90s Tribal vs. Neo-Tribal Tattoos

When people hear the words ‘tribal tattoos’ today, their first thought is usually of the black sort of sharp and pointy mid-to-late 90s style of, among others, Wesley Snipes’ vampire superhero Blade. And also seen around Mike Tyson’s left eye, for that matter. 

Although they could be quite impressive when done right, they are perhaps not the height of artistic display. They were often either large and kind of chunky, or small and picked right off of a flashcard. 

To be of a tribe

Cleyton from Vivid Ink Birmingham is an expert in meta-tribal, where faces get their own set of ink.

But actual tribal tattoos are something quite different. According to most dictionaries, the word tribal means ‘to be of, relating to, or characteristic of’ a tribe. As humans, once the organisation of society began, belonged to tribes, all ancient tattooing could be considered tribal. Of course, not one tribal style was exactly the same as any other, as tools and techniques differed around the world. However, it is fascinating that the desire and inclination to mark our bodies is so ingrained in us that it evolved in the beginnings of nearly every ancient culture across the globe.

The oldest tattoos known to us were found on the 5,000 years old Otzi the Iceman, discovered frozen in the Alps between Austria and Italy in September 1991. The 61 lines on his body were made through small incisions that had charcoal rubbed into them. While opinions differ as to their exact meaning, research has shown that they correspond to (more) modern theories on acupuncture points. 

Various tattoos have been found on mummies from Chile, Egypt, and Siberia, ranging from dots and lines to ritualistic and sacred depictions of flowers, animals and symbols of the gods and mythological creatures. 

Neo-tribal

Tribal tattoo artists today work mostly with black in abstract shapes, made up of dots and lines. Often, entire areas of the body will be blacked out (which, by the way, would be an impressive way to cover up that old 90-s spiky thing, should you have grown tired of it).

A style has evolved often referred to as neo-tribal, where artists are inspired by the deep roots of the body art tradition but often with a more contemporary feel. Tattooists across the globe are merging their own individual style with ancient, tribal symbolism, creating pieces that are rich in heritage and meaning. They can often be incredibly aesthetically pleasing. 

Do your research and honour the traditions

If you are interested in getting a tribal tattoo, neo or not, it is important that you acquaint yourself with the particular traditions of the culture from which it draws inspiration. Not only imagery and motifs but placement on the body can all potentially be offensive or disrespectful if done in the wrong way. Your tattoo artist is highly skilled in their job, and often incredibly knowledgeable about intricacies like that, but they cannot be expected to know the traditions of every culture ever tattooing. Thus, take the responsibility yourself and do some research before your consultation/appointment.

Do not sacrifice the respect for ancient symbols, rituals and practices for aesthetics alone! This, of course, goes double for cultures that still exist and continue to practice their ancient art of body modifications.

As people who love body art find a certain kinship with one another, isn’t it true that we are forming our own tribe, with its own set of customs and cultural references? So in a way, most ink in today’s world can be said to be ‘of a tribe,’ on a global scale. And it only keeps growing by the hour. Let us remember and honour the long lineage from which it came.