Some people tend to think of tattoos as a fad that’s just recently become popular. Others think back to what they consider the origin of popular tattoos: the wartime sailors, heading off for adventure with freshly-inked anchors and birds in shades of murky green and black. But few think about the tribal significance behind the art of tattooing itself, and how to be tattooed had certain symbolic meanings. For people of Polynesian and Hawaiian descent especially, getting tattooed is a tradition – in some cases, a rite of passage – that has stood the test of time, and represents a way of life that’s not to be forgotten.
If you look beyond the more casual reasons for getting inked, you’ll find that people today still choose to get ancient designs under the skin to represent their heritage. Let’s take a look at where the tribal tattoo tradition comes from, and how certain designs and bodily locations meant different things.
The Origin of Tattooing
According to a piece on the Smithsonian’s website, the first recorded tattoos may have existed in ancient Egypt circa 4000-3500 B.C., notably on the bodies of female mummies – and possibly a tradition carried out by the women in the community. Yet when it comes to tribal tattoos, many people are most familiar with the designs from island nations such as Samoa, Hawaii, and New Zealand. The native peoples of these islands typically have cultural traditions that include getting tattooed as a rite of passage into manhood, or to represent a tribe in general.
In an article from PBS, a section that focuses on Samoan tattooing recalls the history of the procedure: “The tattooing ceremonies for young chiefs, typically conducted at the onset of puberty, were elaborate affairs and were a key part of their ascendance to a leadership role. The permanent marks left by the tattoo artists would forever celebrate their endurance and dedication to cultural traditions.”
The key word there is “endurance” – by all accounts, the procedures were conducted using crude tattooing equipment, and the possibility of infection was high. The PBS article goes on to note that “the pain was extreme and the risk of death by infection was a great concern. But to shy away from tattooing was to risk being labeled a pala’ai or coward and reviled by the clan. Those who could not endure the pain and abandoned their tattooing were left incomplete, wearing their mark of shame throughout their life.” Clearly, there was a little more at stake than simply leaving with your armband half-finished.
In Hawaii, tattoos served as spiritual protection as well as a signifier of societal rank. “It served them not only for ornamentation and distinction, but to guard their health and spiritual well-being,” says PBS. Yet their methods for tattooing sound just as painful as the Samoans, using bone needles to apply the pigment under the skin. Still, few would refuse to carry on the tradition, especially given the level of almost holiness that surrounded the rite – the kahuna who applied the tattoos carried the tradition with them to their graves, and did not make permanent records of their techniques.
The Symbolism Behind the Symbols
As you might guess, the designs of cultural tattoos aren’t chosen lightly. Instead, they’re steeped with meaning, and represent anything from a particular clan to spiritual guidance to societal rank. The Samoans in particular placed great meaning on the areas of the body to be tattooed – particularly women getting tattooed on their hands, which was required to take part in ceremonial occasions. The traditional tattoo for men was the pe’a, which went from the mid-torso to the knees, and often included a boat that “symbolizes the ocean voyage that brought the original people to Samoa and carried their ancestors to lands beyond the horizon,” according to the PBS article.
There are also the traditional Maori face tattoos, called moko, created by carving the skin with a chisel: “The full-face moko was a mark of distinction for Maori men, which communicated their status, lines of descent and tribal affiliations. It recalled their wearer’s exploits in war and other great events of their life,” says PBS. In this way, it’s almost similar to how people in the current day get tattoos to symbolize life-changing experiences or to mark special occasions.
Yet, the Maori moko have roots in the same sort of spiritualism that governs many of these tribal tattoos; the website also notes that “Maori, along with other Polynesian peoples, believe that a person’s mana, their spiritual power or life force, is displayed through their tattoo.” To have an elaborate moko showed a person’s character. In later years, when men began to move away from the ritual, women took up the tradition of getting face tattoos – “usually under their mouths on their chin, to mark their passage into adulthood, commemorate a special occasion, and to beautify themselves.”
The ancient Egyptian tattoos mentioned earlier were also female-focused, and also had a spiritual meaning: they were thought to denote protection and good fortune during pregnancy and childbearing. The Smithsonian article quotes Joann Fletcher, research fellow in the department of archaeology at the University of York, as saying that “although it has long been assumed that such tattoos were the mark of prostitutes or were meant to protect the women against sexually transmitted diseases, I personally believe that the tattooing of ancient Egyptian women had a therapeutic role and functioned as a permanent form of amulet during the very difficult time of pregnancy and birth.” So even though some researchers may have believed that Egyptian tattoos marked “dancing girls,” it may have actually been commonplace to get tattooed as a kind of good luck charm for an easy childbirth.
Although tribal tattoos differ greatly in terms of design and placement, they all represent spiritual meaning – and a ritual not taken lightly.
The Significance of Tribal Tattoos
Right now, you could walk into any tattoo shop, pick a design off the wall, and have it transferred to your skin for life. But in past times and older cultures, getting tattooed had deeper societal meanings and represented a type of sacred ritual. You can still see some exceptional tribal tattoos if you visit the Polynesian countries – and the seriousness behind their meaning might make you think twice when it comes to choosing your own tattoo design.
Have you ever seen a traditional tribal tattoo up close? Let us know in the comments.
Note: All views expressed in this blog post are the personal opinions of the guest blogger. mySkin.com doesn’t favor any particular skincare brand or take advertising from any of them. Our scientific algorithm is entirely unbiased and based on your skin profile.
Author Bio: Cole Korsh is the patient coordinator at Absolute Laser Tattoo Removal. He is also both the first client of, and the reason for, Absolute. To this day, he can’t remember why he decided to get the “Live Fast, Die Young” tattoo. All he knows is that he wanted it off and his father wasted no time figuring out how to get the darn thing off as completely and as fast as possible with as little pain.