About Usspacer
Piercers and Tattoo Artistsspacer
Tattoo and Piercing Aftercarespacer
Frequently Asked Questionsspacer
Artwork, Clothing, Music, Tattoo Flash, etc.spacer
Driving Directionsspacer
Wallpapers, Advertisements, etcspacer
News about A.W.O.L. Custom Tattooing, LLCspacer
Services from A.W.O.L. Custom Tattooing, LLCspacer
Tattoo Related Terms

tattoo shop directoryspacerBody Modification E ZinespacerTattoo Shop DirectoryspacerMuskegon Biker InformationspacerC W Eldridge Tattoo ArchivespacerTattoo Shop DirectoryspacerThe Vanishing TattoospacerTattoo CommunityspacerTattoo SourcebookspacerBook Mistress


"Not one great country can be named, from the
polar regions in the north to New Zealand in the south, in which the
aborigines do not tattoo themselves." - Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex


Tribal Tattoos
By Ray Reasoner, Jr.

   The tribal tattoo is something that dates back through time and place and is connected to many of our heritages. Tattoos have been found in many ways that date back thousands of years. In 1991, a more than five-thousand year old mummy was found with 57 tattoos. This was in the Austrian/Italian Alps. The majority of these tattoos correspond to acupuncture points used today. In 1947 a Russian archaeologist found a Scythian chieftain with multiple zoomorphic (animal) tattoos. In 1891 the mummified remains of the Egyptian priestess Amunet was found having tattoos on her arms, legs, and on her pelvis. She is thought to have lived 2160 to 1994 BC. These are just a few examples of different continents where tribal tattooing obviously existed.

   So what is a tribal tattoo you may ask? What do tribal tattoos mean? I will do my best to explain these questions in this article. These questions are very vast and differing in answer from region to region. For the most part I will be explaining the usage of tribal tattooing within different cultures. Let’s start out with the North American Indian tribal tattooing traditions.

North American Tribal Tattooing

   There are many Indian tribes in North America and many different traditions for tribal tattooing. It was very common for tribal tattoos to denote rank within the tribe. Take the Illinois Indians for example. It was quite common for weapons of war to be tattooed upon the men and it is suggested by some that the women received tattoos of tools used for labor. The tools of war outranked the tools of labor. They seemingly kept their tribal tattooing practices to a minimum.

   On the other hand the Timucua tribe was heavily tattooed. The Timucua hailed from the northern region of what is known today as Florida. Their tribal tattoos indicated wealth, rank, tribe affiliation, and direct family, their role in society, acts of strength, and deeds of bravery. Some of the tribal designs were as simple as a few lines or circles in certain patterns while others were highly intricate pieces of work. Holes were made in the flesh with various objects and then soot of some sort and berry juice was rubbed into the wounds. It was not uncommon for them to die from infection. The Timucua seem to have been one of the heaviest tattooed tribes within the North American continent.

   There are many other tribes in North America that used tattoos to indicate various aspects of their lives, or as decoration.  The Wichita, or Kitikiti’sh, as they call themselves, tattooed dark rings around the eyes of the men. Their tribal tattoos made them look “raccoon-eyed”. They had many other traditions as well but are best known for the dark rings.

   There are also the Inuit tribes of the north. The expert tribal tattooists of the Inuit were usually the elderly women. Their experience working with hides and other precise duties made their hands perfect for tattooing the tribal markings and amulets into their kinsman. The tattooist would make a mixture of lampblack, urine, and graphite as the pigment for her indelible tribal artwork. All of these items had a spiritual power and were commonly used to ward off evil spirits. These tribal tattoos were also believed to prevent and cure sickness associated with the evil spirits. She would then take a strip of sinew and string it through a bone or steel needle, soak it in the pigment, and then proceed to her creations.

   Throughout history it has been quite typical for women to be denied the “privilege” of being tattooed with a tribal marking or identity. The reasoning behind this, in many tribal communities, was that they were to be denied any adornment or niceties that would align them as equals to the men of the tribe. 

   On the other hand, there were tribes such as the Omaha. The daughters of prominent men were marked with spots on their forehead to represent the sun. There were also many other tribes that allowed both sexes to be equally tattooed.

   Fortunately, a woman being the lesser in the tattooing pool has changed drastically over the past couple hundred years and is much more commonplace these days. Nowadays women are observed wearing tribal butterflies, tribal roses, and the ever popular tribal lower-back pieces. It is also quite typical once again for women to be tattooists these days.

   In closing on the North American Indian tribal tattooing customs there is a far greater area that I did not touch on for we could spend years discussing all of the different traditions. There are many, many tribes full of various tribal traditions that I would encourage you to research. Here are some terms that may come in handy: Hupa, Caddo, Natchez, Thompson Indians, Iroquois, Miami, Algonquin totems.

Polynesian/Pacific Tribal Tattooing

   One of the things that impress me most about the Polynesian/Pacific tribal tattooing methods is that they actually use different sizes of chisels or groupings of objects. If you do some research you will find that this is very uncommon. Most tribal tattoos are done with one specific object and the size variation is minimal. This is not so with the Pacific. With no disrespect meant to other tribal orders throughout the world, but this shows me that they were a bit ahead in the world of tribal tattooing.

   Many of the ancient traditions of the Polynesian tribes are still alive and well today. Fortunately for the tattooed parties though many of these traditions are able to be done with modern technology if desired, or with the aid of proper antibiotics to avoid death from infection.

   The tattooists in some of these cultures are, and have been throughout time, actually paid for their services to their fellow tribesmen. This is another variance from most tribal tattooing. In my opinion it is a variance that is and was well worth it because the intricacy of the work is phenomenal.


   The Samoan tribal tattoo was done with a carved boar tusk, sharpened with a piece of coral, attached to a turtle shell, and then affixed to a stick. This tool is used to carve the designs into the flesh by tapping it against the skin and then a mixture of candle nut soot and sugar water is rubbed into the resulting wound.

   Just for learning’s sake I will list the names that I found for some of the tools used in the Samoan tribal tattoo:

Autapulu-This is a wide tattooing comb used to fill in the large dark areas of the tattoo.

Ausogi'aso tele-This is a comb used for making thick lines.

Ausogi'aso laititi-This is a comb used for making thin lines.

Aumogo-This small comb is used for making small marks.

Sausau.-The mallet is used for striking the combs. It is almost two feet in length and made from the central rib of a coconut palm leaf.

Tuluma-The pot used for holding the tattooing combs.

Ipulama-The cup used for holding the dye. The dye is made from the soot collected from burnt lama nuts.

Tu'i-The pestle used to grind up the dye.

   The traditional male tribal tattoo is called a pea’a and for a woman it is called a malu. A pea’a covers the man from his waist to below his knees. They are usually complex geometric patterns composed of straight linear arrangements or triangles and are quite breathtaking. These patterns all have different meanings and when combined with other patterns they can take on different meanings. Placement is also a specific thing when it comes to the representation of a thought. This is a long and excruciating ordeal for the receiver of the tattoo. At the end of at least ten days or more of getting tattooed the man would exit the dwelling with his well earned tribal tattoo. From what I can see the malu covers roughly the same region but the tattoo is not as dense as the males.

   The purpose of the pea’a and malu is the rite of passage into adulthood…period. Some symbolism still resides within the designs but that is not the primary function of the process. It is a great event and very expensive. The pea’a is broken into five separate pieces and they must be done in order. It is very ritualistic. There are some documented cases where all of the pieces are not done in such a short period of time but the custom is ten days with one day of tattooing per section and a day of rest in between followed by a day of removing any taboo that has been placed on the person receiving the tattoo. Enduring this tribal passage proves to the group that the individual is capable of performing the required duties for the tribe, whatever they may be.


   Most people today have at least heard of the Maori. If you have not here is your chance to learn a little bit. The Maori reside in New Zealand. They call their tribal tattooing “Ta Moko” and it is incredible to behold. Grooves are cut into the body with serrated stone chisels, or uhi, and pigment is pushed into the wounds. These marks would go deeper than just the skin in many cases.

The Maori tribal tattoo can mean many things. Tribal designation, status, and occupation among other things are displayed by these curvilinear designs. In the 1800’s it was not uncommon for a moko to be used as a signature to a legal document.  Therefore, the design also represented the person. The tattoo that was used for this signature would be the facial tattoos. It is almost unimaginable in today’s high speed world that one would take their time to draw one of their tattoos as a signature. These tribal tattoos obviously had great meaning and pride associated with them.

   Upon death the heads of the chieftains were preserved and kept by the family. In later years this led to an ugly trade in heads between the Europeans and the Maori. The Europeans also sometimes stole these heads as well. This trade got so out of hand that sometimes slaves would be tattooed to look like chieftains and then killed so that their heads could be traded for goods. This was put to a stop by Governor Darling of New South Wales in 1831. Within the past decade or so members of the Maori nation have been petitioning to get the heads of their ancestors returned to them so that their tribal heritage would no longer be disrespected.


   Tribal tattooing in the Hawaiian Islands was known as kakau. It served the same purposes as in most parts of the world. Everything from lucky symbols, rank denotation, and the commemoration of a great moment in ones life were tattooed upon the people. These tribal tattoos are called uhi.
It was the most common to mark oneself in mourning for a loved one. To the opposite, it was also common for the kauä (outcasts), which were primarily used as slaves or for sacrifices, to have tattoos. It would seem that almost everyone in the Hawaiian Islands was receiving tribal tattoos for one reason or another.


   A place that still runs strong in tradition due to the limited impact of the outer world; Borneo is an island still full of mysticism and a simpler way. It is the third largest island in the world. The first published description of one of the tribes of Borneo, the Dayak as they are collectively referred to, was not seen until the late nineteenth century. The people of the Dayak tribes carry on tribal tattooing to this day. If a young man passes on into adulthood by making his first kill while hunting alone he is awarded with various markings to celebrate this passage.

   The Dayak people believe that spirits are in everything around them. For this reason they believe that by tattooing an object or creature on them they can draw energy from these spirits. Occasionally, powdered bone or meteorite will be added to the pigments to increase the amount of power derived from their tribal tattoo. Representations of plants and animals that are believed to bring strength or protection are very common tattoos. It is believed that evil spirits can be kept at bay by wearing these tattoos or that victory in battle can be achieved by calling on the good spirits.

   Their tattoos are still hand tapped to this day. The pigments are similar to those of many other tribes in that they usually use soot or powdered charcoal mixed with fluids.

   The process of tattooing among the Dayak is very ritualistic. Before beginning the tattoo the tattooist sacrifices fowl of some sort to their ancestor spirits. Its blood is spilled and the chanting begins. After this ceremony the tribal tattoo may begin.

   A tattoo that is being given to a young man that has come of age is observed by all of the men in the village. They dress in the bark cloth of the mulberry tree, which is also used in funeral ceremonies. From what I can see there is a deep connection between that cloth and changes within their lives, be they beginnings or endings.

  The Dayak are also known for their prowess as headhunters. This tradition, which is followed much less these days, is also commemorated with a tattoo. After a head is taken the warrior typically receives a zoomorphic image on his fingers. This is called a tegulun.

   The women of the Dayak are also tattooed in a fashion similar to the Illinois Indians of North America. They would receive tribal tattoos that represent their skills in weaving or other works that their lives entailed. Going back to the belief in spirits the women would consult with spirits before weaving in order to avoid irritating them and to bring success at their task.

   I would definitely recommend further studying of the Dayak and their tribal traditions. From what I have read so far they are a people full of lore and rich in history.
Terms to lookup: Ibans, Kayans, Kenyahs.

African Tribal Tattooing

   Tribal tattooing doesn’t seem to occur in such a traditional fashion in Africa. I say this because pigment doesn’t seem to be included in the marking of the skin, for the most part. I find this odd because some of the earliest recording of tattooing can be traced to Egypt in 4000 BC. It seems to me that tattooing has been greatly replaced by scarification there. Tribes in Africa tend to do this more than anything else. Wounds are cut into the skin and either the wound is packed with a substance so that it becomes raised or it is rubbed with ash or sand until the wound rises up.

   The scarred markings still serve many of the same purposes as the tribal tattoos from around the world though. They indicate rank, affiliation, and are also used as a rite of passage.

   I was able to only find a couple mentions of actual tattooing and they were associated with poorly described Ethiopian wedding customs and the coming of age for men in other regions so that they were able to work. The men from Umudioka – Dunukofia travel place to place performing ichi (primarily facial tattooing) on the young men. This is a sign of becoming a man in their tribal culture.

Asian Tribal Tattooing


   The Scythians were a people that lived in Asia from approximately 2000 BC until 1000 AD. The oldest known picture tattoos were found on a chieftain in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia in 1947. He had multiple tribal zoomorphic designs and many markings to celebrate the defeat or killing of his enemies. One of them being a ram with reversed haunches. The reversed hind quarters are said to represent a kill.

The Scythians were a nomadic people and they traveled quite extensively. They came into contact with most of the great civilizations throughout Europe and Asia. They were in fact used as a bedtime story to keep Chinese children in line. If they did not behave the Scythian "monsters" would come take them in the night.

Their tattoos were really quite detailed for the time period in which they were done. I know that I listed some of thes things in the intro but you can see more of them here.


   The natives of Japan, the Ainu, practiced ritual tribal tattooing for multiple reasons. The women would tattoo themselves to resemble their goddess so that they might scare away demons that bring disease. They tattooed their mouths, arms, hands, their clitoris, and sometimes their foreheads. They also re-tattooed their mouths and hands in later years to cure poor eyesight.

   Girls that were of age to take their place in society were marked with tribal tattoos as well as those that were wed. If a woman was not properly tattooed before being wed she was thought to have committed a sin and would be instantly damned at death. It seems to me that the females bore the majority of significant tribal tattoos. The process of tattooing was simply cutting the flesh and rubbing wood ashes into the wounds.

   It is believed that some tribes in Alaska actually learned to tattoo from the Ainu. The later developing tattoo art in Japan is thought to have no ties with this original form practiced by the Ainu.

      Much of the earliest thoughts of tattooing in Japan are speculation, mainly derived from sculptures of figures bearing marks. There is very little documentation of positive identification of tattoos in later years, at least not until around 300 B.C.

   In later years tattoos gained a criminal stigma, such as the bodysuits once adorned by the yakuza, a Japanese crime organization. They were actually also used as a punishment for violators of the law. A three stroked symbol for dog was applied upon the forehead, one stroke per offense. There is a period in Japanese history when they were actually banned. To this day there are still ill connotations attached to tattoos in Japan; they are more accepted than they have been in a very, very long time. I would go further into detail about this but we are wandering into periods of time that are a little far along to be considered tribal to me.

Terms to look up: irezumi, tebori, horimonoshi.


   Tattooing entered China at about 2000 BC. There is really very little information on this other than a few brief mentions in mythology and text. Other than as a punishment it became illegal to tattoo during the reign of Emperor Qin in 200 BC.

   I find this to be interesting because there were quite a few cultures that tattooed acupuncture points on their bodies. I would have assumed the same to occur in China with acupuncture being used so predominantly in the Chinese culture. Another interesting thing about this being that Chinese art has and does influence so many other countries around the world. Chinese characters and other themes are extremely popular throughout modern society.

Central/South American Tribal Tattooing

   Cortez and the Spaniards spoke about the natives of Mexico bearing tribal tattoos of their demons. It is to be assumed that this was not a new custom in South America. It was also documented by the Spanish that both the Aztec and Mayan warriors would get tattoos to commemorate slain enemies.

   A figurine of a woman with child was found in Costa Rica. It is believed that she is adorned with tribal tattoos as well, but due to the limited information from her time (500-800 AD) and most importantly, her region; it is hard to say for sure.

European Tribal Tattooing
Romans marked slaves and criminals to set them apart from the rest of society. This may not be tribal tattooing, but it is still a small piece of history. The Roman military became intrigued with tattooing after invading the British Isles. It was not uncommon for a Roman soldier to receive a tattoo. Emperor Constantine eventually banned all forms of tattooing in the third century.

   Christians would get icthys (Jesus fish) tattoos as subtle identifiers of their faith. Having the tattoos would allow them to avoid speaking before knowing whether or not someone shared their beliefs and thereby allow them to remain silent rather than be executed.

   Celts, Danes, and Gauls would wear tattoos to display family crests before Pope Hadrian's edict in 787 A.D., which banned the practice of tattooing. Prior to this point it was thought by many that the Celts would tattoo their entire bodies blue with woad. The truth of the matter being that this muddy die was painted on for battle and was quite an effective scare tactic.

   It was quite common in the ancient times for the varying tribes of Europe to don animal totems similar to those worn by the Scythians. Animals carried powerful meaning since they were quite often a means to survive. Be it through the digestion of their flesh, the drinking of their milk, or the wearing of their hide; animals were important. There are also many Celtic stories that deal with animals, as with most cultures, I encourage you to read these. They can be as interesting as the mythology of ancient Greece or Rome.

  Throughout time the simple tribal tattoo forms of totem animals would develop into the intricate knotted zoomorphic creations of the monks and then into the modern tattoo designs of a flourishing technology. Ironically, during the time of the monks tattooing was prohibited in most of Europe. It was thought to challenge the church and be a lingering form of Paganism.

Middle Eastern Tribal Tattooing

   There was an ancient tradition of cutting and rubbing the ashes from a funeral pyre into ones’ wounds. This would allow the wearer to carry the ashes of their loved one with them always. This is a tribal form of our modern “In Memory” tattoos. We may not carry their ashes, but it still allows for the remembrance of a loved one. The cutting was also considered a way of expressing extreme sorrow  and respect for the dead individual.


In Closing:
I hope that this has been an interesting and informative beginning for years of future study of either where and how your ancestors began their traditions, or, a stepping stone in your search for more information to fuel your love for tattooing. As you can see there are many common ties between all of these traditions and there is good reason for that. We are all human.

   Nowadays many of these ancient traditions have passed by the wayside, while others have carried on. What cannot be questioned is that tattooing, be it tribal or not, will continue for many generations. It is inherent in most of our psyches to wish to decorate our bodies. Be it with jewelry, clothing, or permanent artwork, we strive to decorate. Just as many of our ancestors did we adorn ourselves to separate, unify, or just because we like the way something looks on our bodies.

   Many of these ancient patterns have given way to swirls, curvilinear designs, key-patterns, spikes, knots, and totems that belong to the creator of the design and the bearer of the art more so than any tribe. Even though the majority of these modern tribal tattoo designs bare no true tribal designation, when worn by those that understand where they are based they honor those that have passed and appear to be founding the creation of what may be known to future historians as "the new tribe".

   Here is a link to a site that was very helpful in my search for information: it was not the only source of information used as reference for this article, but I think that you will find it to be most interesting.