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Tribal Tattoos: Intriguing History and Plenty of Meanings

0 comments, 2044 views, posted 10:17 pm 01/10/2015 in Art & Comics by lilly
lilly has 5 posts, 3 threads, 0 points, location: Macedonia

Tattoo art has survived for centuries in most of the major tribes of the world. The reason that the body art became popular was the pain it brought and permanence it offered. Tribal people were in awe of members who could bear the tattoo pain. Pain tolerance was respected and was associated with maturity and wisdom. Hence, tribal tattoos were used as an instrument to mark adulthood, victory over enemy, and for establishing position of a person in the tribal society.

Read on to learn how tribal tattoos flourished for centuries in some major tribes:


The Samoan islands were visited by French explorers in 1787. They noticed that the males had tribal tattoos on their thighs. The darkness of the body art was so much that it looked as if they were wearing some kind of garment. Deep understanding of the tribe led to some interesting finding about tribal tattoo meaning. It became known that a Samoa male was to have a tattoo only when he attained puberty. By having tattoos, he could assert that he was mature enough to take part in discussions and express his opinions in front of older members of the society.

The instruments used for tattooing were mostly bones. Early texts of western explorers suggest that mainly human bones were used but in case of unavailability of the same, bones of horses were preferred. A comb like tool was forced inside the skin and designs were engraved in it. The tattoo artist would operate the handle of the tool made of tortoise shell using his toe. The entire tool was put together with coconut fiber. A mallet was used for directing the tool so that it would create the desired design. Some of the explorers to the islands also noted that men with tribal tattoos on their nose were not respected at all. Tattooed nose was a clear sign that the man was a criminal and should be avoided at all costs.

Ainu people

The Ainu tribe resided on the Hokkaido island of Japan. Their tribal tattoos history features only tattooed women, not a single man. In fact, visitors to the island did not even spot a single male tattooist. The Ainu tribe was a closely-knit group and the members guarded their secrets fiercely. Hence, the reason behind predominance of female tattoo became known much later. According to a legend, Okikurumi Turesh Machi, the sister of Okikurumi (life giver), is responsible for the birth of tribal tattoos on earth. That is why only women were considered capable of tattooing and wearing the art on their skin.

Rapa Nui people

Easter Island was discovered in 1772. Before that, the Rapa Nui civilization was thriving there without any external influence. With the discovery, the Island started to be visited by explorers and they made accounts of a variety of tattoo art on the neck, arms, back, legs, and forehead of the people. The imagery of the tribal tattoos ranged from animals, birds, and people to surreal elements that existed in the belief system of the Rapa Nui people.

The tattoo imagery had deep meanings and it was found that designs were passed from generation to generation. Mostly, lines and dots adorned the foreheads of both men and women. Women also had tribal tattoos that encircled their mouths. It was a kind of decoration, which made them look more attractive to men.


A book called Moko, authored by military officer Horatio Robley provides a detailed account of tattooing practiced in the Maori tribe. The tattoo was locally called moko. The most unique feature of this body art was its execution. It was generally done on the face and the designs were spirally. Moreover, along with tattooing, the designs were etched inside the skin. When the skin healed, the scars appeared in the shape of spiral designs giving a rough 3-D effect. The tattoos were mostly worn by men of higher class and more complex the design was, the more attractive the man was considered. Since every tattoo session involved pain and suffering, men with more tribal tattoos were thought to be more powerful than others.

In the case of women, the tattoos were not so profound. No woman was seen sporting the intricate spiral tribal tattoos. The focus area was the lips, which were heavily outlined and filled with solid color mostly blue. Some women wore line tattoos on their foreheads and cheeks too.

The tribal tattoos history of moko designs is rich. The designs were found to have intense tribal tattoo meaning to them. However, not much is known about them. Various texts written by explorers suggest that every Maori tattoo artist had its own style of tattooing and that is how he maintained his individuality. The tattoo art was passed on from generations and most artists drew them through mere recollections of what their ancestors had told them.

Extra Points Given by:

marksyzm (5), pachi99 (1), aion_z (3)


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