Today, most tribal tattoo designs do not have a specific meaning. In fact, many are simply random lines and patterns that have been put together in order to create a form of abstract art. Most modern tribal tattoos are solid black, though some tattoo artists are experimenting with the use of color in tribal tattoo designs and are creating a wide variety of tribal tattoos - variations.
The tribal tattoo was commonly used among North American Indian tribes to denote ranking within the tribe. The men within the Illinois Indian tribe, for example, would commonly have tattoos of weapons of war on their bodies. The women, on the other hand, had tools of labor. The tools of war were considered to outrank the tools of labor. These tribal tattoos were kept to a minimum.
The Timucua tribe, on the other hand, heavily utilized tattoos. These tattoos represented rank, as well as their societal role, their family lineage, their tribal affiliation, their wealth, their acts of strength, and their deeds of bravery. Their tattoos ranged from simple lines and circles to intricate designs and patterns.
The Inuit tribe also commonly used tattoos. These tattoos were applied by the elderly women of the tribe and were thought to help ward off evil spirits and to cure sickness.
The Samoan tribal tattoo was called the pea’a on men and a malu on women. The pea’a covered the man from his waist down to below his knees and was usually made from a variety of complex geometric patterns. It usually took ten or more straight days of tattooing to complete the pea’a. The malu also covered the same area, but was not as deep as the male version. Both the pea’a and the malu were meant to represent the passage into adulthood. Applying these tattoos was ritualistic and also quite expensive.
The Maori from New Zealand utilized tribal tattoos as a symbol of status, designation, and occupation. These tattoos, called Ta Moko, were also sometimes used as the person’s signature for legal documents. The Ta Moko meant for this purpose was located on the tribesman’s face.
The Dayak in Borneo still use tribal tattooing to this day. When a young man makes his first hunting kill, he is thought to pass into adulthood. This occasion is marked with a variety of tattoos. The Dayak also believe that tattooing the image of a creature or object on their bodies helps them draw energy from their spirits. Like the Samoan’s, applying the Dayak tribal tattoo was deeply ritualistic.
The African tribal tattoo did not involve the use of pigment. Rather, the tribesmen were cut and the wound was filled with certain substances in order to cause the scar to rise up. These scarred versions of tattoos still represented a rite of passage. They also indicated affiliation and rank.
The Ainu, who were the natives of Japan, had a variety of reasons for ritualistic tribal tattooing. Women would get tattoos in order to resemble goddesses and to scare away demons. These tattoos were located on the woman’s hands, arms, mouth, clitoris, and forehead. A woman who was not properly tattooed when she got married was thought to have sinned and were damned to death.