Tribal tattoos are among the most popular tattoo styles, especially for those who favor both meaning and masculinity in their tattoo designs.
Popular for their ability to make their wearer look like a tribal warrior, tribal tattoos have a rich history and are a great expression of artistic design and skill.
The tribal tattoos that we know today are based primarily off of the warriors of the Bronze Age.
In this time, warriors would proudly boast tribal tattoos as a way not only of indicating the tribe that they were from but also for warding off enemy tribes.
Today, we will be answering all of your questions surrounding tribal tattoos.
From the history and meaning of tribal tattoos to the best placement for one of your own, this is the ultimate guide to tribal tattoos.
As one of the most popular tattoo styles of today, you can’t go wrong with a tribal tattoo design!
Tribal tattoos are an enduring favorite in the tattoo world.
People are drawn to tribal designs for their bold, curving lines and cultural history.
Getting a tribal tattoo bonds you to a lineage that goes hundreds of years before your time.
Understandably, this can be an incredibly powerful piece of art.
And there are so many beautiful tribal tattoos to choose from.
What is a Tribal Tattoo?
When most western people speak of tribal tattoos, they are talking about bold black lines and seemingly abstract patterns.
Mike Tyson, David Beckham, Jason Momoa, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson all have tattoos that would fall under the “tribal” category.
But using “tribal” as a catch-all tattoo phrase doesn’t make sense. In the simplest definition, “tribe” is a word for “a group of people.”
A tribe may be linked spiritually, culturally, or through bloodlines.
Some infinite peoples identify as tribes. “Tribal” is an umbrella term for traditional markings from all over the world and throughout history.
Are Tribal Tattoos Cultural Appropriation?
Short answer, it depends on who you ask. This is a conversation that can spark plenty of outrage.
Cultural appropriation means you have taken someone else’s cultural identity and claimed it.
This could be through tattoos, hairstyles, clothing, and cultural dance.
So if you belong to the tribe who originated your art, no worries.
But if you don’t, you may want to examine your motivation.
This can be an upsetting idea for people who appreciate the culture they are representing.
But is appreciation enough? There are passionate people on either side of the argument.
Some say people outside of a culture getting their tattoos is appreciation.
Others say it’s appropriation. Some say it’s OK if you know the meaning of the tattoo, others say it’s never OK.
Some people don’t care at all, reasoning that art always borrows from other art. Which side do you land on?
You may not care about cultural appropriation yourself.
But if you’re going to get a design from outside of your culture, you may want to explore how you feel about it.
Because the subject is going to come up.
First, the concept of cultural appropriation is nothing new.
A British artist and critic, Kenneth Coutts-Smith, published a paper on ‘Cultural Colonisation’ in 1976.
The conversation had been happening long before the Coutts-Smith contribution.
But he was the first to publish it in a scholarly context.
The idea may feel modern, but that is only because of the democracy of the internet.
More people can get their opinions out there than ever before.
Why Do People Get Upset About Cultural Appropriation?
This is a loaded question, but let’s stick to the tribal tattoo side of things.
Most tribal tattoos come from cultural practices and rituals.
Tattoo application and designs would be part of those ancient rituals.
In many tribal situations, a person has to earn their tattoo in some way.
That, or it marks a transition from adolescence to adulthood.
The design will then be custom drawn based on their family and life story.
The problem comes when someone, who has no idea what the symbols mean or where they come from, gets the tattoo on a whim.
It turns a centuries-old spiritual practice into a flippant fashion statement.
And, depending on which artist you work with, your design may not even make sense.
All those lines and shapes you admire so much have meaning.
To get them without knowing much about them would be like getting a realistic portrait of a god you’ve never heard of.
It’s not hurtful to you, but it makes people from the culture feel pushed aside. Out of their own traditions.
Consider is how many tribes are perceived negatively from a colonial perspective.
They may be described as savage or unrefined.
But when a person gets a tattoo from a tribal culture, they’re seen as edgy or sexy.
But What if I Appreciate the Culture?
If you appreciate the culture, then do it right.
Find out where your tattoo is from and what it means.
You’ll love your tattoo so much more when it goes beyond a cool shape.
You’ll be able to tell an interesting story and educate people about another culture.
Even if not everyone will be able to get on board with it, you’ll show that you’ve put in the necessary work.
Most effectively, you could go to an artist from that culture who knows the traditional application methods.
If they’re up for it, have a chat with them about how they feel about cultural appropriation.
Browse YouTube and listen with an open heart to a bunch of different perspectives.
This is going to be on your body forever, you owe that level of reverence to yourself and the people whose design you choose.
So, Can I Get a Tribal Tattoo or Not?
Ask yourself why you want the tattoo. If it’s because you have a deep connection with the culture, honor that with the proper research.
If you like your tattoo for purely aesthetic reasons, there’s probably something more abstract you can get.
Ask your tattoo artist to design something original based on your body shape and the images you love.
That way you’ve created a piece with deep personal meaning to you, and you won’t risk hurting anyone’s feelings or communicating a message you don’t even understand.
If you want something that represents culture and tradition, but are looking outside your bloodline, try checking out something close to home.
Many cultures have traditional tattoo techniques, and you may find something that makes you feel closer to your family tree.
Now that we’ve broken down cultural appropriation and you’ve had a chance to think about it, let’s chat tribal tattoos. Which are the most popular designs and where do they come from?
The History of Tribal Tattoos
Of the many styles of tattooing worn in the modern world, tribal tattoos are the most steeply founded in history.
While there are many varieties of generic tribal tattoos that are less symbolic than the tattoo style they are based around, many tribal tattoos carry heavy symbolism.
Ancient cultures used these distinctive tattoos to show off both the achievements and status of individual members of their societies.
They were also used to distinguish one tribe from another. The tribal tattoos of today are typically more intricate than the popular tribal tattoo designs of twenty to thirty years ago.
Those that decide to get a tribal tattoo of their own also usually select their particular design with symbolism in mind.
To say that tribal tattoos have come a long way, however, would be an understatement. This particular tattoo style has a long history (dating back around 5,000 years).
According to the evidence gathered by archaeologists, tattooing was practiced by tribal cultures all over the world dating back to at least the Neolithic times.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular tribal tattoo styles from ancient cultures.
Each of these styles have found their way into contemporary tattooing in one way or another, holding different meanings and symbolism.
Types of Tribal Tattoos
Borneo Tribal Tattoo
Made famous by Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, the Iban people’s tribal tattoos are a part of the culture that is re-emerging.
It is important to note that Bourdain got the tattoo in Borneo, Malaysia.
It was given to him by a famous Borneo tattoo artist, and he was permitted to have the tattoo.
The practice of tribal tattooing in Malaysia is very different than in American and Canadian customs.
In the Western world, you choose a design that resonates with you, and you get it tattooed.
In the tribes of Borneo, tattoos are a rite of passage.
A design is chosen for you based on your age, gender, and rank within the society.
In many tribal cultures, a tattoo is something you do for the greater community, both tangible and spiritual.
Who Are the Tribal People of Borneo?
Borneo is a large island divided into 4 regions. The regions are split between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.
The Indigenous people in this area are known as the Dayak.
There are large tribes under the Dayak umbrella, and even smaller tribes within those subsections.
Many Dayak people of Borneo live in a longhouse system.
A longhouse is sort of like a village, but under one roof.
Some are simple settings for 4 families, but others are elaborate and can accommodate up to 80 families.
The typical structure comprises one main area with smaller sections built off of it.
Originally longhouses were made of wood, but the modern ones are made of concrete.
They are becoming less populated in modern-day, as children often move from longhouses when they’re old enough to get jobs in the city.
For many, the Dayak people’s reputation precedes them.
The warriors were known to be headhunters.
When going to war with another region, they would warn the people of the area in advance.
It was never their mission to headhunt women or children, so they gave them time to exit the area.
After that, it was up to the men of the family to defend their space.
The Iban people are a more dominant tribe in the Dayak group, especially in Sarawak.
The tattoos are linked to their warfare, and are thought to be protective charms.
In the 1940s, a group of Iban warriors fought a group of Japanese soldiers with machine guns.
The warriors had only their spears and their tattoos to protect them, so it sounds like a hopeless situation.
All but one of the warriors came home alive, though.
So there may be something to the charmed tribal tattoo idea.
Tattoos in the Dayak Culture
Customs vary from tribe to tribe. Tattoos are most common in the Iban tribe, who collect their ink through life experience.
An Iban person’s tattoos read like a diary to those who understand the symbols.
A young man traditionally starts with two flower-like shapes on the fronts of his shoulders.
They are placed there because they align with the straps on his backpack, which he will wear as he ventures out from the longhouse to learn about life.
This process is known as Bejalai, translating to “journey of knowledge and wisdom.”
The flower is called a Bungai Terung, or “eggplant Borneo flower.”
The eggplant flower features a swirling shape.
This shape symbolizes a tadpole, meaning new beginnings, and it also represents the “rope of life.”
From there, once the young man has proven himself, he may collect other tattoos.
In some tribes, his way of proving himself would be to headhunt for the first time.
He may then be granted a neck tattoo accompanied by a ritual.
For the Highlanders in Sarawak, it was traditionally more common for women to have tattoos.
This could be a measure of beauty, wealth or status. It may also attract men from other longhouses to marry the women.
Women may also get tattoos to show their skills. Hand tattoos generally signify that a woman is a master weaver.
In Iban culture, it is a special skill to be able to weave ceremonial blankets.
These are known as Pua and, while sacred, can attract meddling spirits.
While weaving, these spirits may try to distract the women’s efforts.
Hand and arm tattoos would serve to protect them as they worked.
Weaving a ceremonial blanket was considered just as important to the tribe as headhunting.
So, while there is a gender divide there, it is one where both sides are revered for their contributions.
The Shifting Meaning of Borneo Tattoos
Of course, over time, tattoo styles and meanings have changed.
According to Point of No Return, a short documentary on Iban tattoos, tourists are part of the reason tattoo trends have changed.
As people began to visit the area, they would become enamored with the fantasy of having a tribal tattoo for themselves.
Of course, the Iban tattoo artists needed to make a living, but they didn’t want to give their sacred symbols away.
They would then make up “sacred” symbols and spin stories to the tourists who got them.
A harmless practice that benefits both parties, but it has kind of muddied the waters of tattoo meaning.
In addition to the tourist element, many tattoo traditions were lost in time as more Christians entered the area and converted the people there.
There is a modern effort to revitalize the traditional tattooing in Borneo, but there was a long period of lessened activity after the 1950’s and 60’s.
Borneo Tattoo Methods
Tattooing is generally done the old fashioned way, with two simple instruments.
One is a long stick with 3 needles on the end, and the other is a “striker” used to rhythmically tap the needles into the skin.
A carved wooden block is used as a stencil, and once the design has been transferred to the skin, the artist sets to work.
The ink is made from soot, water, and sugar cane. Traditionally, the soot was scraped from the bottom of a metal pot.
Polynesian Tribal Tattoos
Perhaps one of the most popular styles of tribal tattoos are Polynesian tribal tattoos.
Of the many people sporting tribal tattoos today, a great majority of them are in the Polynesian tribal tattoo style.
A few common elements of Polynesian tribal tattoos are ocean waves, spearheads, shark teeth, and the enata – a tribal symbol of the human figure.
Along with having specific meanings conveyed through the use of certain imagery, placement also holds an important meaning when it comes to Polynesian tribal tattoos.
For example, ancient Polynesian tribes would place their tribal tattoos on the arms and shoulders to symbolize bravery and strength while tattoos on the forearms and hands were indicative of creativity.
Samoan Tribal Tattoos
Ancient Samoan cultures used tribal tattoos primarily as a way to indicate status within their tribe.
Māori tattoos are only one part of the Polynesian tribal tattoo tradition.
The word Polynesia comes from the Greek words “poly” meaning many, and “nēsos” meaning island.
New Zealand is part of this group, but so are more than 1000 smaller islands.
All Polynesian people share ancestry and similar customs. But there are differentiation between each island.
One distinguishing factor is their tattoo practices.
Symbolizing strength, authority, and rank, Samoan tribal tattoos symbolized the hierarchy of the Samoan tribe.
The process of tattooing in Samoan culture was an extremely painful process as these tattoos were usually created using tools such as a shark tooth.
For this reason, it was considered greatly dishonorable within the tribe to have an incomplete tattoo as this suggested a lack of endurance.
In all Polynesian cultures, tattoos are meant to tell your life story.
This is why you are supposed to have a Polynesian artist design your tattoo.
If you lift some design from a google search and copy it, you are essentially stealing someone else’s story.
And you may not even know what any of the imagery means or which island it comes from.
One of the more famous tribal tattoo styles to come out of Polynesia is Samoan.
Samoan tribal tattoo practices are at least 3000 years old. Colonization was a threat to this ancient practice.
But Samoans held onto their tattoo tradition throughout their whole history.
Other Polynesian tribes have long tattoo traditions, but experienced significant dips in popularity.
The Māori people, for example, have recently begun to incorporate traditional face tattoos back into the culture.
They fell out of favor in the past because of enforced negative associations.
An Importance on Community
Samoa is an archipelago, or group of islands.
There are 9 islands in the Samoan archipelago, which includes Samoa and American Samoa.
Polynesian people live in a community-based culture.
In this structure, people act for the good of the whole rather than with self-interest.
Depending on which area of Polynesia you are in, there are variations on this community theme.
For Lilo and Stitch fans, for example, you may recognize the word “Ohana.”
Ohana does mean “family,” but it extends to your entire community as a whole.
Because many Polynesian Islands are small, it is natural to be tight with the people you grew up with for your whole life.
In Samoa, their variation on this ideology is called “Fa’a” or “Fa’a Samoa.”
This translates to “The Samoan Way.” Fa’amatai is the governing concept in Samoa.
Everyone has a role to play in society, from the highest ranks to the most average person.
Many tourists who visit Polynesian islands note how warm and friendly the people are.
But kindness and consideration isn’t considered a special act in Fa’a. Being welcoming is a way of life.
That is why it is so unfortunate when someone chooses to copy a traditional Polynesian tattoo.
Family is sacred, and their stories are important.
What’s more, the welcoming people of Polynesia would likely have designed something custom for you.
Some tattoo designs are considered sacred in Polynesian culture, while others are not.
A non-Polynesian person can get certain elements of a Polynesian tattoo.
They can even weave their own backstory into it with non-traditional elements.
This is a better idea for everyone involved, and it’s special because it’s personal.
There have been rare exceptions when a person outside the community was approved for a Tatau.
One example is Elsie Bach, who volunteered with the Peace Corps in the 70’s.
She worked respectfully within the Samoan culture as a teacher and educator.
Because of her great work, she was given a high ranking title by a Samoan chief (Matai.)
She was then gifted with a tattoo as part of this title.
The Samoan word for tattoos is Tatau or Tatatau.
It translates to “to mark,” or “to strike repeatedly.” Sounds violent?
It is a painful process. And that’s part of it. Polynesian tattoos have a spiritual component to them.
The pain experienced in Tatau shows courage and endurance. It is what separates adults and adolescents.
The tattoos can take hours and even days to apply.
After that, the healing process may take weeks.
It is meant to be a painful process and to deny a Tatau is to show cowardice.
A Tatau not only tells your life story, but it also establishes your rank in the community.
Types of Tatau
Within the Samoan tribal tattoo practice, there are 2 main types of design:
Pe’a is the male form of Tatau. Traditionally, Pe’a will start mid-torso and go down to the knees. The designs are done in intricate black ink.
There are elaborate rituals and ceremonies that accompany the application of Pe’a. After the fact, the skin is routinely massaged and washed with saltwater by members of the community. This is to avoid infection.
Malu is the female form of Tatau. The designs are generally smaller and more delicate in Malu. They are usually on the thigh and leg, or the hands. When Malu is applied to the hands, it is called Lima. Lima markings are necessary to serve a ceremonial drink called Kava.
The drink is derived from the root of the sacred Kava bush and is not made for consumption outside of the ceremony. Kava ceremonies serve to give a person a new title, welcome someone into the community, or say goodbye. The drink can have a narcotic effect and put a person in a trance-like state. It is thought of as something of a truth serum when open communication is important.
The Two Sisters
According to legend, Tatau was brought to Samoa from Fiti by two sisters. The sisters, named Taema and Tilafaiga travelled from Fiti to Samoa.
The whole way there, they sang a song about Tatau. In the original song, they said Tatu is for women and not men.
By the time they reached Samoa however, the words had been reversed and it was communicated that Tatau is for men.
Now it is equally as common for any gender of Samoan person to receive Tatau.
Hawaiian Tribal Tattoos
Hawaiian tribal tattoos are yet another ancient tribal tattoo design style that has become popular in contemporary tattooing.
Popular imagery found in this style typically includes flowers, turtles, and abstract patterns.
While tribal tattoos in ancient Hawaiian cultures were representative of both adulthood and status within the tribe, they were also considered talismans with protective abilities.
Native American Tribal Tattoos
With nearly every tribal culture engaging in tattooing throughout history, the Native Americans are no different.
The main difference between Native American tribal tattoos and other tribal tattoo styles, however, is their symbolism and imagery.
Popular Native American tribal tattoo imagery used in contemporary tattooing includes dream-catchers, arrows, animals, feathers, and abstract tribal patterns.
In Native American culture, tribal tattoos were used for both ritualistic and identification purposes as well as providing protective properties to the wearer.
For Native American warriors, tribe members would receive tribal tattoos as a mark of their heroism in battle.
For other members of specific tribes, tribal tattoos were used to identify themselves as part of their community.
Still, other tribes considered their tattoos to be supernatural in power, granting them protection through a connection to the spiritual realm.
Mayan Tribal Tattoos
The ancient Maya civilization is a fascination for many. But the Maya are often spoken about in the past tense.
It is important to note that the Maya are still present in the modern world.
There are approximately 6 million Maya in the world today.
Most Maya tribes are located in Mexico.
Under the Maya umbrella, there are 31 distinct tribes.
Though all the languages and customs come from the same root, there are distinct variations among them.
Maya tribal tattoos are an important part of this culture.
As with many tribal cultures, when Christian colonialism came to the area, tattoos were seen as savage and unrefined.
For a person with a Mayan background today, wearing a traditional tattoo is a sign of pride.
Mayan tribal tattoos were usually religious in symbolism.
With the Mayan culture centered around both scientific and cultural pursuits, the focus of this culture is evident in the symbolism found in their particular tattoo style.
In Mayan culture, getting a tribal tattoo was seen as an act to please the gods.
Alongside piercings, tattooing was an important body modification tradition within the culture.
Mayan tattoos were also considered a mark of strength and courage but there was yet another purpose to their tribal tattoos- marking criminals and enemies.
Upon winning a victory over rival tribes, the Mayans would mark the surviving members of the enemy tribe with a tattoo.
Thieves within their society were also marked with tattoos to indicate their treachery.
Where Do The Maya Come From?
The Maya civilization began in Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica comes from the Greek term “middle America.”
An archeologist named Paul Kirchoff coined the term Mesoamerica in 1943.
He was of mixed heritage, having German and Mexican parentage.
He helped define the area based on the characteristics of the people who lived there.
The territory starts in central Mexico and goes into Central America (including El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala.)
The term “Mesoamerica” comes from the fact that the area is spread out across North and Central America.
The Mayan culture is one of the more famous ones in the area, along with the Aztecs, but it is very diverse.
The ancient Maya people had an incredibly sophisticated culture.
Though there are survivors from this ethnicity group, much of what they built as an empire was abandoned or destroyed.
The Maya civilization was at peak power in the 6th century AD.
They had a complex calendar and mathematical system.
Many of their mathematical concepts took other civilizations years to understand.
They also had innovative approaches to agriculture and language.
The Maya religion is a complex, polytheistic system.
Spiritual concepts from the culture’s time as a major Empire are still practiced today.
In the Maya calendar, there are natural cycles of creation and destruction.
This is what caused the worldwide panic and conspiracy over the “end” of the Maya calendar, causing many people to panic and prophesize.
But the Maya calendar was never meant to predict death or mass destruction.
It was meant to predict times of turmoil and, eventually, rebirth.
One such cycle may have happened in 900AD, when the Maya had abandoned their stone cities.
Historians remain puzzled as to the reason for this retreat.
It could have been based on a number of agricultural or environmental factors. Or maybe it was just time for a new cycle.
The biggest hit to the Maya peoples was during their colonization in 1521.
Over the next 170 years, the Spanish fought for dominance over the Maya.
During this time, the Maya were attacked and ravaged by diseases.
The diseases were brought in by those trying to take them over.
Having no natural immunity to these foreign diseases, they began dying off en masse.
The Mayas who survived were enslaved and forced to turn their back on their old customs.
If Maya refused to convert to Christianity, they were arrested and tortured.
During this time, many valuable Maya artifacts were destroyed.
Certain aspects of this ancient civilization are still relatively unknown today because of this conquest.
After regaining their independence in 1820, some members of the Maya culture were able to help the remaining language and customs survive.
What Does All This Have to Do With Tribal Tattoos?
It’s important to understand this history before considering a Maya tribal tattoo.
Maybe you have a tie to the Maya culture that makes their imagery significant to you. It is not inherently bad to want a Maya tattoo.
But do not take on these images without understanding the pain that went into preserving them.
To take something that people died trying to protect, and get it for flippant reasons, is an insult, to say the least.
Maya Tribal Tattoo Customs
The Maya have erroneously been portrayed as a violent culture who took part in human sacrifice.
This was because when some ancient Maya graves were uncovered, there were bones missing.
This is now believed to be because the remains likely had to be moved at some point.
The Maya did not make human sacrifices, but they did believe in offering blood to their gods.
Part of this custom involved piercing and tattooing.
As with other tribal tattoos, to get a Maya tattoo was a religious act.
They had many body modification customs, many of which were for their gods. Others were for purely aesthetic reasons.
These were not unlike the myriad of things we do today to make ourselves feel beautiful.
One Maya custom was to affix a piece of jade into a person’s teeth.
The Mayan form of tattooing involved inking a design onto a person’s skin, then creating cuts all along the markings.
The inky scar was the tattoo. As you may have guessed, this form of tattooing left someone vulnerable to infection.
To get a tattoo and endure the pain involved was considered an act of bravery and devotion.
Maya Tattoo Imagery
Tattoos would often depict epic religious mythology and gods.
Imagery would be incredibly specific to the people, and show not only their rank but also their skill set.
A tattoo may also represent someone’s place in the complex religious systems of the ancient Maya.
There are common elements in Maya tribal tattoos that reflect the belief system of the people. Including:
Suns– The Sun is a godly figure in the Maya belief system and is central to many practices.
Earth– The Earth represents the cycles in the Maya calendar, and a reverence for nature.
Eagle– Because an Eagle can fly so incredibly high, it is considered a divine creature. It represents wisdom because of it’s bird’s eye perspective on the world.
Bats– Bats represent the underworld, as they were thought to be guardians there. They can represent the duality of human nature. The agony of death and the beauty of rebirth.
Calendar– Because the Maya calendar is so unique and the subject of so much speculation, to wear one is a sign of Maya pride.
Māori Tribal Tattoos
Māori tribal tattoos are known as Ta Moko.
The designs specific to Ta Moko are only for the Māori people.
As a compromise, equally beautiful designs are available to outsiders.
These are called Kirituhi.
A Māori artist can design something with great significance for a non-Māori person.
But some symbols and traditions are sacred to the culture.
Ta Moko are considered treasures, or taonga.
They are sacred and they assert your Māori heritage.
The Māori people are an indigenous tribe who lives in New Zealand.
There are approximately 75 Māori tribes (Iwi) in New Zealand.
Tribes are then divided into smaller sub-tribes called hapu.
Each tribe has its own distinct style when it comes to clothing and tattoos.
In New Zealand, a Ta Moko shows other Māori people which tribe you belong to, and your social rank.
But Why Can’t I Get a Ta Moko?
In short, because the Māori have had to fight to exist on their own land.
Taking away something sacred, especially when they’ve offered an alternative, is disrespectful.
The Māori people came to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia between 1200 and 1300 AD.
Before their arrival, the land is believed to have been unpopulated.
It was discovered by the Māori people on trips through the Pacific Ocean.
The land was discovered by Europeans in the 1700’s, and explorers started visiting.
In the 1830’s, the British colonized the area.
They sought out to reduce what they called lawlessness on the land.
Their main goal was to colonize before the French, who were considering the area as well.
The word Māori was invented among the people at that time.
It translates to “ordinary,” and served to differentiate original tribes from the newcomers.
Between the 1840’s and 1860’s, a war broke out between the Māori and the British.
The British people fought to reign over the land.
Māori people who objected would have land taken away from them as punishment.
The Māori people have had to fight to keep their traditions alive.
For someone to wear a Ta Moko is the ultimate sign of cultural pride.
This is especially true of the face tattoo.
Placement of Māori Tribal Tattoos
In Māori and Polynesian traditions, tattoo placements enhance the meaning of a tattoo.
Face or Head
Your head is the closest part of your body to Rangi, the sky god in Polynesia.
To get a Ta Moko here is a cultural statement and a spiritual gesture. Some people have Ta Moko across their whole face.
This can look scary to outsiders, but it is meant to enhance facial expressions.
Women often wear Ta Moko on their chin for the same reason.
Facial expressions are known as Pūkana, and are a big part of the Māori cultural dances.
These dances are known as Haka. During certain parts of the song, women will widen their eyes and stick out their chin tattoos.
Men will also widen their eyes, but stick out their tongue.
These expressions represent passion and ferocity.
Tattooed joints in the Māori culture can represent familial connections.
Arms and Shoulders
This part of the body represents strength. Ancient warriors would often get Ta Moko on their upper arms and shoulders.
Hands and Lower Arms
We craft things with our hands. Tattoos in this area celebrate creation and artistry.
Because the chest holds the heart, this area represents generosity.
Lower Belly and Thighs
Similar to the sacral chakra, this area of the body represents sexual energy and courage. It is also associated with the family. This is a very important concept in the community-based Māori culture.
Legs and Feet
This part of the body represents transformation, as well as forward momentum.
How are Ta Moko Applied?
Modern artists may use traditional tools, modern tattoo guns, or both.
Some shapes can not be achieved with traditional tools.
Artists with modern equipment try to stick as close to the original look and shape as possible.
The Ta Moko was originally applied using a small chisel.
This chisel is known as a Uhi. The Uhi makes cuts and “carves” the skin with almost the exact same techniques an artisan would use on wood.
This is a painful process that produces a unique effect on the skin.
These cuts would then be treated with naturally derived ink to create the tattoo.
Though the original chisels were made from bone, they eventually upgraded to metals.
Mike Tyson Māori Tattoo Controversy
Mike Tyson, a retired boxer, got his famous face tattoo in 2003.
He originally wanted hearts in the shape of an eye patch around his eye.
Tyson has said he was going through a dark time and didn’t care much for himself.
He wanted to mark his body up as a result of those negative feelings.
His tattoo artist convinced him to get his now-famous face tattoo.
Tyson has said he got the tattoo “because he is a warrior.”
But warrior tattoos in Māori culture cover the whole face.
And Māori people see their facial tattoo as Ta Moko- not Kirituhi.
His tattoo is not really traditional in its execution.
But it caused some controversy because of its visual similarities to Ta Moko.
The tattoo artist did draw inspiration from photos of Māori warriors.
Later, the same artist tried to sue The Hangover movie for using the design as a punchline.
This was a pretty ironic move considering he did not have permission to use the design in the first place.
Though it came from a dark time, Tyson has accepted the tattoo as a part of his image, and sometimes even forgets he has it.
The trouble is that now tribal facial tattoos are more famous for Mike Tyson than they are for their roots.
If you are inspired by Ta Moko, it would be best to see a Māori artist (or write to one from where you are) to be sure you get it right.
Kirituhi designs are available to anyone.
What Do Tribal Tattoos Mean?
Now that you have an understanding of the rich history associated with the tribal tattoo style, you are likely wondering what some of the contemporary tribal tattoo designs of today mean.
After all, the ancient tribal tattoo designs that the contemporary tattoos of today are based on were rooted in significant symbolism and meaning.
While this is less of the case today, tribal tattoos can still carry heavy meaning for the wearer.
Today, most tribal tattoos mean a show of masculinity, strength, and bravery.
People who are descendants of one of the ancient cultures associated with tribal tattoos may also get a tribal tattoo to pay homage to their ancestors.
Overall, the tribal tattoos of today are indicative of courage and strength, making them an especially attractive choice for men.
Who Are Tribal Tattoos For?
While tribal tattoos today are most popular among men, anyone can get a tribal tattoo.
Depending on the meaning and symbolism that the wearer wants to portray with their tribal tattoo, these designs can vary drastically.
Women tend to stick to more feminine imagery such as flowers and animals while men elect to use thicker lines and abstract patterns to compliment their muscle tone.
Overall, however, tribal tattoos are for anyone with a deep appreciation of the culture that inspired them.
Tribal Tattoo Placement
So where should you place your very own tribal tattoo?
Placement is an important consideration to make when deciding on the perfect tribal tattoo design for you.
You should take into consideration the meaning you are trying to portray with your tribal tattoo design to help you choose the perfect placement.
You should also consider the particular cultural style of tribal tattoo that you are interested in when choosing a location for your tattoo.
This is because certain cultures considered particular placements to hold significant meaning.
For example, the Polynesians considered tattoos placed on the arms and shoulders to be symbolic of strength and bravery while tattoos on the hands were indicative of creativity.
In order to determine the best placement for your tribal tattoo, you should also consider the imagery you will be using.
If you will be using thick abstract lines (a popular choice of the contemporary tribal tattoos of today), you will need to pick a part of the body that allows sufficient space to hold these details.
After all, it would be a shame to fall in love with a certain tribal tattoo design only to find that it doesn’t fit where you mean to place it!
Tribal Tattoos on Shoulder
Tribal Tattoos on Forearm
Tribal Tattoos on Leg
Tribal Tattoos on Back
Tribal Tattoos on Chest
Tribal Tattoos on Hand
Tribal Tattoos on The Upper Arm
Tribal Tattoos on Thigh
Tribal Tattoos on Foot
Under-boob Tribal Tattoos
Tribal Tattoos on Ankle
Tribal Tattoos on Calf
How Much Do Tribal Tattoos Cost?
If you are considering a tribal tattoo for yourself, it is likely that you are concerned about how much your chosen design will cost.
While the cost of tribal tattoos vary greatly depending on a slew of different factors, you can expect for a high-quality design to be fairly expensive.
This is due to the fact that tribal tattoos are usually very large, filling up an entire arm, leg, or shoulder.
Tribal tattoos are also extremely detailed. Each of these factors mean that a qualified tattoo artist will need to keep you in the chair for longer than many other tattoo styles.
With more time spent in the chair, you can rest assured you’ll be spending more.
While the exact cost of your tribal tattoo will depend on the rates of your chosen artist, you should expect for your design to cost somewhere between $300 to $1500 dollars or more for a quality piece of art.
How to Choose the Best Tribal Tattoo Design For You
In order to choose the best tribal tattoo design for you, you need to ask yourself a series of questions.
First, you should have an idea of the meaning (if any) that you wish to portray through your tattoo.
Secondly, you should work collaboratively with your chosen tattoo artist to decide on the tribal tattoo style that works best for you.
Finally, you’ll need to decide on the right placement.
Answering each of these questions, you should have a good idea of the best tribal tattoo design for you.
Main Themes in Tribal Tattoos
Zoomoprhic Tribal Tattoos
Eagle Tribal Tattoos
Owl Tribal Tattoos
Elephant Tribal Tattoos
Fox Tribal Tattoos
Hammerhead Shark Tribal Tattoos
Lion Tribal Tattoos
Monkey Tribal Tattoos
Scorpion Tribal Tattoos
Snake Tribal Tattoos
Stingray Tribal Tattoos
Tiger Tribal Tattoos
Sea Turtle Tribal Tattoos
Wolf Tribal Tattoos
Tribal Zodiac Tattoos
Aries Tribal Tattoos
Cancer Tribal Tattoos
Leo Tribal Tattoos
Pisces Tribal Tattoos
Tribal Tattoo Ideas
Throughout time, ancient peoples have had to fight to keep their customs sacred.
Either because people are telling them they’re blasphemous, or because tourists who don’t understand are getting the designs flippantly.
Tribal tattoos are a beautiful custom when treated with the reverence they deserve.
Be sure to do your research and ask permission before getting a tribal tattoo.
Also, consider getting a design from your own bloodline.
If you look back far enough, you’ll find something!
Check out our tribal tattoo gallery to admire some beautiful tribal tattoos.
Tribal Tattoo Sleeve
Tribal Tattoo Half Sleeve
Tribal Tattoos for Women
Small Tribal Tattoos
Bracelet Tribal Tattoos