The meaning of tribal tattoos

Tribales orígenes

One of the most common tattoo designs are the ones known as “tribal”. Although it’s off the record, I can assure you one third of the tattoos done in a studio belong to this style. And I’m sure you wonder: What do they mean? Where do they come from? Today I’m gonna tell you a little bit about this. Ok, let’s go!

Why are the called “tribal”?

As the name says it, tribal tattoos come from “tribes” and they do not refer to any in particular. However they use common patterns that were once used all around the world in aboriginal cultures. These tattoos feature only one color, which is, in most cases, black. Currently, tribal tattoos have evolved and they are not only made up in patterns, but on many occasions they mix simple shapes which are easy to recognize such as animals (tigers, dragons, among others) or common objects (stars, plants, the sun, etc). Way back in their beginnings tribal tattoos were done in a much more painful fashion, applying sharp wood or bone point. These utilized natural ink and were used through repeated pricks into the skin. Nowadays you won’t easily find a place where you can live this experience, (although it is still common in the Polynesian islands, even in big cities) and they will most probably get tattooed with the classic tattooing machine.

Tribales de Phoenix

The meaning of tribal tattoos

Tribal tattoos were used as ranking symbols within the tribes. There are three important features in them to be mentioned: the pain, the permanence and loss of something vital (your blood). Undergoing the process of getting a tattoo used to be something that took great courage, but not only that, as a tattoo would be provided only to the ones who had achieved some merit within the tribe.

The symbols tattooed at the beginning were associated to religion and the universe. There were many designs of shamans, constellations and specially the sun as a symbol of life. The tribes from Borneo islands considered that tattoos existed in two realms: the physical and the spiritual one. So by acquiring tattoos these would give them an advantage in the afterlife.

Diseños tribales soles

Why should I get a tribal tattoo nowadays?

 Curiously enough, tribes all around the world used to get tattoos or other kinds of body modifications: scarification, piercing and also ceremonies in which foreskin removal is performed. However, as “civilization” came along, tattooing came to be frowned upon and became a tool for marking and identifying criminals.

That is, to a large extent, why decades ago people would view tattoos negatively, or as my mom likes to say: “They look like inmates coming out of jail”. Fortunately tattooing has become popular over the last few years, and, although I’d hate to accept it, it has been thanks to the big paparazzi celebrities who decided to get a tattoo.


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