Tribal tattoos in the tattoo world: history and meaning

Tribal tattoos are one of the most recognizable styles out there. Masculine, bold, and full of power, these tattoos have a rich and powerful history that dates back thousands of years. Let’s take a look at the history and impact of tribal in the tattoo world.


Tribal is an umbrella term to describe traditional markings from all over the world and throughout history. The word tribal derives from the word tribe, which is a term to describe a group people. Tribal tattooing has been observed in ancient tribes and cultures since the neolithic era, and was primarily used to show off achievements and skills of individuals. There are many types of tribal tattooing from various cultures and places, one of them being Borneo tribal.

Borneo Tribal

Borneo is a large island divided into four regions, which is split between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. The indigenous Borneo people are called the Dayak. Within the Dayak are a more dominate tribe called the Iban. Tattooing for the Iban is a rite of passage, and the design is chosen for you based on age, gender, and rank. The tattoo is like a diary, showing their life and confrontations. Most men start with two flower like symbols on the front of the shoulders. This flower is called Bungai Terung, or ”eggplant Borneo flower”.

This process of tattooing is called Bejalai, meaning ”a journey of knowledge and wisdom“.
Women would also get tattooed as well. They would get tattooed to show off beauty, wealth, skill, status, or to attract men from other tribes to marry. The method of the tattoo application involves two instruments. One is a stick with three needles on the end, the other is a “striker” that is used to rhythmically tap the needles into skin. A carved wooden block is used as a stencil and the ink is typically made from soot, water, and sugarcane.

Polynesian Tribal

One of the most popular tribal styles is called Polynesian tribal. These have very identifiable symbols and imagery such as waves, spearheads, shark teeth, and the enata- a tribal symbol of the human figure. The most popular tattoo style to come out of Polynesia is Samoan, dating back 3,000 years ago. The Samoan word for tattoo is Tatau or Tatatau.

Tattooing is a spiritual process that supposed to be a long and painful experience. This shows courage and determination. The main types of tattoos in Samoan are pe’a and malu. Pe’a is the male form of tatua, usually bold and powerful. Additionally, Malu is the female version of tatua, featuring smaller and more delicate designs. Malu on the hands is called Lima. Placement is also symbolic as well. Ancient tribes would place tattoos onto the limbs and shoulders to symbolize bravery and strength. Forearm and hand tattoos indicate creativity.

Native American Tribal tattoos

The difference between native American tribal and other types of tribal is the symbolism and imagery. Common imagery includes dream catchers, arrows, animals, feathers, and abstract tribal patterns. Tattooing was used for ritualistic and identification purposes as well as providing protective properties to the wearer.

Mayan Tribal tattoos

Lastly, Mayan tribal was primarily used for religious symbolism and as an act to appease the gods. The Mayan form of tattooing is inking the design onto the skin then creating cuts along the markings. Next, the ink enters the cut and creates the tattoo. Common Mayan elements include the sun, earth, eagles, bats, and a Mayan calendar.

Triba in the Tattoo world

In conclusion, Tribal is one of the most customizable and recognizable styles out there. They can be made unique to the wearer and can be placed on any body part. With all these different options, tribal can be made to tailor fit any person. We hope that this informative blogpost has taught you about tribal tattooing and helps you consider your next tattoo at Tabernacle tattoo. For more information, visit this article or keep up to date on our blog for more tattoo related info.

Geometric tattoo & Polynesian tattoo designs
This is a geometric tattoo performed at Tabernacle tattoo in Tampa Fl in Historic Ybor City
Polyneisan tattoo artist Tampa Florida