The origin of all tattooing lays within the ancient history of humankind. Tribal tattoos begin when the timeline of society begins, in scattered places across the globe. Black dots and lines, usually for ritualistic or sacred practices, are the main components of a vast culture behind tribal tattooing. In this article, we research more about the humble genesis of tattooing, how the oldest art form of humanity came to be, the overlapping history, styles and the contemporary artists who are keeping this ancient tradition current.
History of Tribal Tattoos
Perhaps the most famous of all tribal tattoos are those of Otzi the Iceman. Found on the border between Austria and Italy, Otzi’s body is covered by 61 tattoos, all of them incredibly simplistic and only consisting of horizontal or vertical lines. Each line was created by tracing charcoal into small incisions, but do not be surprised by their uncomplicated mark up; though he lived over 5,000 years ago his society was a surprisingly advanced one. A new study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology explains how not only were the herbs and plants found with Otzi of notable medical uses, all of his tattoos line up with acupuncture points. These tiny clues into life during the beginning of the Bronze Age give us an interesting viewpoint into the uses of the first tribal tattoos: they were most likely a remedy for illness or pain.
Primitive examples of tribal tattoos have been found on many mummies from various places around the globe, and dating back to various ages. The second oldest tattoos belong to the mummy of the Chinchorro Man who lived between 2563 and 1972 BCE and was found in Northern Chile. Tattoos have been found on mummies in Egypt, the oldest of these displaying a pattern of simple dots around the lower abdomen, but more recently a discovery was made of a preserved body that had more intricate designs including lotus flowers, animals, and the Wadjet Eye, also known as the Eye of Horus. Thought to be a priestess, the woman is said to have been mummified around 1300 and 1070 BCE. Her ink is also a great clue into the ethnology behind tattooing in various communities; many archaeologists believe that these pieces, in particular, show a very ritualistic and sacred symbology behind them.
However, perhaps the oldest mummy with tribal tattoos that are the closest to our modern day idea of tattoo designs, is the artwork on the skin of the Princess of Ukok. Believed to have died around 500 BCE in what is now southwestern Siberia, her tattoos depict mythological creatures and are extremely ornate. Much more detailed and pigmented than the findings in past mummies, the princess is a link to the evolution of tribal tattooing and modern tattooing. Her pieces are thought to signify not only social status, but also familial ties, symbols, and philosophies.
The same thing could be said of Polynesian tattoos. Practiced for thousands of years, these tribal tattoos are some of the main foundations of contemporary tattooing. Like the Princess of Ukok, Polynesian designs illustrate rites of passage, wartime accomplishments, clan affiliation, geographic location, personality and philosophy. With a great deal of iconography and symbology behind it, these works of body art have survived over the years thanks to preservation and respect for culture. Even now, many tattooists working within tribal tattooing are sure to be aware of appropriation and only practice this particular style if they are fully educated and trained within it. Large swaths of black, lines, dots, swirls, and abstract motifs and symbols have continued to inspire artists and tattoo enthusiasts around the world.
Styles of Tribal Tattoos
Tribal tattoos have been found all over the globe, spanning thousands of years, and is, along with cave painting and pottery, the oldest surviving art form of humanity. It is clear that mankind has always felt a deep need for expression and meaning; tattoos continue to be a method of that. Thankfully, these days, techniques, materials, and information is shared quite freely and the tribal tattooing style is informed by many different folk arts and aesthetics. Still consisting mainly of black lines, dots, and abstract shapes, artists continue to push the limits. Forming new symbols and merging their personal style with those of ancient tribal tattooing, there are many different modes that clients have to choose from.
Artists Who Do Tribal Tattoos
Perhaps the most famous tribal tattooists is Whang-od. Born in 1917, at 101 years of age she is the last of the great mambabatok, a Kalinga tattooist of the Buscalan region in the Philippines. Mambabatok tattoos are lines, dots, and abstract symbols. Similar to her work is the tattooist Haivarasly who uses the same simple graphic elements, as well as large areas of black and shapes, to create larger work, often in the form of bodysuits. Victor J Webster is a blackwork tattooist that does several different types of pattern and tribal tattoo work depending on the project, including Maori, Native American, Tibetan, and more. His work is a perfect embodiment of the vast connectivity that is human artistic expression. Hanumantra Lamara is another artist that has smoothly connected modern and primitive forms of tattooing, creating his own signature Blackwork style.
Since the interest in tribalist aesthetics has developed continually since the 1990’s, there are many artists who either create their own take on folk art, or stay true to the original form. Igor Kampman does many traditional Native American tattoos, including Haida tattoos which originated in Haida Gwaii, off the northern Pacific coast of Canada. These tribal tattoos often include abstracted animals like ravens, orcas and other icons most often seen on Haida totem poles. Dmitry Babakhin is also known for his respectful and devoted work in the Polynesian style, while Gerhard Wiesbeck works in a variety of tribal tattooing ranging from Celtic knots to sacred geometric forms.
Because tribal tattooing covers many cultures and histories, there are many different styles that have emerged, and many different artists who continue this ancient tradition. Like most cultural artworks, it is important to know the history and background of the tribe that you’d like to emulate in tattoo form. Often it is easy to disrespect tribes through appropriation of their sacred rituals and symbols for aesthetics alone. However, thankfully, there are always highly skilled and knowledgeable artisans to help you along the way.