Tribal tattoos are some of the oldest known tattoos in history. For many men, the process of receiving the tattoo was a right of passage in it of itself and was often an elaborate affair with the tattoo spanning their whole body. The healing process for these intense pieces often took months and much assistance as the tattooed skin would be washed and massaged with salt water to extract the impurities. Different placements as well as designs represented different meanings and standings within the tribes.
The most common tribal tattoo styles you will see today go back to the Polynesians and Maori Tribes. Each island has a different and unique style. Hawaiian tribes use heavy animal symbolism such as lizards or turtles as well as weaving patterns, where as the Maori use large spirals and swirls to cover the body as well as marking the chin and face called moko, which is used as a marriage tattoo for women of the tribe.
Most of these cultures use the method of hand tattooing called Tau‐tau. The process for Tau‐tau historically utilized a tool made from sharpened boars teeth attached to a turtle shell and wooden handle. The teeth or “needle” would be tapped by another mallet onto the skin to create the design.
The name tau‐tau is what birthed the name tattoo in modern culture after the Western missionaries discovered the tribes and their process. Many of the tribes believed that the marking of the skin represented the wearers’ mana or spiritual power. Much of the tribal imagery and designs you find today are inspired by these ancient cultures.
Click here to see examples of Tribal tattoos.