Tribal tattoos have been used for as long as people have needed to identify themselves and they are the “in” thing at the moment. This trend began in the nineties and has only increased as time has passed. The tribal tattoo has had many purposes in human history but they originated mainly to identify a clan or group. Some groups would use the tattoos to identify distant relatives from far away tribes or to find each other after they passed away and were wandering the heavens looking for their tribe members. The tribal tattoo was also used to depict important events that occurred in a tribe or clan, almost like keeping a recorded history of events. (Syrkiewicz, 2008) Naturally a tribal tattoo has a different use today but in the end the modern tribal tattoo is still a form of identification.
Today in many instances the person getting a tribal tattoo wants the tattoo to illustrate something about them, almost like a tattoo of self identification. They are a way for a person to make a statement about themselves for other people to see and interpret. However, the tribal tattoo today is used not to group people into the same tribe but to express personality and individuality. (Hemingson, 1999-2009) Oftentimes gangs, clubs, and military members will use a tattoo to identify themselves to others. This type of usage for a tattoo is similar to the use of tattoos five thousand years ago when the tribal tattoo art form is believed to have originated. (Syrkiewicz, 2008) Members of different gangs or military groups can identify each other by using a specific tattoo. They often form a bond around a particular symbol almost like a brotherhood. For gang members, the tattoo is used to define their members and lets them know who is friendly or not. All cultures have used tattoos as some form of identification and the trend is back in fashion today.
A tattoo magazine titled Tattoo Times, founded in 1982 by Don Ed Hardy and Leo Zulueta, started a new fascination with the tribal tattoo. (Tebi, 2004-2008) They called their first article “New Tribalism” and it featured tribal designs from the South Pacific, tattoos that had lost favor many years before. (Tebi, 2004-2008) Tattoo artistry itself had been going through problems with negative feelings from society at the time so an article illustrating these wonderful tribal designs helped alleviate some of the negative feelings people had about these tattoos. It actually had the effect of re-popularizing the ancient art form. The tribal designs seen most commonly today are similar to designs used by the Polynesians for thousands of years. They often have a geometric silhouette pattern that may be considered too easy to do by many tattoo artists. Since these are not considered challenging, some artists do not like to do them. (Tebi, 2004-2008)
Celtic tribal patterns are also popular today. They were distributed by sailors hundreds of years ago as they traveled from Europe. Actually, sailors can be thanked for causing the original popularity of tattoo artistry in the modern western world. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word, ‘ta-taw’, which was thought to be the sound a person would hear when the tattooing instruments were used. When the sailors returned to Europe with tattoos that illustrated their adventures, people were fascinated and many wanted to have their own. (Tebi, 2004-2008)
The type and location of a tribal tattoo is a limitless as the unique personality of the person who wants it. Some examples are tribal armband, Celtic tattoo, tribal wolf tattoo, tribal shoulder tattoo, tribal scorpion, butterfly dragon, dog, bird, bull, tiger and many, many more. There are also tribal sleeve tattoos, lower back tribal tattoos, and tribal star tattoos. (Hemingson, 1999-2009) As with all artistic mediums and cultural developments, the art form of tribal tattoos is continually changing. But, the art form is always going to reflect the depth and potential of the person who wants the tattoo as well as the artist’s interpretation of the tribal design.