Living art, cultural and self-identity, body-graffiti, fashion statements, event recognition, image obsession, social branding. Why is it that we get tattoos? People get tattoos for many reasons: for attention, self-expression, artistic freedom, rebellion, for a visual display of a personal narrative or reminders of spiritual and cultural traditions. There can also be meaning in tattoos for personal motivation, addiction; for identification with a group or tribe or even through impulsiveness.
Whatever motivates (or obliges) us to have tattoos, what we need to be aware of is the extent to which modern design draws from noted and identifiable cultural art basics. Art expressed in body-imagery tattoos has for centuries been inherently identifiable with creed, nationality and culture.
In a world where its increasingly important to understand, accept and recognise our diversity, battleface has a general (meaning it’s not exhaustive) list of cultural meanings to what we think are the basics of original and recognisable heritage of tattoo styles.
So in brevity, here’s our tribal tattoo alphabet summary:
African Tribal Body Art
A whole continent can’t be summed up in a sentence or two – but besides the body being a canvas for various ink styling, body scarring is intrinsic to African body art. Know your stuff before copying the African influence…that’s the rule.
Designs can typically depict the US flag, or can be related to military careers: Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines often indelibly document their time in uniform. Eagles and state symbols are popular as are native American designs such as feathers, arrowheads or dreamcatchers.
While some Muslim cultures ban tattoos, Arabic stylisation in henna is heavily influenced by many Middle Eastern cultures.
Mandalas (representing the universe) and Dharma wheels (truth and law) are central to this ancient religious art. Buddhist spiritualism and Thai tattoos are so entwined that they are practically inseparable.
Celtic knots, runes, Catholic crosses and shamrocks generally represent the Celtic Irish design effect.
Whoa, big topic! Kanji is the Chinese term for picture writing and tattoos are often sealed with a ‘chop,’ or calligraphy of someone’s name.
Day of the Dead
A Chicano Latin American style that features bright, elaborate skulls or skeletons.
Amazing designs from one of the world’s original writing systems – be careful what you spell out!
The rich Polynesian culture was originally represented mainly by geometric figures, often linked around the arms, neck, and ankles like tribal bands.
Dragons are central to this style, each dragon can represent a different element, such as fire and water – locked in a never ending battle. In other things scaly, koi are also popular.
The Hebrew word Kabbalah translates to tradition, and this style represents Jewish mysticism that attempts to discover and understand hidden meanings in the language of the Torah.
As many European languages have a base in Latin, this little spoken language just sounds awesome and often has the best quotes: ‘Carpe Diem’.
Rich in symbolism and representing the Maori link to ancestors, land and culture, the Moko (face tattoo) is probably the most iconic of this style.
Many Mexicans pride themselves on their Aztec heritage; richly portrayed in impressive body ink patterns.
It is impossible to consider the history of body art without stopping to consider Polynesian tattoos. Tattooing is an integral part of the culture of each Polynesian island, and many of the tattoos seen today have roots in the islands. Notable places include Samoa, Tonga, Easter Island, The Cook Islands, Tahiti, Hawaii and New Zealand.
As it’s the most important thing in our solar system upon which all life depends on, it’s only natural that the sun be prominent in body art forms.
Wicca is a Neopagan religion that mixes the worship of nature with magic. Some scholars claim Wiccan practices are an extension of witchcraft, but since members must be initiated into the religion and are urged to keep silent about ritual practices, Wicca remains shrouded in mystery. This undoubtedly gives the practice some of its glamour and appeal and of course, the ink symbolism on the bodies of its members.
Yin Yang tattoos pack a lot of ancient Chinese philosophy into a few square inches of skin. Good doesn’t exist without evil, and vice-versa. Just remember that the orientation of white and black also has meaning.