Tribal Tattoo Design Style


Just like the Japanese style, Tribal is one of the most ancient design styles. Typically it is black and is used for symmetry and geometrical designs. The difficulty of this design requires an artist with good line work and steady hand.

An example being the Polynesian design style tattoos. It is derived for the culture and traditions of the Polynesian tribal peoples like Maori. Tribal symbolism is used in designs that are created specifically for the one receiving the tattoo.

History of Tribal Tattoo Design Style

The Tribal tattoo design style gets its reputation due to their resurgence in popular culture as a result of the “back to nature” mindset that began in the late 80s and become a trademark of Generation X. Particularly in the late 80s, Gen X-ers delved deep into indigenous cultures around the world. They co-opted numerous cultural assets ranging from clothing styles to food and, eventually, body modification which included tattoos and “gauged” earrings or “plugs”. The most crucial aspect of this cross-cultural adoption was the introduction of tribal tattooing to the modern American counter-culture that ultimately eliminated the historical and cultural ties between traditional tribal tattoos and the individuals choosing to have these designs tattooed on them.

Origin of Tribal Tattoo Design Style

This design style of tattooing commonly referred to as “tribal tattoos” has an incredibly long tradition dating back over thousands of years. The majority of the tattoo styles we are familiar with today were rooted in tribal tattooing in one form or another. Tribal tattooing started as a style tattooing that is (or was, at least) unique to a particular culture or sub-culture, generally as a means of differentiating themselves from other local tribes or cultural groups.

Purpose of the Tattoo in Tribal Culture

Of all the remaining primitive tribal tattoos left in the world today, the styles we associated with the term are really a corrupt blend of traditional Maori, Polynesian and Samoan tattoo design styles. In their respective cultures, these tattoos were used to identify wearers as members of a specific tribe, displayed their social status and in some cases were even employed in medicinal and religious rituals. The figures and shapes utilized in these tribal tattoo design styles were frequently representative of animals or other elements of nature and tribal life. These tattoos usually told a story, depending on the design elements used. The tattoos of warriors frequently included animal and other nature-inspired designs that illustrated the warrior’s strength and prowess in battle. Images that were representative of the sea were also common as all the cultures associated with tribal tattooing have traditionally lived near the ocean.

Distinct Styles of Traditional Tribal Tattoos

Many of us are probably familiar with the modern tribal tattoo, but you might be surprised to learn how little the modern tattoo style resembles the traditional artwork. Modern tribal tattoos adhere to a barbed, flowing and often “tangled” looking design, but traditional artwork in the tribal style was incredibly varied. The various styles from one tribe to another and from culture to culture were necessary to serve their original intended purpose: to help give the wearer a distinct physical appearance that could quickly and easily associated them to a specific tribe.

Tribal tattoo design styles frequently included short line elements, circles, patterns utilizing lines and/or chevrons, and in some cases, large sections of solid black bands akin to the modern tattoo style called “blackwork.” These elements could all be applied or just a single element depending on the tribe. Placement on the body was also crucial and could symbolize the wearer’s status within the tribe. It was extremely common to see patterns that formed a sort of “woven” look using a combination of patterns that set wearers apart not unlike the tartan plaids of Scottish clans.

Modern Tribal Tattoo Design Styles

All in all, the tribal tattoo in modern culture is purely aesthetic. Additionally, modern tribal tattoos often incorporate modern images, designs and subject matter, but apply the flowing shapes common to the traditional tattoo style. There are an increasing number of people who choose to wear these tattoos to celebrate their own cultural heritage, as well. While the wearing of these tattoos by people who are not culturally or historically tied to them has tainted the art in the eyes of the general public, those within tribal communities still respect them for their original purposes.


These are just a few of the facts about tribal tattoos. Tattoo Consortium can design tribal tattoos to any of our clients specifications. For more information or to get started on your next tattoo contact us with the link below!

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