Native Tattoo Meanings and Customs

By: Mark Jordan

Today many parents panic if their child gets a tattoo at some point in their life. Many think of it as a degrading practice that symbolizes rebellion. But it should be remembered that tattooing was and is an art that came naturally to various native peoples for hundreds of years. Tattooing has been a native custom in many tribes or races across the world, although the origin of it varied within each tribe or race. The Tattoo, over the years, has signified caste, citizenship, servility, pride or marital status for many races.

In the Hawaiian Islands tattooing was common prior to 1800 and would indicate what tribe or district you came from. The material used for coloring in native tattooing was vermillion, carbon, gunpowder and indigo. These were embedded in the skin with sharp knives or hand-made needles. Members of the Tucanoe tribe were known for three vertical blue lines tattooed on the body. This was an indication they belonged to that tribe.

In the South China Sea area where Borneo, the Philippines, Sumatra and Java are, tattooing was also common among the natives. In Borneo, members of the Kyan, Pakatan and Kermowit tribes were the only tribes where everyone was tattooed. Oddly, they were considered the least brave tribes in the area. Still their tattoos indicated they were part of a particular group. Another Borneo tribe, the Dyaks, tattooed all of the married women, usually on the hands and feet and possibly the thighs. It was considered a privilege for the married woman and a sign of dignity.

In the Polynesian Islands such as Tahiti, a tribe known as the Otaheites appeared to tattoo themselves for religious significance. Common tattoos among them were squares, circles and crescents, along with men and dog tattoos. In this tribe every person was tattooed without exception as they reached adulthood. In Fiji only women were tattooed in a tradition dating back hundreds of years. It was believed that they were tattooed more for adornment than any other reason. A tattoo was seen as a decoration that beautified the women in preparation to find or keep a husband.

Among native Australian tribes it was common, and is today, to tattoo yourself with the group’s totem, Otherwise known as a Wingong. A totem was a creature, plant or animal that the tribe believed they descended from. It could be a turtle, elk, owl, Cray-fish or snake, for instance. It might be considered the tribe’s logo.

In Burma tattooing has always been a sign of manhood. Early explorers of the islands saw almost no man without a tattoo. The leg was a popular spot to have one. It was witnessed that tattoo artists would go around with books of designs which contained every symbol for warding off any kind of evil or for bringing good luck.

Native American tribes were advocates of tattooing. The married women of the Apaches and Yumas in Arizona traditionally were distinguished by a tattoo consisting of several blue lines from the lower lip to the chin. It was also known that when a young female was wishing to become a mother, she would tattoo the figure of a child on her forehead. As well, Mojave women, after marriage would tattoo vertical blue lines on their chin.

Within native tribes and in specific geographic locations, the art of tattooing has been a long tradition. In the modern world the tattoo is used more for personal decoration of the body, and personal meaning than it is for customary 'tribal type' purposes such as designating a group, although violent gangs many times have a common tattoo. For most it is popular to merely acquire a tattoo that has a personal meaning, and for others it is simply a fancy adornment.

Mark D. Jordan, a native of Pennsylvania, is a researcher and writer with hobbies spanning from genealogy to Celtic culture. Other Tattoo information can be found at