4 Traditional Uses Of Tribal Tattoos Among Polynesian Cultures

Most people think of tattoos as a personal expression of individuality, but the practice of tattooing actually originated in the Polynesian islands among tribal cultures. Like most aboriginal art, tribal tattoos told stories or indicated different aspects of social status—they were never used simply as ornament. Following are four traditional uses of primitive tattoos—or tataus, as they were called in by Tahitian tribes.


Tribal tattoos were widely used to identify those of specific occupations, primarily those who served the medical and religious needs of needs of the community. Proven hunters and warriors often wore tattoos with design elements that incorporated animals. Tattoos also served as camouflage for hunters so they move through the jungles unnoticed by their prey.

Tribal Identity

Tattoos also provided visual evidence of tribal identification. This is the most common type of tribal tattoo today and is worn primarily by those who are attempting to form a connection to their ancestry.

Sexual Maturity

Young women in particular were given specific tattoos when they reached the age of sexual maturity. Although this type of tattooing is no longer popular among young people of South Seas ancestry, some of the round, fluid design elements used in this particular type of tattoo are common in modern tribal body art.

Social Status Within the Tribe

Social status and relationships to other members of the tribe are other elements of tribal tattoos. For instance, the daughter of an esteemed elder who is active in tribal government will have be able to be identified as such by certain tattoos. In this and other respects, tattooing served as a form of visual language—it was possible to look at another person and gain information on their tribal origins, social status and familial relationships within that tribe, occupation, personal achievements, and even availability for marriage without ever exchanging a word with them.

Traditional wearers of tribal tattoos often were tattooed throughout the majority of their bodies, but that is rarely seen anymore. Many modern people of South Seas descent are turning to tribal tattoos as a way to reconnect with their cultures, but the majority of them are choosing designs that depict tribal identity rather than occupation or familial connections. Fortunately, modern tattoo artists are becoming increasingly adept at working with aboriginal design elements, so if you are interested in getting a tribal tattoo, the chances are quite good that you'll be able to find a local tattoo artist at a parlor like Gallery Tattoo & Piercing who is qualified to do the job.