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The History Behind Tribal Tattoos

Friday, January 2nd 2015. | Tribal Tattoo

Tribal tattoo designs have been, especially in recent years, quite the trend with which people can adorn their bodies. Whether the design takes the form of a masculine arm band, a sprawling lower back tattoo, or a detailed full-arm sleeve, it’s clear that the concept of tribal art is very popular.

While it has become a popular design in the now-mainstream world of tattoo art, many actually don’t know where the concept of tribal tattoos originated, or that they’ve been around for thousands of years! One might be even more surprised to know that tribal art has many origins and many styles that originate from different parts of the world. The origin of tribal tattoos lies within the ancient history of tattooing itself.

Where Did Tattoos Come From?

It’s hard to say exactly where tattoos originated first, but evidence of their existence has been found dating all the way back to the 3,300 B.C. era, when tattoo marks were found on “Otzi the Iceman” in Austria. Tattoos go back even further though—historians speculate that ancient Egyptians have been getting tattoos since 4,160 B.C.E. Circular patterns around the naval, and lines on the arms and thighs that ran parallel to each other were found on the mummy of an Egyptian priestess named Amunet. On the other side of the world, ancient Chinese literature dating back thousands of years also describes some of its characters as being tattooed from head to toe. Many theorize that tattoos of ancient times had either religious symbolism or alluded to a person’s rank within society, but of course the symbolism behind tattoos varies from culture to culture and can get pretty complex.

The tribal tattoos that so many people are drawn to, however, actually descended from Polynesia, i.e. the Pacific Islands, a subregion near Australia that has over 1,000 islands. In fact, our modern-day word “tattoo” descends from this region as well; the Polynesian word for this art practice was “tautau.” It was named for the tapping sound made by the traditional means of tapping a tattoo design into the skin with bone needles fixed to a wooden handle. This method is still practiced in this part of the world and others, if you want to give it a try!

The art of Polynesian tattooing began over 2,000 years ago, and is an enormous part of their ancient culture. It was discovered by Europeans sometime in the 16th century when they were exploring the area European explorers wrote extensively about their encounters with tattoos in this region—the first descriptions described that “it was a universal custom among men and women to get their buttocks and the backs of their thighs painted with thin black lines representing different figures.” Captain Cook, in 1774, wrote that “they print signs on people’s bodies and call this tattow,” further cementing our use of this word to describe tattooing in future centuries.

The Significance of Tattooing

Here, the art of tattoo is considered a sacred art form. Art in general was and is considered to be a sacred act of creation in Polynesia, but to have art adhered permanently to your body was considered a blessing that would carry with it luck and life power for the wearer. Many young men to this day in the region still have the goal of being covered head to toe in tattoos as quickly as possible. The more tattoos that a man was able to have, the more wealthy and powerful he was assumed to be—after all, tattooing one’s entire body is an expensive procedure! Women in this culture are still tattooed as well, though usually less extensively than men; some designs are worn specifically for each gender and designate different roles and responsibilities. For instance, a female would get her hand tattooed once she came of age, which would denote to others that she could participate in preparing meals.

Polynesian tattoos also have a deep spiritual and hierarchical significance—the designs tattooed and their placement on the body were determined by a person’s ancestry, personal achievements, and rank within society. Family lineage was an important indicator of social status, and tattoos were applied to symbolize this. Sometimes these tattoos were given a more spiritual meaning. Ancestors who had passed were thought to become gods in the afterlife, and a tattoo that commemorated them was thought to give spiritual power, called mana, to the wearer. Shamans would perform the task of tattooing these designs, often for very long periods of time, and were paid very well for it and were even honored by the family of the tattooed with a special dinner! The greatest respect is given to anyone who can perform the art of tattoo in this region, and great seriousness was given to the process of its application.

In addition, tattoos could also reveal a person’s island of origin and life history. They were also sometimes worn as “good luck” symbols, similar to the nautical stars worn by sailors in the early 20th century that represented a safe voyage back home. For instance, a Polynesian warrior might wear a design intended to protect him from harm during battle, or a farmer might wear a design to symbolize a plentiful harvest.

What About Modern Tribal?

While Polynesian tattoos are still appealing both in the region and in other areas, some of today’s most popular tribal tattoos are much different in style from these original designs. While some, especially in this region, wear original tribal designs to pay homage to their ancestry, many tribal tattoo designs have unfortunately lost their meaning and symbolism, and they have become commonplace for purely aesthetic purposes. Tribal designs are often desirable because they flow well with the natural contours of the human body, which is a very important element of a good tattoo design in modern society. Because of the shallow nature of most modern tribal tattoos, they have lost a bit of their popularity over the past decade, as people now show a preference towards designs that are more personal and offer a greater degree of self-expression.

Does that mean that all hope is lost for those who are interested in modern tribal designs? Of course not! Modern-day tribal can still be full of significance and purpose to their wearer. Though many abstract, aesthetically pleasing tribal designs are popular, it’s also become somewhat common to turn objects into simplified designs with tribal elements. For instance, someone might really like the tribal look and want to design animals, plants, or other objects that are meaningful to him or her in that style. Sometimes, people also draw on the influence of Polynesian tribal designs and incorporate them into a piece that has a more modern feel, keeping with the contemporary style of tribal tattoos without completely losing its meaning. Do a little research on the symbolism behind various elements of Polynesian tribal, and you just might find something that really speaks for the message that you want your body art to convey.

If you’re thinking about getting a tribal tattoo and are hoping to get something with a little bit of symbolism behind it, it might be worth it to look back at the rich history that tribal tattoos have to offer and tie some of their elements into your own personal design! Tribal tattoos can look very appealing when done well, but it adds a little extra element to your skin to know where they originated from and what it means to you to adorn your body with one permanently.

The History Behind Tribal Tattoos

The History Behind Tribal Tattoos

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