Tribal Tattoos - Ideas, History, and Meaning

Written by: Pete

The Tribal style is characterized by uniform and geometrically simple patterns. But such tattoos are simple only at first sight. First of all, they have a long history that goes back to Mayan times, and therefore often have a special meaning for their owners. But also such drawings require the right technique to be applied to the body.

Now the tribal tattoo is not as popular as it used to be. But look how spectacular it looks on Dwayne Johnson’s shoulder and forget about such stereotypes. With the right sketch and place, this tattoo will look very impressive.

History of Tribal Tattoos

tribal tattoos

The origins of this style can be traced back across centuries to the time of the Maya civilization. At that time, drawings on the body were considered to be symbols that linked the body and the soul. Tattoos were notable for their numerous curves and ornate appearance.

Back then, it was believed that tribal tattoos embodied a person’s soul and identity. Women were not allowed to get tattoos. Only men could get tattoos, and only after he achieved certain merits and reached a prescribed age. Tattoos were indications of his exploits and bravery—the larger the tattoo, the braver and more courageous one was. Tattoos also showed how one withstood pain, as tattoos were usually applied in just one sitting. If a man was able to tolerate such a session, he was considered an exemplary warrior.

Interestingly, the tribal tattoo style spread thanks to sailors who discovered these islands and their inhabitants and brought different traditions back home.

The style experienced a wave of popularity in 1996 after renowned director Quentin Tarantino released “From Dusk Till Dawn” where he awarded George Clooney’s character a huge tribal tattoo extending from the neck to half of the forearm.

The popularity of this style can also be attributed to the fact that it is simple enough to draw and apply to skin (tattoo machines in the 90s were quite simple).

With the development of more advanced equipment, the tribal style became much more diverse—it became supplemented by various elements, shadow transitions, were attempts to give the pattern semantic plot.

Tribal Tattoos Today

While it is common to see tattoo symbols like that of a star, book, bird flying out of a cage; tribal tattoo designs are still quite offbeat. For some reason, individuals sporting tribal tattoos are usually rebellious, non-conformists. Also, it is not considered ‘presentable’ by a large section of the society. Also, this reflects in the instances where tattoos of tribal design influence employment opportunities and chances of getting a promotion.

Although tribal tattoos have not been accepted on a large scale, popular actors, singers, and sports personalities getting tattoos of tribal design indefinitely bringing about a change in people’s’ mindset. For instance, Mike Tyson has a tribal tattoo inked on the left half of his face. Also, It was the ‘back to nature’ trend that began in the late 80’s that threw a different light on the tattoos previously frowned upon.

The Significance of Tribal Tattoos

Most modern tattoo designs are quite easy to decipher. For instance, a design of a Map could stand for the passion for traveling; a bird flying out of its cage could indicate freedom. However, in contrast to this, Tribal Tattoos could mean many different things depending on their culture and the subjective experiences of an individual sporting the tattoo. It cannot be denied that Tribal tattoos are very expressive. They usually have more than one obvious meaning.

Also, tribal tattoos designs are quite complex and quite difficult to understand. For instance, geometric patterns and combinations of spirals are common Tribal tattoos. But what exactly could geometric patterns mean? Only the individual who has got the pattern linked would know. The common perception is that those who sport Tribal tattoos are deeply passionate. Their tattoos have a deep meaning more often than not; they are not there just to add to the physical beauty. Not only do Tribal tattoos speak of a person’s deepest desire, his identity they are, at the same time, aesthetically so beautiful!

Common Designs of Tribal Tattoos and Their Meaning

Celtic Cross

This symbol is essentially a cross with a circle around the point of intersection. And, the circle in the design is considered to represent infinity. Together, keeping the cross in mind, the symbol could translate to infinite belief in Christ. The Celtic cross and therefore Cross Tattoos are believed to have the power to draw on the powerful forces of nature. Additionally, other meanings associated with the Celtic Cross are Faith, Honor, Life, Hope.

The Sun

A sun tattoo could mean many different things depending on the design. The Celtic, tribal, and black sun tattoo are some of the common sun designs. The common interpretation of a Sun tattoo is that of ‘Guidance through Dark Times.’ Besides that, Sun tattoos (Tribal or Modern) could also stand for Rebirth, Dignity, Truth, Light, Healing.


An eagle is the symbol of Courage and Focus. The tattoo could stand for Power, Dignity, Wisdom. The ancient Greeks believed that the Eagle held for Masculine Strength. According to the culture of our current generation, an Eagle tattoo could have several interpretations such as-

  • Opportunity
  • Power and Dominance
  • Strength
  • Spirituality and a messenger of the gods
  • Wisdom
  • Clarity, Vision, and Focus
  • Masculinity and Virility
  • Freedom


Lion tattoos are the ultimate symbol of Power and Strength. The Egyptians consider a Lioness to be a Spiritual being, a symbol of Maternity and Power. In Egyptian and African culture, a lion is also believed to be the symbol of Royalty. Owing to the qualities as mentioned earlier, in many cultures, a lion stands for religious beliefs and many gods have been based on the mannerisms of a Lion. For instance, in Hinduism, the god Narasimha is half human and half Lion to bring out the best qualities of both beings.

A Zodiac Sign

There are 12 zodiacs and many ways to depict each one of them. Now, these tribal tattoos are most likely suitable on your arms as the designs are not elaborate enough to take up space on the back or chest. Also, the surface area of the arm is just about right for the size and nature of a zodiac tattoo.


This tattoo is mostly prevalent in the native population of North America. The mighty Eagle inspires this design in flight. The bird is a symbol of creativity.

Dragons and Scorpion Tattoos

A Scorpion, being one of the most fearsome insects, is a symbol of deadly power and intimidation. However, in many cultures it also represents sexuality. Dragon tattoos mark their origin in China and Japan. While in most cultures a Dragon is seen as a powerful beast that offers wisdom and protection some cultures associate a Dragon with something dark and evil.

Where To Get A Tribal Tatoo

Such tattoos can be applied to any part of the body: arms, legs, shoulders, or back. It is worth noting that the tribal style requires a large area on the body because a small pattern does not give off the same striking effect. The most popular body parts for tribal style tattoos for men are on the arms and shoulders. Tribal patterns create spectacular sleeves or patterns on the shoulder, transitioning to the chest. Women prefer to tattoo tribal patterns on the thigh or on the arms.

Shoulder & Arms

Covering the full length of the arm is a common sight. An intricate design would look the best on the arm as it is not disturbed by too many curves and folds of skin.


The back is like a canvas for the biggest and the best of tribal designs. Also, not only can the actual design will look great on the back; it can also be supported by detailing to give the tattoo a context.


A delicate, aesthetically pleasing tattoo could be placed on the neck


Those really passionate about their tattoo could flaunt it best by getting it inked on their face. Also, pick a design that complements your features!

Tribal Tattoos Ideas

Final Words

As exciting as getting a tattoo sounds, make sure you give it a good amount of time before you get it. Tattoos are permanent unless you are ready to spend on all the laser removal sessions. Also, get a tattoo you will never regret getting!

Do a thorough check before deciding on the tattoo artist. Look at their previous work and then choose.Make your tattoo experience a memorable one!

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