Saturday, January 13, 2018
hip hop

Tribal Tattoo Designs And History – Polynesian, Tahitians, Maori, Celtic, Egyptian, Japanese, Hawaii


What is cooler than an exceptional piece of tribal tattoo artwork? Not a lot! No nonsense colours, no meaningless images, just pure symbolic, sub-conscious tribal statement to the world!

Now, you don’t have to belong to a traditional tribe for your tribal tattoo to mean something, in fact we are all tribe members of some sort; just think sub culture (hip hop, grunge, rock etc). I doubt you will find a group of die-hard rock fans, each with pretty flowery tattoos or hardened USA convicts with pink fairies! Get the drift? So, with that in mind let’s go through some of the original tribal tattoo types and a brief history to help you form a basis for your next tattoo design.

Polynesian Tribal Tattoos (Tahitians):

These tattoos were pivotal to their culture as they had no written language as we would know it. Social status, family and position were the top massages conveyed by their intricate designs and rituals around them.

Tools used were a comb with needles generally made from bone fixed to a handle. The needles were placed into the ink (made from water, oil and candlenut soot -think charcoal) then against the chosen physical location and tapped on the back, piercing the skin and injecting the ink. The noise made from this is where the name “tattoo” is born, or “tatau” as the Polynesians (Tahitians) would say, or even “Tattow” as Captain James Cook subsequently dubbed it!

Celtic Tribal Tattoos:

The Celtic, once a dominant force in what we know as Europe were slowly and very violently pushed north west by the Romans, Angles and Saxons. The Celtic culture is rich with history and legend, but again as there were no classical written language tattoos were required to convey social messaging.

Celtic Tattoos typically know for their intricate knots, interlacing patterns, spirals and animals. Deeply spiritual meanings and significance the interwoven patterns and organic spirals indicate a never ending flow to the world as they viewed it. Today more commonly used as cultural and heritage markers (Scottish, Irish and some Welsh), Celtic bands. Feature the most and are very attractive designs with significance placed on where the Celtic tattoo design is placed

Maori Tribal Tattoos:

“Ta Moko, the process”, “Moko, the product”.

There is an ancient New Zealand tale of how tattoos came to be for the Maoris which starts with a relationship between a man (Mataora), and an underworld princess (Niwareka.. Mataora foolishly beat Niwareka and she fled to her father’s underworld domain (Uetonga). Mataora, deeply saddened and remorseful for his actions set out to retrieve his lover and then embarks an epic journey to the underworld Uetonga. Finally reaching dishevelled and with face paint smeared and disfigured, his lovers father taught him the art of tattooing which he brought back to the land of men – along with Mataora!

Used primarily to mark status and male rights of passage, similar tools and techniques were used like the Polynesians (Tahitians); in fact it is widely believed that early Polynesians first brought the art to New Zealand

Other Great Tattoo Civilizations:

  • Egyptian Tattoos – Just as they did their techniques spread far and wide across the know world
  • Japanese Tattoos – Deeply ritualised and formal, certainly had more to do with honour than visual symbolism
  • Hawaiian tattoos – Culturally and geographically so close to Tahiti the history is too similar to repeat here but just know that the art works differentiated over time.

Source by Trevor Stephenson

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Mitchel Turner



I’m a journalist from Oxford specializing in hip-hop and culture.