Today, tribal tattoos are mostly used for their aesthetic appeal, but throughout history they have been worn as a way to signify heritage, spirituality, social status and the coming of age. Although ancient Maori designs are some of the most commonly seen styles, tribal pieces from around the world can be used to create unique and meaningful body art. Symbolism can vary widely and often depends on the tribe and the patterns that are used. As these pieces have strong historical significance, it is important to find an artist that is well versed in tribal art, as the culture of each tribe should be treated with respect.
Some of the most popular styles of tribal tattoos are Maori pieces. These designs have a long history of usage and often consist of simple designs that are made large and elaborate by sheer volume. Traditionally, no Maori design was ever duplicated, but most incorporated sharp spiral patterns that twisted and turned around limbs and over the back, stomach or neck. This is true today; however, many people like to add different patterns, as well as relevant symbols to their Maori tribal pieces. Many of these designs are done in black, but more modern styles may also make use of striking shades of red and blue.
Without realizing it, many people choose tribal tattoos that use designs from the tribes of Borneo and Polynesia. Tribal tattooing in Borneo often consisted of thick, black images that left portions of the skin exposed as a way of allowing the design to show through. These pieces are frequently made up of portrait-like images of animals and plants, and are often symbolic of accomplishments, as well as protection and identity. The Marquesan tribe of the Polynesian Islands created body art that took on distinct geometrical patterns, and often mixed these patterns with symbols and pictures. This mingling of images was, and still is, used to express the individuality of the wearer.
Haida and Celtic tribes also offer stunning tribal tattoos that can easily be adapted to modern body art. Haida pieces often consist of sharp lines that mingle with or make up the image of symbolic creatures, astrological emblems, plants or elements. Bears and eagles, suns and stars are some of the best known of these symbols, and they are often printed onto the skin in black and red ink. Celtic tribal pieces are frequently made up of slender, dark lines that are twisted into elaborate breads. These breads are often made to look like meaningful items like crosses, trees and animals, but are more commonly used to create simple and attractive patterns.