Tribal Tattoos: Designs & Origins

Tribal Tattoos

Tribal Tattoos: Designs & Origins

Ancient tattoos are often preserved when skin has been mummified or preserved in ice or peat, but nobody knows for sure when the first tattoo was inked.

This blog post is written to take you on a quick trip around the world looking at some interesting facts about the origins of tattoo designs.

The Pacific Islands

It is thought that the word tattoo originated from the Tahitian word tatau, meaning ‘to mark’.

Maori men tattooed their faces with fierce looking patterns and Maori women tattooed their lips and chins and were a sign of beauty.  These tattoos are caved into the flesh using a bone chisel, and ink is then placed in the cuts.  Recently Maori tattoos have become popular in the tattoo world.

In Samoa the tattoo marks the ability to bear pain and is still true today.

Tattooing in Japan is thought to go back some ten thousand years, with probably the most recognisable (and probably the most beautiful and elaborate) form of Japanese body art is associated with the organized crime group the Yakuza.

Central and South America

There is evidence showing that prior to the arrival of the Spanish in Central and South America that tattoos and body painting was widespread and largely used for social and spiritual purposes (rather than just decorative).  The arrival of the Spanish marked the start of a rapid decline and termination of many indigenous cultures, taking with them the knowledge of how these looked and how they were applied.

Central and South Africa

Tribal tattoos designs were traditionally applied using a the method of marking out the design on the skin with series of black dots, which works less well on darker skins.  This may explain why tribal tattoos are not as prevalent as in Central and South African cultures.  Rather than tattoos – skin painting and scarification is widely used as a way of decorating the body.


The remains of Ötzi the Iceman were found entombed in a glacier in the Italian / Austrian Alps and have been dated back some 5,000 years shows that he had about 57 carbon tattoos consisting of simple dots and lines on his lower spine, on his right ankle and behind his left knee.

Tattooing in Europe has obviously been around for many thousands of years (as seen on Ötzi the Iceman), although it was thought that Captain Cook ‘re-introduced’ tattooing back into Europe after his expedition around the Pacific in 1769.  Many sailors returned bearing permanent souvenirs on their bodies.  Since the return of this voyage, tattoos have been associated with life on the sea.

Tribal Tattoos Designs

Tribal Tattoos Designs vary considerably in terms of their design and style, however they mostly use large areas of solid black called ‘blackwork