos

 Chinese Tribal Tattoos

The history of the Chinese tattoo is not very appealing, but there are several ethnic minorities in China with a strong tattoo tradition. The most notable tribes are those of the Dai, Drung and Li.

More about the Chinese Tattoo

 Haida Tattoos

The Haidas are the indigenous people of the territory that lies on the west coast of North America (southeast Alaska). The people of the Haida tribe decorate their objects with crests (totems) and use tattoos to represent the family crest and social status. The crests included all kinds of animals (killer whale, shark, wolf, eagle, owl) as well as the sun, the moon, clay, ...

Haida tattoo design