Photo: Paolo Arsie Pelanda/Shutterstock

What Do Your Tattoos Mean To You?

New Zealand Thailand Samoa Entertainment
by Kate Sedgwick Sep 26, 2011
I never thought of my tattoos as having meaning that goes beyond my feelings about them.

THEY’RE PERSONAL TO ME, and I’ve always thought of them as being mine.  It’s not fun to think about, but one some level, given my background, my tattoos represent cultural appropriation.

As modern as they are in method, as personal as they are in meaning, and as far from the designs of indigenous cultures as they may be, they are based on a mode of expression that — in modern times and in the current global culture — was stolen from people who were told their tattooing traditions had to end.

Tattooing in modern Western culture came from Polynesia.  Sailors who visited the South Pacific in the 1700s soon began emulating tattoos they saw there.  While the tradition was being exported and changed, tattoos in the Maori, Bornean, Tongan, Samoan, Indonesian, and far flung First Nations cultures were being suppressed through colonization.  Many long-practiced traditions and rights of passage were wiped out or greatly changed during this time in cultures throughout the world.

As varied as these cultures and their tattoos are in meaning and method, we wind up with terms like “tribal” that are widely accepted to describe black tattoos with bold lines.  So-called tribal tattoos emulate those that are traditional to many distinct cultures.  Lumping all these traditions together under the term “tribal” is insulting when you give it any thought at all.

There are lots of people out there who think these designs are cool and want them on their bodies.  Many don’t consider that rather than an honor, it is beyond insulting to many of these cultures for outsiders to use these traditions as their own — especially when the fact that these tattoos continue to exist represents long, hard fights against the imposition of outside cultures, colonization, and enforced christianity.

It’s not that tattooing didn’t exist in ancient European cultures. Tattoos have existed in different cultures for thousands of years and had a variety of purposes and meanings, but were largely related to pagan beliefs so were stopped along with the rise of christianity. It’s impossible to lay out every tradition in the world, and a few paragraphs are not adequate to describe traditions that span hundreds and thousands of years. The following are just a few of the tattooing traditions that are part of what some would call “tribal tattooing.” I have added links for further reading at the end of each section.

Samoan Tattoos

The word tattoo comes from the Polynesian word tatau. There is a tradition in Polynesian cultures of tattooing that goes back at least 2,000 years. In Samoa, future chiefs would begin the process of being tattooed from waist to knees near the onset of puberty. It was a trying process that went on over the course of months and the risk of infection and subsequent death was very real. Lore says that the tradition of tattooing came to Polynesia by way of Fiji.

Tattoos (for men called pe’a) indicated social status, and their application was highly ritualized and sacred. More than 1,000 years ago, people of Samoa had colonized and made contact with most of the islands to the east, and in each of these societies, the cultural rituals and significance of tattooing were adapted to the beliefs and ways of the people. There are a variety of traditions in the Pacific Islands as a result — differing symbols, meanings, and rituals all emanating from Samoan and Tongan cultures.

Traditionally, these tattoos are done with combs made from boar tusks. The pigment was made from the soot of burnt candle nut or lama nut. There are tattoos specific to females that are more delicate and done on the thighs called malu.

Being a tattoo artist is a family tradition passed down from father to son in many cases, the son serving as apprentice, learning and practicing for many years before ever tattooing a person. There is a sacred aspect to the art of tattooing; there are chants and rituals that must be observed in their application.

These days, it’s not mandatory to be tattooed to ascend to a position of status in Samoan cultures, but many of the traditions involved in Samoan tattoos are still practiced today.

Much of the history of Tongan tattooing has been lost, but there has been a recent revival in the culture. The best resource I’ve found online about Tongan tattooing (or Tatatau) is a site maintained by tattoo artist Ni Powell, who I hope will contribute an article to Matador Nights on the subject soon.

Further reading: Lars Krutak’s article South Seas

Tā Moko

When Europeans arrived in what is modern day New Zealand (but until that time was only known as Aotearoa, meaning long, white cloud), the facial tattoos worn by high status Māori men were drawn as signatures on land contracts. The designs are so individualized, their meanings so specific, that no two people could have the same moko (or facial tattoo). The practice of tattooing among Māori peoples’ traditions came from Samoan people and were adapted to the beliefs and environment there.

The intricate designs carry signifiers of family and history.  In Māori cultures, a person who is ready to get tattooed doesn’t make that decision alone.  It’s a family and clan decision made by consensus and it’s not taken lightly. Though methods today vary between traditional and modern modes of application, the designs include explicit references to genealogy, history, and societal roles. Traditionally, women have fewer tattoos than men. The tattoos are actually carved into the skin when applied by traditional means and pigment is rubbed into the carved areas.

The spirals so often associated with the tā moko are symbols of past and future and called koru. The term moko on its own only refers to facial tattooing.

Over the last several years, many people from outside Māori cultures have developed a fascination with the intricate designs and want them on their own skin.  The practice has become so pervasive that a new form of tattooing has been developed aimed at preventing appropriation of designs with a deep significance within the culture, called kirituhi. Kirituhi are made without using the patterns of deep familial significance.

There are differing schools of thought about whether these tattoos are appropriate for non-Māori people. While many people of Māori cultures attempt to maintain proprietary rights over traditional imagery and symbols, corporations such as New Zealand Air, and fashion designers such as Paco Rabanne and Jean-Paul Gaultier have used them, apparently without thought as to whether of not they had the right to do so. So in considering getting a kirituhi design, it’s worth considering the possible implications, and whether what you imagine is a sign of homage or respect to Māori cultures actually is.

Further reading:
Read about tā moko in the context of Māori art.
Scenes from the Colonial Catwalk: Cultural Appropriation, Intellectual Property Rights, and Fashion by Peter Shand

Sak Yant

Though tattooing traditions of the Pacific Islands are the longest unbroken ones in the world, there are plenty of traditions of significance in other cultures. For example, Sak-Yant tattoos are sacred amulets worn on the skin. They are protective tattoos, using what translates as “sacred geometry” (yantra in Sanskrit). These tattoos are often seen in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, but originated in Thailand from a melding of Hindu and Buddhist imagery and beliefs.

The Sak Yant are traditionally applied by Buddhist monks and magic practitioners. According to, “Sak Yant requires training in Meditation, Concentration and also Khom magical language and kata. A serious practise of Vipassana is normally the way to attainment of the necessary abilities to make Sak Yant magic, and the Katas work effectively.” The magical properties of the Sak Yant are only effective for the wearer if certain modes of conduct are followed which involve clean living and sobriety. The specifics are told to the person getting tattooed at the time of application and vary according to the master doing the tattooing.

There is evidence of these tattoos existing as long as 1,000 years ago. Sak Yant are applied using a bamboo stick sharpened to a point, or with a needle at the end, and each dot is a single perforation of the skin. The tattoos take many forms, including script and images, but are always applied above the waist. During the application the tattoo master must chant to make the protective magic of the tattoo.

Further reading:
An interview at CNNGo with the authors of the book Sacred Skin

Dayak Tattooing

On my recent trip to Borneo for the Rainforest World Music Festival, people kept telling me I ought to get tattooed with a traditional Bornean design. On Borneo, there are more than 30 distinct ethnic Dayak groups with different dialects and cultures — the largest group is Iban (some other peoples are Kayan, Kenyah, Punan Bah and Penan).

Dayak means “inland people.” On my trip from the airport to the hotel, the guy driving the van noticed my tattoos and told me how headhunters would get tattoos on their fingers that indicated the number of heads they’d taken, called tegulun. Today, seeing this kind of tattoo is super rare. There may still be men around who took the heads of Japanese during invasions that happened in the ’40s who would have these tattoos.

In the Dayak traditions, every living thing carries significance on par with human life, even plants, and tattoos reflect the cyclical nature of life, and protect the wearer from spirits. Many women’s tattoos indicate skills such as weaving. A common tattoo that is a rite if passage for young men is the bunga teruong. Commonly tattooed on the front of the shoulders symmetrically, the design is protective and worn in pairs.

Tattooing traditions that are lost on Borneo are those of the Kayan people, among whom women were the tattooists. An article by Lars Krutak last updated in 2006 says on his last visit to the interior of Sarawak, there were no women under the age of 70 with these tattoos, and that the practice seems to have ended around 1956. The tattooing traditions on Borneo are incredibly diverse for such a small area, though it seems that many of them have come to an end. But there has been an upsurge in interest in tattooing by youth who want to maintain their cultural traditions, and there is more than one Iban tattoo studio in operation in Borneo.

Lars Krutak’s writing on Dayak tattooing in Borneo
Photos of some traditional tattoos of Dayak people on Vanishing Tattoo

Haida tattoos

The Haida tradition is famous for artistic virtuosity. The crafts that the Haida make and their designs were one of their major forms of currency. Their lands in what is now the Queen Charlotte Islands in northern British Columbia were not rich in resources, so they relied on their high level of craftsmanship and artistic innovation to trade things they made, such as chests and jewelry, for staples unavailable in their region.

The rights to certain images were proprietary to families and clans, and were like crests. The animal images and symbols used in the art and tattoos of the Haida people were linked to supernatural events in their history, and individual and clan attributes. According to tattoo expert Lars Krutak, “…the right to a crest and the right to use the emblem, was more valuable than any object or human body that represented it.”

While the practice of Haida tattooing has been lost as a tradition, the designs are appealing and many people who are not of the Haida get these designs tattooed on themselves. But just because the Haida tattooing tradition is a broken one, that doesn’t mean there are no Haida people. While Haida designs are striking, letting Haida people decide whether the traditions should be revived among themselves is the safest bet.

Further reading:
Writing by Lars Krutak about Haida tattooing customs
The beautiful designs of Bill Reid, a Haida artist who died in 1998

Think about it

There are more tattooing traditions than I can count, among them, those of the Ingilit, the Sioux, a variety of traditions in what are now the Philippines, the Cree, and the skin markings, tattoos, and colloidal scarring techniques practiced by the people of Papua New Guinea, Benin, and Yoruba people of what is now Nigeria.

If you want to copy these traditions, it’s worth giving it some deep thought. The people who originated these tattoos have never taken the act lightly. Some of the best thoughts I’ve read on this topic were written by Orrin Lewis of who cautions First Nations people against getting tattooed to honor ancestry saying, “…if you are looking for a tribal identity, and you would maybe like to be accepted as a mixed-blood Indian someday, or at least you don’t want actual Indians to laugh at you when you introduce yourself, please do yourself a favor and hold off on the Native American tattoos until you are actually affiliated with the tribe in question.”

There are other ways to honor the people of this world besides copying their traditions. When asking what your tattoos mean to you, you might also want to ask what they might mean to other people, too.

Discover Matador