Crazy Interesting Tattoo Practices from Indigenous Cultures Around the World 

Jeff Richard
70k views 10 items

Like everything else in life, trends are constantly evolving when it comes to tattoo designs. For some, perhaps they're rocking the classic heart-tattoo-with-a-name-through-it look. Or maybe they've got a few Japanese kanji characters that mean "strength" or "love." Or some mean-looking barbed-wire spiraling around their bicep

That is to say, that while tattoos are typically regarded as a symbol of individuality, there comes a point when a specific style catches on (like, say, early 2000s tribal) and soon spreads like wildfire, burning away the original intention of getting the ink done in the first place. 

Then there are those that go back thousands of years. Indigenous cultures around the world have a long history of tattooing. Their tattoos were first done to signify a bond between tribe members, or to camouflage flesh during a hunt. 

Indigenous tattoos are unique in that they've transcended all of the common trends. Perhaps because the symbolism contained within their art is timeless in and of itself. Something that doesn't belong to any one era, but rather is meant to stand the test of time. Indigenous tattooing exists apart from societal trends. It is purposeful, functional, and less about expressing your individuality than signifying a connection with one's community.

Similarly, indigenous tattoo practices exist apart from modern tattoo studios. Many tattoos in indigenous cultures are still done with traditional methods, some of which may surprise you. Read on to find out more about this time-honored tradition. 

Girls Would Get Tattoos at Age 12 in Polynesian Tribes
Girls Would Get Tattoos ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Crazy Interesting Tattoo Practices from Indigenous Cultures Around the World
Photo: georgeogoodman/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

In Polynesian tribes, while the men were permitted to be given tattoos anywhere on their bodies, particularly the face, women were only allowed to receive tattoos on their lips, ears, hands, arms, and feet. 

It is also believed that girls would receive tattoos at the age of twelve, as this was when they were permitted to take on more responsibilities within their family and tribe.

The Maori Used Caterpillars to Make Ink
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Photo: RaviGogna/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

Nowadays, tattoo inks have advanced to the point where it's possible to get blacklight embedded in your skin, on top of the thousands of different color shades possible. But thousands of years ago, it was a little harder to come by certain inks to get your colors just right. 

In the case of the Maori people (indigenous New Zealanders), they used some ingenious tricks. While darker hues were somewhat easier (a simple burnt wood concoction did the trick), those that were lighter often utilized corpses of caterpillars that were infected with a certain type of fungus. 

Indigenous Polynesians Used Tattoos to Honor Warriors
Indigenous Polynesians U... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Crazy Interesting Tattoo Practices from Indigenous Cultures Around the World
Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/flickr/No known copyright restrictions

While anyone can go into a tattoo parlor and get the design of their choice, indigenous tribes held their art to be much more sacred, and in some cases, they had to be earned before anything was put to flesh.

Specifically, when it came to the warriors of Polynesian tribes, tattoos were used to designate strength and power. The more tattoos one had on display, the more prominent they were within the tribe - which also spoke to their history on the battlefield.

Ancient Indonesian Tribes Used a Process Called 'Hand-Tapping'
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Photo: nSeika/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

Using what is called the "hand-tapping" technique, early Indonesian tribes would often simply attach a needle to a stick and repeatedly tap it against the skin to create the desired design. 

While it certainly takes longer, some modern Indonesian tattoo artists have re-adopted this technique as a way to honor their heritage and the practice of their ancestors.