Tribal Tattoos and Their Meanings

Modern tribal tattoo styles have their roots in our ancient past. Across many human cultures, tattoos have been important in rituals, in initiation rites for young men, as war decorations, and in denoting one tribe from another.

To say that tribal tattoos have a long history is something of an understatement. Really, our whole modern tattoo culture has roots in a variety of tribal cultures where marking the body through both scarification and tattooing was important.

Should You Get a Tribal Tattoo?

For anyone just getting onto the tattoo journey, the tribal tattoo often features significantly. There are so many designs that choosing one can be difficult. So why should someone get a tribal tattoo? Consider the following:


If you want a stark tattoo with a monochromatic look, a tribal tattoo is a good candidate. In fact, many first timers get a tribal tattoo somewhere just to dip their toes in the inky waters. This is partly because the look of the typical tribal is very eye-catching.

Tribal tattoos are usually inked in black or a very dark blue with no other colors present. The designs can range from simple to very complex but in all cases, they are eye-catching. Many tribal tattoos are inked over a large area too. This makes them even more eye-catching.

Cultural Significance

It’s important to note that tribal tattoos have important cultural significance to many people. If you happen to be from a culture where tattooing was practiced at some point in the past, for example, a modern tribal tattoo in this style can help you to express your ties with the past and your ancestral practices.

One modern example of the cultural importance of tribal tattoos is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. As a proud Samoan man, he has an intricate Samoan tribal tattoo on his body. It has significance to him culturally and expresses his ties with the past and present.

A tribal tattoo can also be important in a philosophical sense too. You may have a family member from a culture where tattooing is important or you may share some life philosophies with a specific human culture where tattoos were important.

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What Do Tribal Tattoos Mean?

There are as many meanings as there are human cultures but it would be fair to say that tribal tattoos have had great significance in most human cultures at one time or another in history. So why did, and why do, people get tattoos such as this? Here are just some of the most compelling reasons:


Many cultures, such as the Samoan and the Maori, used some tattoos to celebrate victories in battle or to denote themselves as warriors.

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Some tattoos were worn for the purposes of helping with illnesses or warding off illness.

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For many human cultures, the spiritual was a big part of everyday life. Many people used certain tattoos to help ward away evil spirits.

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Ancestor Worship

Mythical heroes or cultural heroes were important to many people of the past and wearing a tribal tattoo that symbolized a particular hero or important cultural person was respectful and also a marker of ancestral importance.

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Sympathetic Magic

To many ancient people, the power or skill of an animal might be drawn out and harnessed through something called sympathetic magic. Often, this was cave wall art of a hunt or similar. Many cultures inked powerful animals onto their bodies to draw the spirit and essence of the animal into themselves.

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Totem Animals or Guardian Spirits

Many tribal people, such as Native Americans, believed in the power of totem animals and the transformative powers of a person associated with this animal spirit. Likewise, tattoos were also used to attract a guardian spirit to a person.

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Initiation Rituals

The inking of tattoos was often a rite of initiation for both boys and girls into adulthood.

Types of Tribal Tattoos

There are many types of tribal tattoos but if you identify with one particular culture, it’s important to find a tattooist who understands the significance of this.

Many such designs are quite traditional and will usually be very bold and monochromatic. In ancient days, such tattoos were made with pointed sticks. The good news is that these days, we have more modern methods.

Here are some of the most compelling tribal tattoo types and their cultural significance:


Many people love Hawaiian tribal tattoos because they have a softer and more organic feel about them. In a time before the colonization of the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaiian tribal tattoos were an expression of the relationship with the land, sky, sea, and spirit.

In design, Hawaiian tattoos are inked in black and often feature natural images such as sea turtles, the sun, the sea, palm trees, flowers, and the stars. These elements were combined within bold geometric patterns to create a compelling, organic-looking design.

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The indigenous Maori culture of New Zealand is famous for their distinctive facial tribal tattoos. These tattoos often feature geometric shapes and swirling lines that form an organic ornamentation that is very eye-catching.

Such tattoos were used to tell a story about people, including their family, their achievements in life, and their skills.

Not every Maori design is for the face, though. Many can be placed upon the shoulders and the chest. These tattoos are very personal in meaning and have a bold look that many people enjoy.

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While some tribal tattoo styles are very specific to cultures, the African tribal tattoo has a greater emphasis on immediate esthetics.

African tattoos are bold in nature and include plenty of shading. They often feature zig-zag lines and motifs, sun images, and contrasting areas of dark and clear. This makes them very appealing and they make for a great first-time tattoo.

African tattoos traditionally told stories about the person, and may relate to courage, personal strength, and bravery, but they are also about esthetics. In fact, many African tattoos were there purely for their decorative aspects. This makes them especially suited to the modern tattoo enthusiast who wants some bold ink to show off.

South American

As with other indigenous groups, the many indigenous groups of the Amazonian rainforest and elsewhere practiced tattooing widely. In Brazil, for example, the Kayabi tattoo masters still practice ritual inking to this day, though it is a dwindling art form.

For the Kayabi, a tattoo of a jaguar would represent the power and spirit of the animal. It used sympathetic magic to align a person with that animal.

Many South American indigenous designs feature animals such as the jaguar but may also be name glyphs. These names may be important ancestors or even those killed in battle. Facial tattoos also have a place in many South American traditional cultures too.

For the modern-day tattoo enthusiast wanting a South American tattoo, the jaguar and other iconic animals from this region are popular designs.

Many tattoo designs have been passed down from family to family and it would not be uncommon to take on an iconic tattoo from a family member who might have passed away or was of great importance within the family.

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Native American

Animals and animal spirits have always featured heavily in Native American culture and spirituality.

Traditionally, many animals were regarded as having special powers or being able to help a person in some way if they were connected to them on a spiritual level. Thus, Native American tribal tattoos feature animals in their designs.

The designs are bold and chunky and the animals are heavily outlined and rendered in black ink. Often, an animal will be paired with a totem pole or dreamcatcher due to the significance of these items in Native American culture.

The dreamcatcher wards off evil spirits and the animal design represents a link with the essence of the animal for that person.

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Ancient Celtic warriors were known for being exceptionally fierce in battle and for wearing blue woad all over their bodies. But Celtic tribal tattoo design has also proved to be very popular with modern tattooists and tattoo enthusiasts.

In design, Celtic tribal tattoos feature lots of swirling lines and criss-crossing geometry. There are also circles, complex shading, and decorative flourishes that suggest scroll work.

Commonly, there are also creatures from Celtic mythology represented as part of the swirling designs, including dragons and wyrms.

Many tattoo studios have entire catalogs dedicated to Celtic tribal designs. Such is the richness and popularity of these designs.

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Traditional Indian tattoos are as much about decoration as they are about expressing one’s inner spiritual journey. There is a great sense of style and esthetics on display; in this way, they are similar to African tattoos.

The Indian tribal tattoo often features complex geometric patterns that repeat, curved lines, and intricate images of the many gods in the Hindu pantheon. For these reasons, they are very striking and would look amazing over large areas of the body.

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Some tribal tattoos look very serious and are tied to very serious themes. The Mexican tribal tattoo, by contrast, features a rather quirky and creative style that is also highly artistic and stylized. This can make Mexican tribal tattoos ideal for someone who is looking for something a little bit off the beaten track.

Mexican tribal tattoos feature plenty of inspired design that is straight out of Aztec, Incan, and Mayan ancient culture. You will often see skulls, ziggurats, temples, hands, fangs, tongues, and images of some of the many ancient gods. There are also many geometric shapes.

There is a lot of scope for creativity in Mexican tattoo design due to the wide range of images featured.

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Norse and Viking

If you’re from certain parts of Scandinavia, you may have some ancient Viking ancestry in your bloodline somewhere. The mystical runes are most often associated with the Vikings and this alphabet often features in Viking or Norse tattoo design.


Polynesia covers a huge area of sea and islands. There are, in fact, over 1000 islands included under the Polynesian cultural umbrella with most of them having their own traditional tattoo styles in a regional context.

This also includes Samoa, but Samoan tattoos are markedly different from other Polynesian tattoos and have very personal meanings to their wearers.

In general, Polynesian tattoos use a lot of black ink but contrast this against plenty of negative space too. This creates an eye-catching design that includes many geometric shapes in highly stylized patterns.

In this sense, they bear some esthetic similarities to Hawaiian and African tribal tattoo designs but are unique in their own way.

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Do Some Research First

It’s tempting to go out and get the first tribal tattoo you see that catches your eye but every tattoo is more meaningful when there is some thought and research behind it.

This is certainly the case with traditional tribal tattoos. Given their rich cultural ties, many tribal tattoos deserve some research beforehand.

This research can be enlightening and may provide information on:

  • The cultural significance of the tattoo
  • The symbolism of the tattoo and what it represents within that culture
  • Your own family ties to a culture and how this may influence your decision to get a tribal tattoo


Tribal tattoos of many types have become popular in recent years. In part, this is because they are both eye-catching and excellent choices for first-time tattoo enthusiasts. Unlike other kinds of tattoos, they are bold and monochromatic in most cases. More importantly, they have rich cultural heritage behind them.

Whether you want a decorative piece that appeals, you have family ties to a specific culture, or you find some common ground in the philosophical and symbolic links between a specific tattoo and yourself, tribal tattoos have really exploded in popularity.

Just remember to do some of your own research first. This will give you lots of context for the tattoo that you intend on getting and may even help you find out more about your own family.

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