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Tribal Tattoos

Hundreds of years ago, tribal tattoos were placed on both men and women as a means of belonging. For people who were part of a clan or even a tribe, specific tribal tattoos would serve as their identity more than anything else. Such meanings still exist in the contemporary world where, perhaps more than ever, people feel the need to belong.

Tribal tattoos are arguably the most requested designs in tattoo studios across the world. With widespread appeal, they offer the versatility of being created on an extremely large scale or very small and somewhat delicate, and are commonly selected by both sexes. Although some tribal tattoos display colorful hues, most are still true to their ancient heritage using solid black coloring in bold patterns. These strong patterns work well with almost any object and theme offering tattoo enthusiasts more exotic versions of their chosen subjects.

Short History of Tribal Tattoos

Modern day tribal tattoos evolved from traditional tattoo designs of the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia. Deriving from the Polynesian word 'tattoo' (meaning to tap), tattooing was a ritual in numerous cultures that symbolized various things including courage, bravery, social belonging, status, genealogy and religious beliefs. To create Polynesian tribal tattoos, a tortoise shell or comb made of bone comb with needles on the end was hit with a stick, thus causing the needles to pierce the skin and inject the pigment within it. Other cultures created tribal tattoos by cutting designs into the skin and pushing pigment into the wound—as did the Maori tribes of New Zealand and many African tribes—leaving not only tattooed skin but also large scars. Today, electric tattoo machines with different needle sizes for lining and shading are used to apply tattoos to the skin. These machines do not leave large scars as the open-wound method did. Instead, they allow for finer detailing, shading and controlling of the pigment while leaving the healed epidermis smooth and uniform when properly cared for.

Commitment Tribal Tattoos
During the Bronze Age and eras that came after, wedding bands did not exist. People in committed relationships chose tribal marriage tattoos as symbols of testimony to show their love and promise to each another. This was also believed to help one find their spouse in the afterlife. Today, choosing tribal tattoos such as interlaced hearts, names or initials carries the same meaning of love, commitment and fidelity.

Milestone Tribal Tattoos
Tribal tattoos are also known to have been popular forms initiation into adulthood for adolescents approaching maturity. This ritual is still practiced by many in the western world today as many people choose to get tribal tattoos to mark their eighteenth birthday, and also their twenty-first. They are also commonly used to mark other milestones such as marriage, birth and death.

Animal Tribal Tattoos
Many tribal tattoos were administered as proof of power of certain totem animals over the lives of those they chose to guard and bless. Being bestowed with an animal tribal tattoo was a two-fold blessing. Not only would one gain the strengths and abilities of the totem animal, but the tattoo also served as a mysterious link between the animal spirit and the bearer of its marks. Different animals provide different strengths and virtues to the wearer.

Tribal tattoos of animals such as tigers, dragons, scorpions and lizards are popular requests in today’s tattoo parlors. One reason is empathy or the affect that an individual can feel towards a particular animal. Another reason is that people often feel represented by, or reflected in, a virtue or characteristic of a certain animal.

Colors of Tribal Tattoos

In the early stages of tattooing pigments were limited. Many tribes used ash and soot as a means of coloring the skin. Some Indian tribes in Florida have been noted using berry juice to add color to their tribal tattoos. Today, color choices are practically unlimited. Hues of blues, reds, purples, yellows and greens are all acceptable as most modern day tribal tattoos are chosen mostly for their design appeal rather than for ancient tribal symbolism. Even tribal tattoos shaded with rainbows of colors (for a more colorful appeal or possibly a correlation to the gay community) are becoming more common among the younger generation. However, the most popular color requested remains to be black. Making strong, bold statements is exactly what tribal tattoos are intended to do and no other color is quite as demanding as black.

A growing color trend in tribal tattoos is the use of white ink. Giving the design a ghostly effect, white tattoos are not outlined using black ink like the majority of traditional tattoos. Instead, the entire tattoo is inked using white pigment. Many times, the ink must be passed over several times to ensure that it is fully absorbed into the skin. Some people, particularly those with naturally dark skin, are less likely to bare bright white tattoos as their skin is unable to absorb enough of the ink; therefore, their tattoos may appear light and milky. Although allergic reactions are much more common to white ink than any other color, tattoo enthusiasts including actress Lindsay Lohan (“breathe” tattooed in white ink on inside of wrist) are paving the way for the popularity of white tribal tattoos.

Popular Combinations of Tribal Tattoos

Tribal tattoos have broadened from solid black patterns to include other elements within their bold designs. Panthers, roses, crosses, tigers, butterflies, fairies, dragons and celestial bodies (sun, moon and stars) are a few of the most popular subjects featured within tribal tattoo combinations. Flames are also commonly paired with tribal designs. The high contrast created between the bright oranges and yellows and the solid black tribal patterns creates eye-catching effects. All of these subjects add color to otherwise monotone designs and can increase the tattoo’s overall symbolism. Practically any combination can be used to create custom combination tribal tattoos. Therefore, they may be the perfect answer for those unable to decide between a tribal tattoo and another design – just ask the tattoo artist to combine them for a custom design!

Celebrities with Tribal Tattoos
Tribal tattoos are also popular among Hollywood’s most notable personalities. Here is a short list of high-profile celebrities who sport tribal tattoos:

PAMELA ANDERSON / Model & Actress: Tribal tattoo on lower back



SANDRA BULLOCK / Actress: Tribal tattoo below belly button



JOHNNY DEPP / Actor: Tribal tattoo on upper left arm (heart)



EMINEM / Rapper: Tribal tattoo band around left wrist



DWAYNE “The Rock” JOHNSON / Wrestler: Tribal tattoo sleeve on left arm and shoulder



ANGELINA JOLIE / Actress: Tribal tattoo on lower back (tiger)



MIKE TYSON / Boxer: Tribal tattoo on face


Placement of Tribal Tattoos

Tribal tattoos are quite versatile when it comes to placement on the body. With the ability to be large or small, they can virtually be placed anywhere. Lower back positioning, as well as ankles and wrists, have become a staple locations for many of today’s female tattoo enthusiasts while tribal tattoos running down or wrapping around the bicep area, along with the back or chest, are most popular with men. Those getting tribal tattoos should have a general idea of where they want their tattoo placed before entering a tattoo studio; however, professional tattoo artists are able to provide insightful ideas and suggestions based on size, design and natural curvatures of the body. Asking for their expert advice is one of the smartest things any patron can do to ensure their new tattoo is positioned as effectively as possible.

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