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Tribal tattoos have been in vogue for quite a while now (since the early 1990s) and itís easy to see why, they just look good.
Advantages of getting a tribal tattoo
- There's a lot of black ink in tribal tattoos, which has the advantage that it holds up very well, black tattoo ink doesn't fade as fast as other colours.
- Tribal tattoo designs are very popular, so as long as you don't want a specific or traditional tribal, you shouldn't have a hard time finding a good 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.
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 parlour 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 a identity theft.
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.
What are tattoos used for in tribal communities?
- Identification: each tribe and family has its own tattoo motifs. Tribal tattoos 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 in 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.
Modern tribal tattoos are generally speaking not strongly associated with any particular tribe and are usually stripped of their social meaning. Tribal tattoo art 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 great influence on the development of this modern tribal tattoo style.
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 and the circumstances in which a tattoo artist today works are generally more hygienic than those of a tribal community. Some people though, want to go all the way and prefer to be tattooed using the traditional methods.
Traditional Tribal Tattoo Art
Here's an overview of tribes where tattoos played and play an important role in society:
- Borneo Tattoos - 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.
- Polynesian Tattoos - 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Celtic Tattoos - The Celtic people used to live in tribes spread over Great Britain and parts of Western Europe and were heavily tattooed. Interlacing patterns, spirals and knot work are typical for Celtic tattoos.
- Native American Tattoos - Tattoos played a big role in the culture of the American Indians. They were used for identification, to give praise and to give 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.
- Chinese Tribal Tattoos - The history of the Chinese tattoo is not very interesting, but there are several ethnic minorities in China with a strong tattoo tradition. The most important tribes are those of the Dai, Drung and Li.
- 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, and so on.
Tribal Tattoo Designs
To a certain extent, tribal tattoos speak for themselves. It is a special feature of a tribal tattoo that even a relatively simple or unformed line or curve tends to look good, even just on its own.
In recent years, a style that we can call the New Tribal has emerged. Symbols that have nothing to do with the original tribal designs are combined with the typical lines, curves and interlocking formations of the traditional tribal tattoos. In the case of New Tribals, it is the decoration surrounding the central element that marks them as tribal. Here's an overview of tribal tattoo symbols or symbols that are often combined with tribal designs:
- Tribal Dragon Tattoos - The dragon is a mythological creature that appears in many different cultures around the world and has as many different symbolic meanings. The meaning of a tribal dragon tattoo is therefore something personal. In Asia, dragons are seen as a benevolent creature. The Japanese dragon denotes the male principle (yang): the sun, air, fertility, rain. It symbolizes the dominance of the heavenly over the earthly powers. In the West the dragon is portrayed as an evil creature, breathing fire to show its mythical power.
- Tribal Cross Tattoos - The cross is a very old symbol and appears in many religions around the world. A cross is a good symbol to express one's spirituality or religion and it lends itself well to a tribal adaptation
- Tribal Rose Tattoos - The rose and flowers in general are popular tattoo designs. Roses can mean a lot of different things, it's a symbol for love, respect, spiritual growth (just like the lotus flower), Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
- Tribal Phoenix Tattoos - The phoenix is a mythological bird that has a very long life and arises from his ashes to be reborn. The phoenix can be found often in Far Eastern tattoo art and is a symbol of rebirth and transformation.
- Tribal Sun Tattoos - The sun is a powerful symbol. People have always (literally) looked up to and worshipped that mysterious glowing sphere, so it's not hard to see why it appears in so many legends. The sun is associated with life and fertility (amongst others).
- Tribal Tiger Tattoos - The tiger is a very powerful symbol and appears often in Asian tattoo genres. It is a symbol for power, beauty and cruelty.
- Tribal Bear Tattoos - The tribal bear tattoo (sometimes depicting a whole bear, but often just a paw print) is reminiscent of some Native American tattoos. It gives the impression of an animal totem or protective animal spirit.
Other symbols that are used often in tribal tattoos:
Feminine Tribal Tattoos
Generally speaking, tribal tattoos have a masculine energy about them, given their bold, thick lines. At the same time, they are versatile and they tend to look very good on women as well. Maybe itís the appeal of the contrast.
Over the past few years though, some tribal tattoo designs have evolved that are characteristically feminine in nature. They have the same recognizable tribal patterns, but they tend to be smaller and more self contained. A good example might be the tribal butterfly tattoo, a popular choice for an ankle or shoulder tattoo. A larger version of the tribal butterfly can also look good on the lower back. Tribal rose tattoos are also popular in many of the same locations.
Celebrities With Tribal Tattoos
- Corey Taylor: Slipknot singer, has many tribals.
- Mike Tyson: has a large tribal on the left side of his face.
- Pamela Anderson: has a lower back tribal tattoo.
- Boy George: has a tribal with a G in it on the side of his neck.
- Melanie Brown (Mel B): has several tribals.
- Sandra Bullock: has a tribal heart tattoo below her naval.
- Anthony Kiedis: Red Hot Chili Peppers singer, has several tribals.
- Manny Ramirez: left fielder for the LA Dodgers, has a tribal on his left shoulder.
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