Tribal Tattoos: Traditional and modern inks to inspire you!

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Tribal tattoos are a big trend all over the world. Modern tribal ink is inspired by traditional Polynesian tattoo art, but tribal art itself has existed in every part of the world for as long as tattooing has been around. Read on to know more about this ancient culture – and get some tribal tattoo inspiration along the way!


Polynesian Tattoos

In the Polynesian tatau, each symbol and even the placement of the tattoo is important, as it all has meaning and significance for the wearer and their community.


Traditional Polynesian Tribal Tattoos

Traditional tatau was done using handmade tools. The process took weeks, sometimes even years, and was extremely painful. Men that endured the long process and acquired their pe’a, the traditional male tatau, were respected for their courage. Women with malu, the traditional female tatau, were seen as protectors of the village.

Traditional tribal tattoo
A Samoan pe’a, the traditional male tatau


Samoan female tattoo
Malu, the traditional female tatau


The Significance of a Polynesian Tatau

Traditional tatau are reserved for Polynesian people because of how significant they are to these cultures. Each tatau symbolizes a deep connection to one’s roots, family, and ancestors, and tells the wearer’s story through art.

Roman Reigns discusses the significance of his Samoan tattoos


Modern Polynesian Tattoos

Today, tatau is done using modern tools but many patterns from traditional tatau are still used by Polynesians for their deep meaning. Getting a tattoo that blends traditional and modern elements is not uncommon these days.

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson discusses the meaning behind his Samoan tattoos


Aquaman's tribal tattoo
Jason Momoa’s tatau features shark teeth to ‘take the darkness out of your heart and bring the light in’


From Polynesia to the Rest of the World!

So how did this deeply sacred art travel across the world? We have sailors to thank for that! After all, it was their love for getting inked from tattoo artists across the world that popularized tribal art!

Nautical tattoos were an eclectic mix of all the places a sailor had voyaged to
A tattooed sailor sporting ink inspired from various parts of the world, 1943


Modern sailor and nautical tattoos continue to use many tribal styles in their designs. Particularly, the use of bold black designs remains one of the most popular techniques in tattooing.

Nautical sleeve
Nautical blackwork full sleeve tattoo


Asian Tribal Tattoos

Asia has its own unique history of tribal tattooing. They had a long history but dealt with a long period of suppression from colonizers and missionaries. Many of the Asian tattoo art forms have since been revived.


Traditional Tribal Tattoos

Tribal tattoos in Asia used symbolism, nature, and geometric patterns in their designs, which they often replicated in their embroidery.

Tribal tattoos among the Toda look very similar to their traditional embroidery
A woman from the Toda tribe displaying her tattoos and embroidered clothing


A little further East, the tribal tattoos of the Filipinos looks distinctly similar to their Polynesian counterparts.

Tribal tattoos from Southeast Asia
A group of men display their traditional Filipino tattoos


Modern Tribal Tattoos

Contemporary tattooing in Asia draws on various styles including local and Polynesian tribal art. The resulting work is a unique art form that reflects the diversity of these regions.

Tribal tattoo using south Asian designs
Indian tribal tattoo, done by Birthmark Tattoo ’n’ Customs, Bangalore, India


Modern tribal tattoos
Tribal tattoos designs or ‘batek’ from Goa, India


Filipino sun tribal tattoo
The sun features prominently in Filipino tattoos, representing freedom and unity


Tribal-Inspired Styles

There are now many tattoo styles that are inspired by tribal art. Some are more traditional in their approach, while others prefer to blend multiple styles to create something unique. Two of the most popular of these styles are blackwork and animal tattoos.



Blackwork tattoos were traditionally larger pieces featuring geometric or abstract patterns made with blocks of black ink, as they were heavily influenced by tribal designs. Over time, blackwork has become a much more extensive style of tattooing and can be as minimal as line-work or extensive as sleeves or back pieces, but it still retains the quality of using only black ink to create the whole tattoo.

Of modern tribal-inspired blackwork designs, armbands tend to be extremely popular. These can be minimal or extensive, but the more minimalist armband tends to be the most common choice. While they originally represented loss, they are now chosen more for their aesthetic appeal.

Black armband tattoo done in Bangalore
Armband tattoo by Ink and Threads, Bangalore


Mountain armband tattoo
Armbands and mountains by Magic Needle, Bangalore


Blackwork tattoo
Polynesian-inspired blackwork by Rockstar Tattoo, Bangalore


Blackwork tattoo
Blackwork with Polynesian designs


Animal Tattoos

Animal tattoos are a favourite across the tattoo community – and beyond! Tribes from all over the world have been using animals in their designs for as long as they have been tattooing. Many non-inkers are also drawn to these designs, and often sketch them or get them printed on clothing.

Tribal nature tattoo
Armband and bull tattoo by Tattoo Trends, Bangalore


For Polynesians, turtles and turtle shells feature prominently in a lot of their tattoos. Even the tools for traditional tatau include turtle shells!

Tribal turtle tattoo
A turtle hides in plain sight!


Turtles represent a strong connection to both nature as well as yourself and your path. In Polynesian tattoos, the turtle can represent many things including health, fertility, peace, and rest. It is sometimes associated with being a guide that helps departed souls find their destination.

Modern tribal tattoo
Turtle tattoo by Avatar Tattoo, Bangalore


Over time, animal tattoos have evolved into an art form of their own. Tattoo artists usually draw from multiple styles in each piece. But the distinctive bold black ink that comes from tribal art continues to be visible in many animal tattoos.

Tribal koifish tattoo
Koi fish blackwork by Tattoo Sutra, Bangalore


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