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Tribal Tattoos: Overdone or Underappreciated?

Published on 06 June 2018|
2 min read

The value of tribal tattoos does not start and end at aesthetics alone; its true value is in its history and diversity.

by Emily Mary Chin, Carrybeans

The art of tattooing is one that goes back all the way to ancient times and it’s still no where close to dying out.  Over centuries, appreciation for the art form has only grown, with many styles and designs having entered mainstream consciousness.  Tribal tattoos, for one, have long surpassed their points of origin, so much so that we have lost a lot of their meaning and purpose in the changing waves of pop culture.

Tribal tattoos had an original intended purpose of identification, to differentiate oneself as part of a specific tribe.  It was also an indication of a person’s social status as well as their achievements.  Today, the same designs are adorned with significantly less importance placed on the symbolism they represent.

Let’s take a look at a few tattoo styles from different tribes around the world and maybe inject some meaning back into them!


Our own hometown island of Borneo has long upheld its tradition of tattooing.  Designs originate from different tribes all around Borneo.  They range from the Iban and Kelabit tribes of Sarawak to the Kadazandusun and Murut tribes of Sabah to even the Ngaju tribe of Kalimantan.

Credit: All About Ink

Borneon tattoo motifs are typically a blend of various natural elements, both plant and animal, and have spiritual purposes of protection or connection.  But on the flipside, tattoos were also given to people who had reached certain perceived achievements, sometimes quite violent ones.  For instance, in Kayan culture, a man receives a finger tattoo after having been present at an enemy’s killing.  But he receives tattoos on both his hands and fingers after having taken an enemy’s head.

The bunga terung tattoo originating from Iban culture/ Credit: Instagram

One of Borneo’s better known designs is the bunga terung tattoo, one on each shoulder.  It originates from Iban culture and symbolises a rite of passage for young boys who have transitioned fully into manhood.  It is a design that, historically, goes beyond aesthetics.  A man only marks himself with bunga terung when he feels like he has truly earned them.


Tracing back two millennia, almost all ancient Polynesians had tattoos.  In Polynesian culture, tattoos are a form of self expression.  They used their tattoos to relay information about their identity and personality.  A tattoo could be an indication of many things: character, family lineage, hierarchical and social standing, and even sexual maturity.  Tattoos in Polynesian culture can also have spiritual purposes of power, strength or protection attached to them.

I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly, each of them is so marked by their humor or disposition.

– James Cook, journal entry on tattoo culture in 18th century Polynesia

Samoan tattoo / Credit: Daily Titan

There are different branches of Polynesian tattoo art, depending on where in the Polynesian Triangle it originates from.  Samoan tattoos, for instance, have a different set of designs for both men and women.  The tattoos given to Samoan men are usually large and intricate.  The ones given to the women, on the other hand, are smaller and simpler.

In Maori culture, tattoos signify rank and those without any were perceived as being of the lowest social level.  Face tattoos, in particular, are a very significant part of Maori tattoo culture as the head is thought to be the most sacred part of the body.  As every person’s bone structure is different, the tattooist tasked with creating a Maori face tattoo must carefully study their subject’s face before carrying it out.

Maori face tattoo / Credit: YouTube


Dating back to the Iron Age, Celtic people had a vast appreciation for art in many different forms.  Much of the art from that area came in the form of everyday objects.  Celtic jewelry, tableware, and statues were all intricately decorated and had axial symmetry to them.  This largely shaped the tattoo designs from that era.

Celtic jewelry-inspired ring tattoo / Credit: Pinterest

A well known design element in Celtic tattoos is the Celtic knot pattern that has loops with no end, representing continuity and interconnection of all things.  The loops most commonly depict the infinite cycle of of death and rebirth.  But it can also portray the convergence of the physical and heavenly realms, as well as the timeless nature of our individual spirit.

Celtic cross tattoo / Credit: 3D Tattoos

With one single tattoo design having so many possible interpretations to its meaning, one must wonder if meaning even matters at all.

Meaning is subjective

But of course it does.  Life is not worth anything if lived without meaning and the same concept applies to your tattoos.  But the meaning of your tattoos shouldn’t have to come from anyone but you.  Yes, it’s always good to research the styles and designs you’re interested in but it’s also important to gauge why it resonated with you in the first place, which the research can inevitably help  in.

Sometimes our eyes catch things our minds take time to figure out.  And sometimes something as simple as a tribal pattern can resonate with us on levels we can’t yet comprehend.  And that’s fine.  Sometimes art can’t be put into words.  That’s the point of art, after all.

We visited the Sabah Tattoo Expo last year and learned a lot while we were there!  Read about our experience here.

Featured Image Credit: Daily Titan

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