Tribal Tattoos

Tribal tattoos were all the rage in the 1990s and remained so into the early 2000s, as with any trend, it led to overuse of the term and a blur in the origin of the artwork. People flocked to tattoo shops all over the country wanting tribal body art without so much as a thought to the symbolism of the piece they were about to have permanently applied to their bodies.

The word “tribal” has a different connotation for different people, largely based on their geographic location. For example, in the Southwest United States, it may bring to mind stereotypical notions of Native Americans living in teepees and hunting buffalo In other parts of the world, it may make someone think of mysterious peoples living in the jungles of the Congo or the African Bush. The art of tattooing has been practiced for centuries in cultures all over the world, so it’s impossible to narrow it to a single group of people.

The very same word, for the purpose of the tattoo industry, is a bit misleading. In the context of tribal tattoos, it simply means a tattoo in a style inspired by Polynesian body art. I guess if you happen to be a Pacific Islander, then your mental image of tribal tattoos is probably the closest to correct.

The word may give some the impression that the art is somehow more meaningful or closer to the roots of tattooing, when the truth is no one is 100 percent sure what the origin is. The fact that tribal tattoos are always solid black makes some people think it is a more pure and undiluted form of the art.

Many people have already had this revelation and have accepted the tribal tattoo for what it really is: still a really sweet looking tat. Tribals.com is a comprehensive Web site that’s completely embraced the idea. It has all kinds of links, and tons of ideas to inspire your new tribal body art. The thumbnails are divided up into easy to use categories like “tribal butterflies,” “tribal religious symbols,” “tribal lettering,” “tribal dragon,” “tribal celestial designs” and of course, tribal renditions of the ever popular upper and lower back tattoos.

It’s seriously doubtful that the body art industry is deliberately trying to trick anybody with this misguided term, but maybe they should consider renaming the trend as a service to the public. Maybe something like “Polynesianesq,” would be better, or “shadow,” in reference to its typically solid black coloring. “Faux tribal” would certainly be more accurate.

Most think the design has some sort of mysterious, deep meaning, when the truth is the popular form of tribal tattooing usually has no symbolic meaning other than the sentimental value placed on it by the wearer. Hopefully you’ve done your research well before you get into the artists chair. He may offer some guidance, but it’s not his responsibility to tell you what kind of tattoo you want.

Don’t be disappointed in your tribal art. If you feel you’ve chosen you design in error, just think back to what attracted you to it in the first place. Was in the unique flow of the shape or the intensity of the solid blackness? All those things are still there and permanently on your body for better or worse. Don’t waste time regretting your decision on a mere technicality. The point is, if you like it and it means something to you, then wear it with pride. When people ask you what your tribal tat stands for, just tell them how it’s symbolic to you. Maybe you got it to memorialize a loved one, or mark a major event in your life. That’s usually what they want to know anyway. Just love your tattoo for what it is.

Popularity of Tattoos

How long the practice of tattooing as been going on and the exact origin of its use remains a matter of much speculation. There’s evidence to suggest that kings and pharaohs have been tattooed since way back, debunking the myth that ink was originally used only for marking criminals and other undesirables.

For years a stigma has been imbedded in body art as ink is in the skin. Perhaps that attitude was perpetuated by the fact that traditionally, tattooed people tended to be somewhat on the fringes of society, and have occupations that were not exactly mainstream and a little mysterious, like pirates, merchant sailors, gypsies and non-Christian clergy, giving body art a rather romantic, outlaw reputation.

Over time, rebels of all kinds, and some falsely accused of rebellion, have adopted tattoos as a symbol of their beliefs. For example, a particular sort of rainbow is associated with homosexuality. The rainbow in question has six specific colors: red, for life; orange, for healing; yellow, for sun; green, for nature; blue, for harmony and purple, for spirit. This rainbow was first introduced as such in 1978 at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Pride Day parade. The movement desired a banner that could represent them through the ages, and some feel strongly enough to have it permanently inked into their skin so they can always be identified with their cause. For similar reasons, modern Christians, despite traditional religious objection to the practice of tattooing, opt for crosses or fish symbols to illustrate their faith.

Of course, for every action there is an opposite reaction. Various hate groups also have their own tattoo. Members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a notorious white supremacy group, often brand themselves with ink that supports their raciest views. Designs popular with this group may not come right out and say Aryan Brotherhood. Instead they just contain the letters AB or the name Alice Baker to symbolize their hatred. Similarly, other branches of racist extremism, such as skinheads and neo-Nazis, utilize the swastika and the confederate flag.

In the 1960s and 70s, society was in a mess. The black civil rights movement was coming to a head, and women were finally starting to exercise the independence they had been trying to gain for centuries. There were activists for or against so many things. Nixon was on his way out of the White House and people were discouraged with their government. This era was a turning point in widening the social acceptance of tattooing. Suddenly the status quo wasn’t really worth preserving any more.

It seems like movie stars are prone to jumping on band wagons and getting tattoos. The general public’s fascination with celebrity gives them the power to give a voice to their cause, and influence our culture. More and more stars are making appearances with their tattoos hanging out and showing them off in photo shoots, giving their adoring fans one more reason to run out and get inked.

For better or worse, it’s the idea of symbolism that draws people to tattooing. People commonly seek designs that celebrate or commemorate significant events in their lives, such as the birth of a new baby or the death of a loved one. Some people chose a symbol of a monumental accomplishment, like graduating from college, surviving cancer or serving in the armed forces.

Though we obviously have a long, long way to go before every person is free to be themselves in this world, self expression has become more and more acceptable. Getting a tattoo is a way to display art that is deeply meaningful to the owner. It’s ok to ask someone what their tattoo stands for. They wouldn’t have it so prominently displayed if they didn’t want you to notice it.

Tattoo Jargon

It may not seem like it at the time, but getting a tattoo is a huge decision. That ink really is permanent and will be there for the rest of your life. Even if you opt to have it removed, you will still have a scar or traces of ink at the very least. It’s very important that you put a lot of thought into the design you want and the placement of your new tattoo. You should do a lot of research into the process of tattooing and choosing your tattoo artist. As with any specialized trade, there’s a certain amount of jargon, or terms specific to the practice, used. Study up on this; you can’t make informed decisions if you have no idea what the experts are talking about. Here’s a short, and by no means complete glossary to help you get started.

1. Autoclave – a machine that uses pressure and hot water to sterilize tattoo equipment. The autoclave is also used for medical and dental tools. A lot of shops keep the autoclave in plain sight so potential clients know they are using clean supplies. If you don’t see one ask. If you aren’t satisfied with the answer, look for another shop.

2. Body Suit – a full body tattoo. It typically starts at the neck and covers the rest of the body down to the ankles. Hands and feet are usually excluded. Japanese tattooists are known for their artful applied body suits.

3. Cockamamie – one of those cheap temporary tattoos applied by wetting the paper backing and pressing against the skin. Cockamamies were popular in the 1940s and 50s and were often found as prizes in Cracker Jack and cereal boxes.

4. Devotion tattoo – a tat that symbolizes its owner’s love for a significant other, parent, pet, favorite band, favorite food, etc. The possibilities are endless.

5. Cover-up Work – What happens when you change your mind about that devotion tattoo. Cover-up work involves either incorporating an old tat into an new design or covering it up totally. Good cover-up work is hard to spot and is a prized talent among tattoo artists.

6. Flash – The sheets of designs that hang on the walls of tattoo parlors. These designs aren’t necessarily original to that particular artist and are probably fairly common. A shop purchases the flash from the vendor and the rights to legally reproduce it into a stencil so that no copy write laws are broken.

7. Jailhouse Tattoo – a homemade tattoo usually characterized by fine, black or blue lines.

8. Scratcher – a bad tattooist

9. Stencil – a template of the tattoo you’re about to get, usually drawn or traced on your skin so that you have a good idea of what the tat will look like on you and the tattooist has something to go by.

10. Lady Luck – this tattoo is traditionally popular at war time. The central figure in the design is always a beautiful woman surrounded by other signs of good fortune like a four leaf clover, a rabbit’s foot, etc. The tattoo was thought to bring luck to the owner.

11. Men’s Ruin Tattoo – pretty much the opposite of Lady Luck, this design also features a woman, but depicted as the source of men’s troubles. She’s often accompanied by representations of vices that can bring a man down such as liquor, drugs and gambling.

Now that you have a decent foundation to at least ask intelligent questions, you’re one step closer to a tattoo experience that with produce a design you will love for a lifetime and preventing the regret that often comes with a tattoo that wasn’t particularly thought out.