Tattoos today have become statements of beauty, art and expression for many people across the world. They’re a means by which a person’s beliefs or dreams can find a physical manifestation. Although for a period tattoos were considered taboo in upper class societies it is a tradition that dates back thousands of years. In Polynesian, Aztec, Hawaiian and Maori cultures they were used to symbolise a persons tribe. In South America some tribes used them as camouflage in the dense jungles but more commonly they were used to express spiritual and religious beliefs. While modern reasons for getting tattoos have changed considerably, the traditional tribal art style still remains popular. Tribal tattoos are usually identifiable by thick line work and geometrical patterns that are a throwback to the early Polynesian style. While the subject for your tattoo is limited only by your imagination some designs have proven to be more popular than others.
Let’s take a look at 15 of the most commonly requested tribal tattoos today.
This is a common choice for girls looking for something feminine but a little edgy, as such butterflies are among the most frequently requested designs. They symbolise metamorphosis, rebirth, change and of course beauty. The transformation of the dull and colourless caterpillar into a multi-hued, graceful butterfly can represent personal growth or the overcoming of an obstacle in life. In Japanese lore, the butterfly can be a representation of the human soul and indeed the Greek word for butterfly means soul. Another variation is that of two butterflies flying together which in Chinese culture, is a symbol of love.
- Koi Fish:
An ancient Japanese legend tells of a shoal of Koi fish that swam upstream along the Yellow River until they reached an impassable waterfall. Most gave up but one Koi was determined to reach the top. For 100 years he struggled against the current while demons taunted and tortured him. Eventually he succeeded and the gods, seeing this, decided to reward his courage and perseverance by turning him into a magnificent golden dragon. Since then, the Koi tattoo represents strength and persistence in the face of adversity.
Tigers are most often seen to represent strength and power, this belief may originate from Chinese tradition. As one of the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac, the Tiger stands for courage and was often used as a symbol for royalty. In legends, the Tiger is one of the few creatures that could rival the Dragon and the White Tiger is immortalised as one of the four symbols in their constellations. In the Buddhist religion however, the Tiger is known as one of the three creatures that symbolise anger.
In many cultures spanning history, wolves are seen as animals of great power. They symbolise ferocity but also the capability to nurture. Roman mythology tells of the twins Romulus and Remus – the founders of Rome – who were abandoned by their parents and raised by wolves. In Japanese culture wolves are known as ‘Okami’ or ‘Great God’ and many shrines are dedicated to them for the protection of crops. In Navajo (Native American) myths, wolves are seen as mystical beings who are really humans in disguise.
The dragon is another creature that is highly revered in Chinese mythology. It is the fifth animal in the Zodiac and is an image of great power. It was also thought to denote wisdom and longevity and so it was used by many Emperors as their personal sigils. In the West as well, dragons are creatures which possess great mystical powers. The English word ‘Dragon’ comes from a Greek word that means huge water snake and across western legends the dragon was seen as a cave dwelling serpent that inspired fear in its enemies.
The majestic Eagle has long been associated with wisdom, power and spirituality. Although today its most commonly linked with the United States it also has ties to Ancient Greece where they were seen as the embodiment of masculine strength and virility. Zeus himself was connected to Eagles as the bird was often depicted carrying a lightning bolt. Native Americans thought the Eagle to be a symbol of spiritual power and the physical incarnation of the Thunderbird spirit which controlled thunder and lightning.
Some people choose this tattoo for its connection with the Zodiac sign Scorpio, however the scorpion has been around far before the human race so it also has many ancient cultural meanings. Its deadly sting is used to defend itself from harm or from enemies and so people think of the scorpion when they want a tattoo to evoke protection. In some cases it is also a symbol of male sexuality.
These can be full back tattoos or small delicate pieces but either way they hold a lot of meaning. They are usually to honour a loved one who has passed away and serve as a reminder of their life. They can also be a way to express your love of freedom and an ability to overcome the obstacles life throws at you. Some also use this tattoo as an expression of their faith to show how a guardian angel is always at their back.
Another animal that has a lot of cultural history is the frog. Egyptians believed in the fertility deity Heqet who breathed life into new born babies. Native Americans think of frogs as the bringers of transformation and change. In Asia the frog was the talisman for good luck and safety in travels because it was closely linked with water. They were also seen as guardians of the voyage between worlds and jade figurines of frogs were placed in the mouths of the deceased to ensure a safe journey to the afterlife. Some Celtic legends even speak of the frog as a healer. Whatever the origin, frogs are seen today as bringers of luck in any transformation, change or journey.
The turtle is a powerful spiritual symbol in many traditions worldwide. In Native American tales the turtle is the creationist who drew mud from the ocean floor to create the Earth, this association with Mother Earth and the Ocean may also be why they are a representation of femininity. Their immense life spans also make them a symbol of wisdom, health and longevity. From the children’s fable ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ in Europe to the traditional tales of Mexico the turtle embodies the spirit of patience and intelligence.
The Aztecs were known to make talismans in the shape of a hummingbird to imbue the wearer with talent and energy. This was a common theme across South America with the people of Mexico and Peru revered the bird as a bringer of joy and love. Native American lore states that hummingbirds were created from beautiful spring flowers and to this day they remain a symbol of life and prosperity.
There are many Celtic knots that are popular tattoo designs but none quite so much as the triquetra. In pagan and this three pointed symbol is thought to represent the three forces of nature, Earth, Air and Water or the triple goddesses, The Maiden, The Mother and The Crone. However in Christianity it was taken to symbolise the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
This mythical bird appears across many cultures across the world. It is known for being consumed by fire when it dies and then being reborn from the ashes. According to Greek legend, when it rises again it is stronger, faster and more powerful than before. Although the actual image of the creature varies its message stays the same as an image of the cycle of life and death. It is a symbol of hope that promises better things after a time of hardship of sorrow.
From the earliest ages of mankind, feathers have been cherished for their beauty and the feathers of certain birds were thought to be sacred gifts from the gods. In the tribes of Papua New Guinea and the Amazon feathers were used in many spiritual rites and rituals. Due to their religious connection, clothes adorned with feathers were symbols of status and wealth. Later, with the onset of writing feathers were used to make quills and so they became representative of wisdom and learning.
- Yin Yang:
This symbol has quickly become one of the most popular tattoo designs in the world and its meaning dates back thousands of years. Almost all Chinese philosophy stems from the concept of perfect balance and the Yin Yang is a representation of this balance. Yin stands for femininity, darkness, water and passivity and its corresponding animal is the Tiger. Whereas Yang denotes masculinity, lightness, fire and activity where the Dragon is the ruler. When the two symbols are interlocked it shows the perfect harmony that is the ideal state of being.
Take a look at some of the popular tattoos for men here.