25 Tribal Tattoos from a Variety of Traditions with Powerful Meanings

The art of tattooing is tied to the ancient history of all humankind. Black dots or lines were given as religious, sacred symbols for various ceremonies leading to the birth of tattooing. The cultures who cherished and continue to respect these designs are regarded around the world for their artistry and dedication to the craft. Today the term “tribal tattoo” is a blanket term that can mean many different things to many different people. Each tradition has a distinct style and even method of tattooing.

In the 1990s, there was a tribal band trend that got out of control. Many of the designs were simply abstract riffs that many put little thought behind before getting on a bicep. People have started thinking more about what it means to rip off other cultures’ traditions, but tribal tattoos still thrive. Today, some thoughtful individuals are revisiting a variety of tribal art traditions to inform their tattoo designs with an eye for authenticity over the frivolousness of a fad. We decided to take a look at some of the tattoo artists and enthusiasts who are working in this space to bring you some truly remarkable tribal tattoo designs. We’ll also share a couple of examples of what can go wrong. Here are 25 of our favorite recently shared tattoos.

25. Polynesian Inspiration

This tattoo was done freehand and as you can see contains a great deal of black ink in the form of thick, strong bands. This tattoo was done by a member of a tribal tattoo collective based in Italy who are obsessed with traditional Polynesian designs.

24. Marquesan

Here’s another stunning example of a Polynesian design that comes by way of Borneo and was inspired specifically by Marquesan design and traditions. The sleeve itself is a triumph, but take a look at the neckpiece. Specifically, the way the shapes form over the Adam’s apple and then dips into the space between the collar bones.

23. It’s a Wrap

This tattoo was shared by a Canadian tattoo artist who specializes in a variety of tribal designs. This sleeve was inspired by Polynesian tattooing traditions and it’s done beautifully.

22. From Breast to Wrist

This bold Polynesian inspired design covers a lot of real estate. Stretching all the way from the chest to the arm, it contains many powerful symbols and shapes that give it tons of character while remaining true to traditional sensibilities.

21. Samoan Tatau

Wow! This Samoan style tatau has been modernized with the addition of a red rose. Large shapes with dramatic swoops give this design so much interest.

20. Roman Reigns

WWE wrestler Roman Reigns has a traditional Samoan paternal tattoo that traces family history. Here’s what a closeup of it looks like. Look at how intricate this design is!

19. Failed Interpretations

This is a freehand tattoo that was inspired by Māori tattooing but done by an artist in Brazil. It’s an… interesting design and we included it for you to see what some artists are doing in the space, for better or worse.

18. Another

Here’s another example of a traditional style interpretation that’s somewhat flat. We’ve shared these images so you can see that a lot of people throw the term “tribal tattoo” around without much regard for the traditions or principles that make them work. While parts of this tattoo are interesting the overall design lacks intention.

17. Somewhat Better

Here, we have an Italian tattoo artist who’s taken a stab a tribal style tattoo. While you won’t find much of the traditional symbolism or imagers, the tattoo is composed nicely and balanced for the most part.

16. Tā moko

Here’s a tattoo straight from New Zealand that comes from an artist and studio who specialize in traditional tattooing of the Māori people. What a stunning, bold-but-weightless design with a beautiful overall shape.

15. Honu

This Polynesian inspired sleeve tattoo includes a turtle or honu which is a symbol for immortality and equanimity in life. While this design isn’t the best on the list, the inclusion of this powerful symbol landed it here.

14. Half Sleeve

This very tidy tattoo looks great. It’s been inspired by Polynesian traditional design and the attention to detail is unparalleled.

13. Tiki

This interpretation of a Polynesian tiki is pretty fun. Tiki symbolize protection, fertility and they serve as guardians.

12. Renaissance

We’ve combed (pun intended) through a variety of hashtags about tribal tattoos and we’ve noticed a thing. Tribal tattooing is having a moment in Italy. This is one of several tattoos on this list that was completed by an Italian tattoo artist. Now, tribal tattoos inspire artists all over the world, but there’s something going on in Italy right now.

11. Contemporary Take

Here’s a somewhat modernist take on a tribal design that combines design elements and motifs of Polynesian tattooing in an unconventional way.

10. Progress

In Polynesian tattooing, the area of the body where the tattoo is given has great significance. Legs and feet represent moving forward, transformation, and progress.

9. A Cover-Up

This tattoo sleeve (from Italy) actually was devised as a way to cover-up an existing tattoo. We spot both turtle shell and lizard patterns in the design.

8. Filipino Revival

In the Philippines, there’s a rich tradition of tribal tattooing. This is a beautiful reimagining of those designs by an artist in the Philippines.

7. Tukutuku

Tukutuku is a distinctive art form of the Māori people, a traditional latticework used to decorate meeting houses. This example of that style comes from an artist in New Zealand and it’s spectacular.

6. Freehand in Puerto Rico

Here’s a big tattoo sleeve from Puerto Rico that was completed freehand. We see a number of traditional Polynesian patterns like shark teeth and spearheads. However, the overall execution misses the mark.

5. Sun and Moon

Simple and elegant these traditional shapes and simple designs result in a bold, yet balanced tattoo. Similar tattoos found in traditional Berber design (Rabat) and popular across Northern Africa.

4. Warrior Inspirations

Polynesian tattoos placed on the arms and upper chest represent strength and were common for brave warriors and battle leaders. This tattoo was completed freehand and looks incredibly clean and neat.

3. Half Sleeve

This tidy half sleeve tattoo is another submission from Italy. The tattoo artist who shared the image described his process which included drawing traditional Marquesan’s by hand for this tattoo.

2. An Unusual Take

This design incorporates many traditional Polynesian design aspects and creates something completely new. The outcome is a tattoo sleeve with an interesting shape with little regard for traditional aesthetic ideals.

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1. Berber Style

The design traditions on display here predate Islam and many other religious traditions that we commonly know today. In Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia this style had been practiced for centuries. Simple and elegant, this turned out great.

There you go! 25 tribal tattoos for you to gawk at. We hope you enjoyed these tattoos but will think long and hard before asking for a “tribal tattoo” from just any tattoo artist. Many artists work to honor traditions that have been passed down for generations while others are simply peddling a means to an end.

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