120 Different Types of Tribal Tattoos – with Meanings

The history of tribal tattoos is rooted as deep as during the beginning of civilization. Tribal tattoos are evident in the historical accounts of different places in the world.

Tribal tattoos are traditionally used for aesthetics, spiritual beliefs, and markings for a ritual passage (badge of honor) for men and women, particularly tribal warriors. The purpose of tribal tattoos may vary from one tribe to another, as some tribes in ancient times did also use tattoos as camouflage when hunting in the woods. Meanwhile, modern tribal tattoo designs are derived from Aztec, Polynesian, Iban, Samoan, and Maori influences.

Ever wondered what category all those interesting designs with loops, swirls, and hooks inked mostly in black, belong to? Well, those are tribal tattoos, each belonging to one of several popular tribes from around the world. That said, there are different types of tribal tattoos you should know about before selecting a final design for yourself. A tribe’s rich culture, history, as well as centuries-old heritage are a few reasons enthusiasts get inked with at least one tattoo inspired by their favorite tribe. If you’re one of those enthusiasts, you’ve landed on the right page.

Modern tribal tattoos draw their inspiration from these ancient designs and are mostly derived from ancient tribal art. Cultures that originated this style of tattooing are the Aztec and Borneo cultures, Samoa, Hawaii, India, Polynesia, and the Maori people of New Zealand.

Table of Contents

1. Hawaiian Kakau Tribal Tattoos

Hawaiian tribal tattoos are loved for their wonderful black-inked look, sea animals, and geometric patterns. The rich tribal artwork of the region teaches us strong stories of their culture. The tribe’s culture is among the most popular among tattoo enthusiasts. Besides the love of water, flowers, and sea animals such as the turtle, Hawaiin Kakau tattoos are sought by men who want to show their warrior-like status.

Tribal Hawaiian Pectoral Tattoo

Tribal-Hawaiian-Pectoral-Tattoo

Source: @pacificsoul_steve via Instagram

This chest piece is the perfect example of artsy Hawaiian geometric patterns used in creating stunning tattoos.

Tribal Hawaiian Upper Back Tattoo

Tribal-Hawaiian-Upper-Back-Tattoo

Source: @thakuya via Instagram

The turtle is the most popular sea animal for a Hawaiian tribal tattoo. The above back piece looks elegant due mainly to the beautiful Hawaiian flower.

Tribal Hawaiian Hand Tattoo

Tribal-Hawaiian-Hand-Tattoo

Source: @paradisetattoomaui via Instagram

The hand is one of the coolest placements for a tribal tattoo. The above black tribal design on the front of the hand is sure to seek attention.

Tribal Hawaiian Calf Tattoo

Tribal-Hawaiian-Calf-Tattoo

Source: @komcepts_designs via Instagram

The sun is an important element in most tribal cultures, and the Hawaiians are not behind on that front. Leadership, light, and creativity are some important connotations of the sun.

Tribal Hawaiian Thigh Tattoo

Tribal-Hawaiian-Thigh-Tattoo

Source: @ajtfz.801 via Instagram

The humpback whale is one of the most important sea mammals in Hawaiian tribal culture. The ocean played a crucial role among the islands’ Native Hawaiian inhabitants. The ocean represents spiritual and physical sustenance, while the whale represents a strong connection between spiritual and physical worlds.

Tribal Hawaiian Rib Tattoo

Tribal-Hawaiian-Rib-Tattoo

Source: @hannahkinz13 via Instagram

Hawaii is all about beautiful exotic flowers. This rib area tattoo is precious and elegant. It’s the type of tribal tattoo design that the ladies would love to show off.

2. Samoan Animal Abstract Styles

Perhaps the most popular kind of tribal tattoo, Samoan designs come in a wide variety. Male and female Samoans have a dedicated set of designs for themselves, in which pe’a (for male) are large and more intricate than the less subtle malu (for female). Pe’a tattoos are typically inked somewhere in the lower extremity of the body and used as a cover or protection from wild animals in the land and sea. Other popular Samoan styles are the Marquesan cross, ocean swirls, and sun rays.

Samoan Animal Abstract Styles 2

Cherokee Tribal Back Tattoo

Cherokee-Tribal-Back-Tattoo

Source: @fabiosilva_tattoostudio via Instagram

In Native-American culture, wolves are symbols of virtue. The above image is that of a tattoo featuring a wolf on one side and a Cherokee member on the other. The wolf people, according to Cherokee beliefs, would never kill a wolf. The slain wolf’s spirit would otherwise take revenge for its death.

Cherokee Tribal Leg Tattoo

Cherokee-Tribal-Leg-Tattoo

Source: @tattoosbylyn_sdt via Instagram

This leg piece of a Cherokee woman is tattooed to perfection by the artist. This type of realistic tattoo is one of the most sought-after styles when it comes to Cherokee tattoos.

Cherokee Tribal Thigh Tattoo

Cherokee-Tribal-Thigh-Tattoo

Source: @drizzy_inkk via Instagram

This unfinished Cherokee skull tattoo would look even bolder and more striking once the piece is done. A skull in Native-American culture signifies strength, passion, fierce pride, and dignity.

Cherokee Tribal Calf Tattoo

Cherokee-Tribal-Calf-Tattoo-1

Source: @lloydizm via Instagram

This calf and shin piece of a Cherokee looks ideal on this placement. The symbolism is incredible. To the Cherokee, the belief, there should be balance and harmony, etc. is the ultimate religion.

Cherokee Tribal Full Sleeve Tattoo

Cherokee-Tribal-Full-Sleeve-Tattoo

Source: @katherineparkess via Instagram

This full sleeve tattoo looks powerful. You’ll feel pride in wearing such a design permanently on your body.

Cherokee Tribal Forearm Tattoo

Cherokee-Tribal-Forearm-Tattoo

Source: @drizzy_inkk via Instagram

This is a beautiful Cherokee design for the forearms. You’ll notice the shades of typical Cherokee colors. As of today, three Cherokee tribes are federally recognized in the United States. These are the Oklahoma-based United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB), the Cherokee Nation (CN) also in Oklahoma, and the North Carolina based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI).

Cherokee Tribal Chest & Sleeve Tattoo

Cherokee-Tribal-Chest-Sleeve-Tattoo

Source: @jaydevito_tattoos via Instagram

This chest piece of a woman Cherokee looks almost a natural part of the man’s body. The tattoo is placed by the artist with great skill so that it doesn’t look out of place.

3. Indian Tribal Tattoos

Indian tribal tattoo designs include traditional simplistic body art that makes use of straight lines and Indian deities, symbolizing great power and strength. Indian tribal tattoos also depict ancient carvings, floral patterns, geometric designs, and animals and creatures. Common animal and creature choices for the designs are tigers, elephants, and dragons. Owing to their incredible aesthetic appeal, ancient Indian tribal tattoos of jewelry-like carvings were preferred over real jewelry and accessories. These days, modern Indian tribal designs are large in size.

Indian Tribal Back Tattoo

Indian-Tribal-Back-Tattoo

Source: @davidecalzoni via Instagram

The above full-back tattoo shows the goddess Kali. Kali is the perfect embodiment of female power or ‘shakti.’ She is an embodiment of destruction. She looks scary and bloodthirsty, yet acts as a protector against all evil.

Indian Tribal Calf Tattoo

Indian-Tribal-Calf-Tattoo

Source: @obi1.0 via Instagram

Life is never-ending, and everything in the universe is connected. That’s what this lion mandala represents in addition to pride. The lion further represents loyalty, wisdom, and protection among other things.

Indian Tribal Chest Panel Tattoo

Indian-Tribal-Chest-Panel-Tattoo

Source: @obi1.0 via Instagram

This is the quintessential ancient tribal tattoo art originating from Gujarat in India. It’s associated with the Rabari tribes as well as other remote tribes of the Kutch region. Some noteworthy elements are the peacocks and geometric designs.

Indian Tribal Style Full Sleeve Tattoo

Indian-Tribal-Style-Full-Sleeve-Tattoo

Source: @obi1.0 via Instagram

This traditional, Indian tribal piece is relatively easy to ink and cheap too. It looks amazing on the full arm.

Indian Tribal Neck & Upper Back Tattoo

Indian-Tribal-Neck-Upper-Back-Tattoo

Source: @d_a_s_l_y_ via Instagram

Floral patterns are an inherent part of traditional Indian Tribal art. In the above neck and upper back tattoo, the lotus symbolizes purity, enlightenment, and rebirth. Even when a lotus’s roots are immersed in the dirtiest waters, a beautiful flower is produced.

Indian Tribal Animal Tattoo

Indian-Tribal-Animal-Tattoo

Source: @gunga_ma

In Indian culture, Tattoos showcasing a tiger or other animals are symbolic of mourning for losing your loved ones.

Indian Tribal Geometric Tattoo Design

Indian-Tribal-Geometric-Tattoo-Design

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In Indian tribal culture, Geometrical designs represent trapping evil beings to safeguard them till they meet their ancestors during the afterlife. Geometrical tattoos applied on women signify safeguarding them from sexual predators.

4. Samoan Tribal Tattoos

Samoa is considered a part of Polynesia, yet it does have a distinct tribal flair. Thus, it made perfect sense to give Samoa an independent spot on the list in this article. The several sentimental meanings associated with Samoan tribal tattoos make them stand apart from the crowd. What you’ll love about these tattoos is that they are made of straightforward strokes. These tattoos are amongst the coolest in the tribal category. Samoan-style tattoos are typically used for protection from land or sea animals.

Samoan Tribal Shoulder & Pectoral Tattoo

Samoan-Tribal-Shoulder-Pectoral-Tattoo

Source: @ranieropatutiki via Instagram

This vidi vici, black ink tattoo sits crisply on the shoulder and left pectoral muscle. It’s a typical, cool Samoan tribal tattoo that simply looks amazing.

Samoan Tribal Lower Leg Tattoo

Samoan-Tribal-Lower-Leg-Tattoo

Source: @bong_tatau via Instagram

Samoan tattoos are often meant for placement in the lower body regions, and this awesome calf and shin peace is typical placement.

Samoan Tribal Full Back Tattoo

Samoan-Tribal-Full-Back-Tattoo

Source: @temata_antoine via Instagram

This full-back piece is a commendable piece of body art. The use of blank spaces for the divisions gives it a neat look.

Samoan Tribal Sleeve Tattoo

Samoan-Tribal-Sleeve-Tattoo

Source: @rodmedina via Instagram

This sleeve has intricate Samoan tribal patterns inked with precision.

Samoan Tribal Multi-Placement Tattoo Design

Samoan-Tribal-Multi-Placement-Tattoo-Design

Source: @goodlucktattoos via Instagram

This design is Samoan to the core. If we date back to the original Samoan tattoo art styles, the tribesmen and women had various tattoos all over their bodies that were in synergy with each other. None of the unique elements are interconnected in the above imagery, yet each looks in unison with the other.

5. Maori Face Tattoos

Maori Face Tattoos

Maori tattoos are almost synonymous with face tattoos, with the head being a sacred part of the human body as they have believed in. Tattooing on the head is a form of body art that symbolizes one’s social status, prestige, and rank; a rite of passage that is given to the privileged few.

Maori tattoos are described by its intricate and high display of craftsmanship that no tattoos are alike. This is primarily because the tattooists are a specialist on their own and they use chisels and knives to carve shapes and figures into the skin. Needless to say, getting a Maori tattoo by a native can be very painful. There’s plenty of designs to choose from such as Te Ora, Pikorua, Te Timatanga, Nga Hau E Wha, Koru, Hei matau, hei tiki, twists, manaia, and so on.

6. Irish Celtic Tribal Tattoos

Celtic tribes are famous for their fierce warriors. They’re also known for their architecture. Celtic tattoos you’ll come across often have a modern touch, setting them apart from other tribal categories. The typical symbols inherent in Celtic tattoos are knots, warrior symbols, birds, and animals. A few exceptional Celtic tattoos could also be colorful. In the Celtic tribal culture, animals signify courage, protection, and power. Other Celtic symbols used in tattoos are circles and trinities to represent the natural environment, organic energy, and time.

Black Line Work Celtic Tribal Tattoo

Black-Line-Work-Celtic-Tribal-Tattoo

Source: @truebhan via Instagram

If you’re looking for simplistic black linework tattoos, the above Celtic tribal piece could be a perfect choice.

Irish Celtic Tribal Tattoo On Tricep

Irish-Celtic-Tribal-Tattoo-On-Tricep

Source: @thepainteddogg via Instagram

The two wings represent an angel. This Celtic tattoo looks excellent on the upper arm region.

Irish Celtic Half-Back Tribal Tattoo

Irish-Celtic-Half-Back-Tribal-Tattoo

Source: @mistertattu2 via Instagram

This is another half-back and arm piece inspired by Celtic tribal culture. The subdued, colored shading adds to the overall vibrancy of this great piece.

Irish Celtic Tribal Arm Tattoo

Irish-Celtic-Tribal-Arm-Tattoo

Source: @majo_ink via Instagram

Those wonderful knots, creatures, and the sun are all symbols that are typical elements for Celtic tribal tattoos.

Irish Celtic Tribal Dragon Tattoo

Irish-Celtic-Tribal-Dragon-Tattoo

Source: @ananjtattoos via Instagram

As a symbol of bringing Earthly and Heavenly forces together to the Celtics, dragons are revered like gods

Irish Celtic Tribal Owl Tattoo

Irish-Celtic-Tribal-Owl-Tattoo

Source: @tattooistgus via Instagram

The Celtics believe the owl is a symbol of wisdom. This tattoo then is the perfect choice if you want wisdom to be with you always

7. Maori Tribal Tattoos

Face tattoos, that’s what the Maori tribe is popularly known for. Their tattoos consist of clear black lines and attractive Maori symbols. The turtle, symbolizing “health, longevity, and fertility,” is one such symbol. According to the Maori, the face and head are the most popular placement because this sacred area of the body is the perfect place to showcase social status, rank, and prestige. In modern times, the head and face aren’t as frequented as other body parts like the chest, arms, and legs. Hence, Maori tribal tattoos are still being loved but more so in non-traditional placement areas.

Maori Tribal Chest & Half Sleeve Tattoo

Maori-Tribal-Chest-Half-Sleeve-Tattoo

Source: @alexisvargasart via Instagram

This handsome chest piece depicts the Maori style of patterns that exhibit the essence of the Maori tribal art form.

Small Maori Tribal Ring Design Tattoo

Small-Maori-Tribal-Ring-Design-Tattoo

Source: @mabsontattoo via Instagram

This calf band looks extremely tribal. It’s like the armor tribesmen would wear during their missions to save their communities.

8. Mexican Aztec Tribal Tattoos

Aztec tattoo art started in Central America and Mexico in the 14th century and kept building up in popularity well into the 16th century. Each Aztec tattoo would correspond to a fascinating god-honoring ritual. Aztec tattoos were also a means to exhibit warrior-like prowess and to assist the Aztec people in differentiating different tribes. Suppose you’re looking to honor original mesoamerican culture. Why not sport a trendy Aztec tribal tattoo and look great doing so.

Aztec Tribal Tattoo For Upper Arm

Aztec-Tribal-Tattoo-For-Upper-Arm

Source: @rob_galvan_tattoos via Instagram

The above is an Aztec calendar design. This is a special design symbolizing leadership and strength conveyed through the ancient Mexican divinatory tool.

Colorful Aztec Tribal Quetzalcoatl Tattoo

Colorful-Aztec-Tribal-Quetzalcoatl-Tattoo

Source: @frogwizardtattoos via Instagram

Quetzalcoatl is the gigantic feathered serpent in Aztec mythology. It’s considered one of the most powerful gods, and he symbolizes fertility, learning, art, and dawn. A Quetzalcoatl tattoo, hence, symbolizes strength, knowledge, and creativity.

9. Polynesian Tribal Tattoos

Polynesian tribal tattoos first served the purpose of expressing the feelings and representation of each tribe member. The symbols used in Polynesian tattoos are mainly inked in black ink. Generally, there is a mix of different elements with the use of appropriate negative spaces within the design. The overall effect is breathtaking as the tattoo looks crisp, clear, and quite vivid. The symbols used for most Polynesian tribal tattoos are turtles (for luck), shark teeth (for strength and guidance), spearheads (sting of other animals), the ocean (changes in one’s life), Tiki carving, and Enata (human figures) among others.

The placement of a Polynesian tattoo is of utmost importance. For instance, an upper body tattoo signifies the link between Heaven and Earth. A backpiece tattoo signifies past mistakes.

Polynesian Tribal Marquesan Hand Tattoo

Polynesian-Tribal-Marquesan-Hand-Tattoo

Source: @chrishigginstattoo via Instagram

This Polynesian tribal hand tattoo is a design patterned based on the culture of Marquesan Island tribes.

Polynesian Tribal Marquesan Ankle & Foot Tattoo

Polynesian-Tribal-Marquesan-Ankle-Foot-Tattoo

Source: @chrishigginstattoo via Instagram

In ancient times almost everyone in Polynesian society wore a tattoo. This stunning tattoo with black tattoo ink looks ideal on the lower leg, ankle, and foot area.

10. The Vikings Tribal Tattoos

The Vikings were one of the mightiest of tribes. Scenes of a powerful Viking fighting a battle are common inspirations for Viking Tattoos. Norse descendants have popularized Viking tattoos more than any other community. Typically, Viking tattoos are black and white, the black ink giving them a dramatic appeal. It’s important to know the incredible symbolism of Viking tattoos. Symbolism includes fierceness, protection, and guidance, giving the tattoo’s owner a sense of security. Furthermore, the famous “Helm of Awe” tattoo signifies might and protection.

Vikings Tribal Upper Arm Tattoo

Vikings-Tribal-Upper-Arm-Tattoo

Source: @marcoandrezzo via Instagram

Featured on the top part of this design is Vegvísir, meaning “the Signpost or the PathFinder.” The Vegvísir symbol would guide the Vikings to their desired destination safely.

Vikings Tribal Wolf Tattoo On Arm

Vikings-Tribal-Wolf-Tattoo-On-Arm

Source: @vdevalkyrie via Instagram

Mighty wolves like Fenrir, Hati, and Skoll were central to Norse mythology. The above tattoo of a tribal Viking wolf makes for a wonderful tattoo idea.

11. Filipino Tribal Tattoos

Filipino tribal tattoos symbolize one’s original roots. Designs have scenery, diamonds, eagles, etc. to symbolize the sacred elements of the land. Mostly depicted in black ink, these simplistic tattoos have aesthetic linear strokes and characters like men and dogs in addition to the ones already mentioned above.

Filipino Upper Arm Tribal Tattoo

Filipino-Upper-Arm-Tribal-Tattoo

Source: @jalayahay.ink via Instagram

Filipino tribal tattoos have been an important aspect of the Filipino community for multiple centuries. This awesome upper arm tattoo is the perfect example of a breathtaking art form.

History of Tribal Tattoos

Otzi the Iceman is probably the most famous man in the world of tribal tattoos. Otzi lived over 5000 years ago in a surprisingly advanced society. His body was found between Austria and Italy and it was covered in 61 simple tattoos, all consisting of horizontal or vertical lines. Each line was found to have been created by making small incisions and tracing charcoal.

The plants and herbs that were discovered with Otzi were notably medicinal and interestingly enough, the tattoos on his body lined up with acupuncture points. These are hints into how life was during the earlier stages of the Bronze Age, and he offered the world an exciting insight into how the first tribal tattoos were used, probably as a remedy for illness or pain.

Mummies have also been discovered with primitive examples of tribal tattoos from different locations across the globe, which date back to a variety of ages.

Some mummies in Egypt were discovered with tattoos, with the oldest displaying a simple pattern of dots around the lower abdomen. A more recent discovery, however, showed a preserved body that had more intricate designs such as animals, lotus flowers and the eye of Horus.

The woman, believed to be a priestess, is believed to have been mummified between 1070 and 1300 BCE. The ink on the priestess’ body is an eye-opener into the ritualistic and sacred symbology of the time, as well as the ethnology behind various communities’ tattoo practices.

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