Tribal Tattoos 2024: Styles and Meanings

Tribal Tattoos 2024: Styles and Meanings

Tribal tattoos are not just ornaments; they are statements of identity. They represent one of the oldest and most fascinating art forms in the world, with roots that lie in diverse and distant cultures. Each tribe has developed its unique style, using symbols and designs to express values, beliefs, and faith. Today, we want to take you on a journey to discover the most iconic tribal styles and their profound meanings, which speak of courage, belonging, spirituality, and unbreakable bonds with Mother Nature.


1. Maori (New Zealand)

Maori tattoos, known as "ta moko", are among the most recognizable in the world. They are characterized by their intricate spirals, curved lines, and bold shapes, often applied to the face, neck, and arms. Each element of a Maori tattoo has a specific meaning, reflecting the individual's genealogy, social status, heroic deeds, and spiritual connection to their tribe and ancestors.

Symbols and Meanings:

- Spiral motifs (koru) symbolizing eternal growth and regeneration

- Tiki masks (ta moko) representing ancestors and their protective powers

- Curved lines (raku) symbolizing harmony and balance

- Ring motifs (pikorua) representing eternity and the continuity of life

Engraving of a man from New Zealand (Maori ?) with tribal tattoos on his face, encountered by Cook on his second voyage, 1772–1775

Image: an engraving from 1773 of a Maori chief with facial tribal tattoos by Willian Hodges (source: Welcome Collection).


2. Samoa (Samoa Islands)

Samoan tattoos, or "pe'a", are characterized by thick black lines and complex geometric patterns that cover a large part of the body, from the shoulders to the knees. These tattoos were traditionally reserved for men and represented their social status, courage, and skills in battle. Samoan women could have smaller tattoos on their hands and legs.

Symbols and Meanings:

  • Thick black line motifs creating an armor effect
  • Precise geometric shapes symbolizing balance and order
  • Serrated teeth motifs (agimua) representing strength and protection
  • Turtle motifs (fa'a siva) symbolizing longevity and stability

Samoan back tribal tattoo

Image: full back shot of traditional Samoan tattoo (source: CloudSurfer via Wikimedia)


3. Celtic (Europe)

Celtic tattoos, characterized by knots, crosses, and spirals, are inspired by the art and mythology of ancient Celtic cultures. These tattoos were often used to represent strength, courage, and belonging to a clan. Celtic knots, in particular, were considered symbols of spiritual power and connection to the otherworld.

Symbols and Meanings:

  • Celtic knots symbolizing eternity, unity, and spiritual strength
  • Celtic crosses representing faith, protection, and balance
  • Spirals symbolizing the cycle of life, rebirth, and change
  • Animals like wolves, deer, and serpents representing strength, wisdom, and magic

“The Trvve Picture of One Picte.” Theodor de Bry’s engraving of a Pict (a member of an ancient Celtic people from Scotland), published in Thomas Hariot’s 1588 book "A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia"

Image: an engraving of a Pict (a member of an ancient Celtic people from Scotland) by Theodor de Bry, published in 1588 in the book "A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia" (source: Wikimedia).


4. Borneo (Indonesia)

Borneo tattoos, known as "dayak", are characterized by abstract patterns that are applied using traditional techniques involving metal needles and natural pigments. These tattoos were often used to represent courage, social status, and tribal affiliation. Borneo women could have tattoos on their hands, arms, and legs, while men could also tattoo their chests and backs.

Symbols and Meanings:

  • Geometric and abstract motifs representing balance, harmony, and cosmic order
  • Animal designs like monkeys, snakes, and lizards symbolizing strength, protection, and magic
  • Eye motifs representing vigilance and wisdom
  • Trophy heads symbolizing courage and victory in battle

KALABIT TATU (WOMAN) - leg tribal tattoo photo from the 1912 book: "The pagan tribes of Borneo"

Image: leg tribal tattoo photo published in 1912 in the book: "The Pagan Tribes of Borneo" (source: Wikimedia).


5. Mentawai (Indonesia):

Mentawai tattoos, known as "sikuk", are characterized by symmetrical designs that are applied with fishbone needles and pigments derived from plants and soot. These tattoos are not only aesthetically pleasing but also represent a deep connection to the spiritual world.

Symbols and Meanings:

  • Geometric motifs: representing harmony, balance, and cosmic order.
  • Lines: symbolizing the flow of life, the connection to ancestors, and the bond with the earth.
  • Animals: like geckos, turtles, and snakes, representing strength, protection, and wisdom.
  • Masks: depicting ancestral spirits and protective deities.

A photo from before 1940 of a tribal tattooed man at Sikakap, Mentawai Islands

Image: a photo of a tribal tattooed man at Sikakap, Mentawai Islands (source: World Museum Amsterdam via Wikimedia).


Other Tribal Styles:

In addition to these five, the world of tribal tattoos offers a vast array of expressive possibilities. Here are a few other styles worth mentioning:


6. Haida (Canada):

Haida tattoos, originating from the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada, are characterized by images of stylized animals and ancestral masks. These tattoos represent strength, wisdom, and connection to the spiritual world.


7. Cook Islands Maori:

Similar to New Zealand Maori tattoos, Cook Islands Maori tattoos feature spirals with tiki masks and raku motifs. These tattoos tell the individual's history, lineage, and social standing.


8. Chatham Islands Maori:

Sharing some characteristics with New Zealand and Cook Islands Maori tattoos, Chatham Islands Maori tattoos also feature unique motifs like the "ngarara," a stylized serpent. These tattoos represent strength, fertility, and connection to nature.


9. Hawaiian:

Hawaiian tattoos, known as "kakau," are characterized by bold patterns, curved lines, and images of marine animals and plants.


10. Marquesas:

Marquesas tattoos, originating from the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, are characterized by images of deities and marine animals.


Tribal tattooed man wearing Psylo Off Tee


Did you know that we at Psylo are deeply connected to the world of tattoos? In fact, beyond the art you may see on our bodies, tattoos ignite the Psylo design team - inspiring bold printed artwork influenced by tribal designs, silhouettes that reveal body art and eco-friendly fabrics that create a second skin experience.

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