Traditional Tattoos: Styles and Meanings

Traditional tattoos are tattoos that use simple, bold designs. These tattoos are often based on folk stories, aesthetics, or worn as a rite of passage.

Today, we may consider traditional tattoos to connect with our ancestors.

Let’s look at some popular tattoos from cultures throughout history and find out which traditional tattoos are still worn today. 

  • There are many different traditional tattoo styles
  • Traditional tattoos can often be traced back to ancient cultures
  • They sometimes feature iconic images and symbols
  • Each style has its own history and meaning
  • Traditional tattoos are becoming increasingly popular
  • If you’re thinking of getting a traditional tattoo, make sure to do your research first!

Tribal Tattoos

Native Tribe Tattoos
  • Tribal tattoos come from ancient cultures all over the world and are used to represent a person’s heritage and accomplishments.
  • Tribal tattoos originated as simple geometric art used to differentiate between people, but have become more complex over time.
  • Tribal tattoos are also said to grant strength spiritually and physically.

Philippine Traditional Tattoos

The Philippines has a long history of tattooing, dating back to 1000 BCE. Philippine Traditional Tattoos, also called “batok” are designs etched on the skin using a stencil and a mallet.

Whang-od (shown below) is the last traditional tribal tattooist in the Philippines to hold the title of “Mambabatok” – Person who taps.

105 Year-Old Whang-od.

Philippine traditional tattoos usually feature geometric patterns and stylized images of animals or plants. They are often done in black ink, but other colors like red, blue, and green are also used.

These tattoos were originally used as a form of social status and to indicate rank within a tribe.

They were also seen as a form of protection, as it was believed that the designs would ward off evil spirits. Batok tattoos were believed to have healing powers and were used as a form of protection against evil spirits.

Today, Philippine traditional tattoos are still popular among those who want to show their connection to their culture and heritage.

Burma Myanmar Traditional Tattoo Designs

Traditional lethwei tattoo
Traditional Burmese Tattoos

Until the 20th century, tattooing was a widespread tradition in Burma among various ethnic groups such as the Bamar.

Tattooing back then was an incredibly painful week-long procedure and often required extensive use of opium as a painkiller.

Nearly all men in these groups were tattooed during boyhood from their waist to their knees. These leg sleeves often featured ornate black patterns comprised of creatures and animals such as cats. Today, these traditional tattoos might a popular choice for traditional Lethwei fighters participating in a brutal martial arts combat sport.

Traditional Polynesian Tattoos

Many Maori tattoos feature what are called “Marquesan Carvings”

The traditional Polynesian tattoo has a rich history and cultural significance. These tattoos were first seen by Europeans when they landed on the Polynesian islands in the late 18th century.

The Maori, the indigenous peoples of Polynesia, did their tattooing with sharp tools made of bone or wood. The tattoo ink was made from soot and mixed with water to create a deep black pigment. The artist would use a hammer-like tool to tap the ink into the skin, leaving a permanent mark.

Polynesian tattoos are characterized by their use of bold, black lines and iconic shapes and symbols. Common motifs include sharks, turtles, and lizards. These tattoos were often used to signify a person’s rank within their tribe or society.

Many Polynesian islands such as the Rapa Nui, from Easter Island, developed a very spiritual association with tattoos as a source of strength and protection.

Celtic Traditional Tattoos

Celtic Sleeve Tattoo

Celtic traditional tattoos are a type of tribal tattoo that originated in Ireland and Scotland. These tattoos feature intricate knots and interlocking patterns that are meant to symbolize the eternal cycle of life. Celtic traditional tattoos are often done in black ink, but they can also incorporate other colors like green, blue, and purple.

Celtic traditional tattoos are popular among people of Irish and Scottish descent, as well as those who simply appreciate the beauty of these complex designs. If you’re thinking of getting a Celtic traditional tattoo, make sure to do your research first and choose a design that has personal meaning to you.

Japanese Traditional Tattoos

A traditional Japanese tattooist

Japanese traditional tattoos, also known as Irezumi, are some of the most beautiful and intricate tattoos in the world. These tattoos feature elaborate depictions of nature scenes, mythological creatures, and traditional Japanese symbols.

Japanese traditional tattoos are often large-scale designs that cover the entire back, chest, or arm. They can take many years to complete and are typically done in black and grey ink.

The Ainu people of Japan were also known to have facial tattoos. Both men and women would receive them, and the designs were often geometric in nature. The Ainu believed that the tattoos had magical properties and would protect them from evil spirits.

Modern American Traditional Tattoos

A vintage photo of a sailor with tattoos in the traditional American style

Often seen as a symbol of rebellion and non-conformity, “Old school tattoos”, or American traditional tattoos, are a design that became popular among Sailors and prisoners alike.

Sailors were some of the first people in America to get traditional tattoos in the “Sailor Jerry” style while on shore leave in port cities around the world.

Modern traditional tattoos, such as the traditional American tattoo, have been popularized by tattoo artists as Sailor Jerry, with tattoos often featuring bold renditions of popular Navy imagery.

Traditional American Tattoos are often compared to flash tattoos, which are temporary tattoos which last just a few days. Flash tattoos originated in the US and have also been part of the American tattoo culture for years.

Sak Yant Tattoos

Muay Thai Fighter with Sak Yant Tattoos

Sak Yant tattoos, are a traditional Thai tattoo that have certain grown in popularity in recent years. Sak Yant tattoos are often performed using a bamboo needle and a deep black charcoal or soot ink.

Sak Yant tattoos are characterized by their beautifully intricate sacred geometry patterns, Buddhist imagery, animal and deity designs accompanied by Pali phrases that are said to offer various benefits such as increased charisma, good fortune, and improved sexual prowess to the bearer.

Like a spell, a Sak Yant tattoo is only powerful as long you follow certain rules. Once you break the rules, the power of the tattoo is said to be lost.

Bornean Traditional Tattooing

The traditional tattooing style for these ancient tribes is a hand tapping technique requiring only two sticks.

In Borneo tattoos are often used as a way to commemorate an event such as a successful hunt, returnees can get full body designs from master tattoo artists who will use blackening ink mixed with protective charms. The ancient tattoo initiation ceremony is a time-honored practice that requires offerings to various gods, goddesses and spirits.

Borneo tattoo designs commonly feature dark black tribal work and thick brushstrokes.

Kakiniit

The Inuit people of the North American Arctic have a tradition of facial tattoos known as kakiniit. Historically, the practice was done for aesthetic, shamanic, and medicinal purposes, and to ensure the individual access to the afterlife. Today, they are worn as a symbol of Inuit heritage and culture.

Skin sewing is a traditional form of tattooing used by the Inuits

Kakiniit tattoos are usually done in black ink and feature simple lines and geometric shapes. They are typically located on the chin, cheeks, or around the eyes.

Berber Tattoos

Berber tattoos are a form of body art that originated in the Berber culture of North Africa. These tattoos are considered by some to possess spiritual powers and are often used as amulets to ward off evil spirits or to bring good luck.

An Elder Berber Woman

They are typically made up of thin, delicate lines and patterns that are often very intricate and colorful.

Deq

Deq tattoo woman kurdish
Deq Tattoo Woman Kurdish

The Deq is a traditional tattoo found among Kurds. The women of the tribe would etch a series of dots or lines on their faces using thorns, soot, and plant juices. Although deq designs can be found on both men and women, this was done as a rite of passage into womanhood, and to denote their status within the tribe. The deq tattoo is not only a symbol of Kurdish identity but also serves as a form of protection. Nowadays deq is often substituted with henna, a temporary tattoo which is in accordance with Islam.

Conclusion

These are only a few examples of the many meaningful traditional tattoos from around the world. Traditional tattoos are works of art deeply rooted in history and culture while also providing a window into the past. If you are considering getting a tattoo, please consider a traditional design. You will be glad you did!

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