Cultural Significance & Meaning of Tattoos
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


  1. Tattoos in Ancient Cultures
  2. Tribal Tattoos and Their Meanings
  3. Tattoos in Religious and Spiritual Practices
  4. Symbolism and Significance of Japanese Tattoos
  5. Traditional Samoan Tattoo Culture
  6. Tattoos as a Form of Rebellion
  7. Modern Tattoos and Cultural Appropriation

Imagine, you're walking through the bustling streets of an ancient city. Suddenly, you notice something that catches your eye — a figure inked in striking patterns on the skin of a passerby. Tattoos have long been a part of human history, their meanings and cultural significance as varied as the patterns themselves. From symbols of rank to spiritual protection, tattoos have been weaving stories on human skin across the globe. Let's journey together through the fascinating history and cultural significance of tattoos.

Tattoos in Ancient Cultures

When we think about tattoos, we usually imagine modern studios filled with buzzing needles and vibrant inks. But did you know tattoos were already a part of everyday life in many ancient cultures? Let's take a brief look at how they made their mark (no pun intended).

Ancient Egypt: The earliest evidence of tattoos dates back to ancient Egypt around 2000 BC. Tattoos in ancient Egypt were often symbols of fertility and protection. Women, in particular, had tattoos on their thighs thought to protect them during childbirth.

Greece and Rome: In Greece and Rome, tattoos were a mark of punishment or servitude. Slaves and criminals often had tattoos to indicate their status in society. However, by the 4th century, many soldiers also sported tattoos as marks of pride or symbols of their religious beliefs.

Ancient China: In ancient China, tattoos were usually associated with barbarism. However, they were also used on criminals as a form of punishment. The characters for specific crimes would be tattooed on the faces of convicts. Talk about wearing your crimes on your sleeve!

The Maori of New Zealand: For the Maori people, tattoos or 'Ta Moko' were deeply significant. The intricate facial tattoos told the story of a person's family, achievements, and status. It was more than just body art — it was a visual language.

From punishment to status symbols, tattoos in ancient cultures held various meanings and played different roles. But across the board, the cultural significance of tattoos is clear. They were a way for people to express themselves, to communicate without words. It's a tradition that continues today, as we carry the old stories forward and ink new ones onto our skin.

Tribal Tattoos and Their Meanings

As we journey further into the cultural significance of tattoos, let's turn our focus to tribal tattoos. These designs are often the "go-to" when you think of traditional tattoos, but they're more than just cool patterns. Each line and swirl has a meaning that goes beyond skin-deep.

Polynesian Tattoos: Polynesian tattoos, or 'tatau', are among the most common tribal tattoos. They're not just decoration; they tell a story about the wearer's life, social status, and achievements. For instance, a turtle symbol often signifies peace and longevity.

African Tattoos: In many African cultures, tattoos serve as rites of passage and markers of tribal affiliation. For example, in the Maasai tribe of Kenya, young men receive two parallel lines on their forehead as a sign they've entered adulthood.

Native American Tattoos: Native American tattoos often symbolize a person's relationship with nature and their spiritual beliefs. For instance, a bear tattoo might symbolize strength and courage, while an eagle could represent spiritual growth.

Celtic Tattoos: Celtic tattoos are famous for their intricate knotwork designs. These tattoos often symbolize eternal life and the interconnectedness of all things. For example, the Celtic cross, a cross enclosed by a circle, represents the unity of heaven and earth.

So, you see, tribal tattoos are more than just striking patterns. They're a form of expression, a visual language that speaks volumes about the wearer's identity and beliefs. So, next time you see a tribal tattoo, remember — there's a story behind every line and curve.

Tattoos in Religious and Spiritual Practices

Now that we've ventured into the world of tribal tattoos, let's explore how tattoos hold a special place in religious and spiritual practices. Yes, you heard that right! The cultural significance of tattoos extends to the sphere of spirituality and faith.

Buddhist Tattoos: In Buddhism, tattoos can serve as reminders of the teachings of Buddha. One of the most popular symbols is the 'Unalome', a spiraling line that represents the path to enlightenment. It's a visual metaphor of the journey from chaos and suffering to peace and realization.

Christian Tattoos: Christian tattoos often depict symbols like the cross, dove, or fish - each carrying profound religious significance. The cross, for example, is a reminder of Christ's sacrifice, while the dove represents the Holy Spirit.

Hindu Tattoos: In Hinduism, deities and spiritual symbols are common tattoo themes. From 'Om', a sacred sound, to the lotus flower, representing spiritual awakening — these tattoos are a testament to the wearer's faith and devotion.

Whether it's a symbol of enlightenment, a sign of faith, or an expression of devotion, it's clear that tattoos can hold a deep spiritual significance. They're not just art on the skin; they're a reflection of one's beliefs and spiritual journey.

So, next time you see a religious or spiritual tattoo, don't just admire the design. Take a moment to appreciate the profound faith and spirituality it represents.

Symbolism and Significance of Japanese Tattoos

Let's take a leap from the spiritual world and land right in the heart of Japan. Japanese tattoos, or Irezumi, carry a rich history and a wealth of symbolism. The cultural significance of tattoos in Japan is fascinating and, at times, a tad mysterious.

Dragons: In Japanese tattoos, dragons are a symbol of wisdom, strength, and protection. They're often depicted in vibrant colors, swirling through clouds or waves. If you've ever wondered why someone would get a dragon tattoo, now you know!

Koi Fish: Koi fish tattoos are another popular choice. These graceful, vividly colored fish represent perseverance and determination. The legend of the Koi fish swimming upstream and transforming into a dragon is a powerful symbol of overcoming adversity.

Cherry Blossoms: Cherry blossom tattoos, also known as Sakura, symbolize the fleeting nature of life. In Japan, cherry blossom viewing, or Hanami, is a cherished tradition. Similarly, having a Sakura tattoo is a gentle, beautiful reminder of life's brevity and beauty.

Japanese tattoos are more than just eye-catching artistry. They're a celebration of cultural symbols, each carrying a story, a lesson, or a value. So, the next time you see an Irezumi, remember there's a rich cultural significance hiding beneath the colorful ink. It's not just a tattoo; it's a piece of Japanese culture and tradition.

Traditional Samoan Tattoo Culture

Imagine a culture where tattoos are not just a form of expression, but a rite of passage, a symbol of adulthood, and a mark of respect. Welcome to Samoa. The cultural significance of tattoos in this Pacific Island nation runs deeper than the Pacific Ocean itself.

Pe'a: In Samoan culture, the traditional male tattoo, known as Pe'a, covers the body from mid-torso to the knees. This is not a quick trip to the tattoo parlor. The process is lengthy, painful, and loaded with symbolism. Completing the Pe'a is a testament to a man's strength, endurance, and commitment to his community.

Malu: The Malu is the female counterpart to the Pe'a. It covers the legs from the upper thighs to the knees. Typically, Malu is less visible than Pe'a, reflecting the traditional roles and modesty of Samoan women. The Malu is a symbol of respect, maturity, and commitment to cultural values.

For Samoans, tattoos are not a trend or fashion statement. They are a vital part of their identity, community, and heritage. Each intricate pattern tells a story of family, status, and personal achievements. So, remember, when you see a Samoan tattoo, you're not just looking at ink on skin. You're reading a personal, proud proclamation of identity, echoing centuries of tradition.

Tattoos as a Form of Rebellion

Picture this: You're a teenager, eager to rebel against the status quo and assert your individuality. What's your go-to? For many, it's tattoos. The cultural significance of tattoos has often been tied to rebellion and non-conformity.

Defying Convention: Historically, tattoos were seen as a mark of outlaw or fringe societies. Bikers, sailors, and rock stars were among the first groups to adopt tattoos as a sign of defiance against societal norms. These tattoos served as a visual protest against conformity and a badge of honor among peers.

Personal Freedom: In the modern world, tattoos continue to symbolize personal freedom and individuality. They allow people to wear their beliefs, passions, or personal stories on their skin. In a world where you're constantly told to fit in, a tattoo can be a shout of resistance. It says, "This is who I am, and I'm not afraid to show it."

When you look at a tattoo, you're seeing more than a design. You're seeing a person's courage to break boundaries. You're seeing a statement of self-empowerment. You're seeing a small act of rebellion. So, next time you see someone with a tattoo, remember, it's not just about the ink. It's about the statement they're making.

Modern Tattoos and Cultural Appropriation

Fast forward to today, tattoos have become a mainstream part of pop culture. But with this rise in popularity, comes a new concern: cultural appropriation. As tattoos have gained acceptance, there's been a surge of interest in traditional designs from various cultures. But here's the catch — not everyone is happy about it.

The Fine Line: When does appreciation become appropriation? It's a fine line. Many traditional tattoos hold deep significance in their respective cultures. So, when people outside these cultures get these tattoos without understanding their meaning, it can feel disrespectful to those who hold these symbols sacred.

Respect and Awareness: So, what's the solution? Respect and awareness. Before getting a tattoo inspired by a different culture, it's important to do your homework. Understand the cultural significance of tattoos you're interested in — their history, their meaning, their purpose. This small step can go a long way in preserving the integrity and respect of these traditional art forms.

In the end, tattoos are a form of self-expression. They tell a story, make a statement, or honor a memory. But it's crucial to remember that every tattoo also carries a weight — the weight of cultural significance. So, the next time you're considering a tattoo, remember to consider its cultural roots too.

If you're fascinated by the cultural significance and meaning of tattoos, we recommend you explore the workshop 'Culture & How To Include It In Your Work' by Juanjose Mouko Nsue. This workshop will help you understand the importance of culture in creative expression, enabling you to incorporate it into your own work in a thoughtful and meaningful way.