accounts for nearly a third of all tattoo design search requests, and the term “tribal” of course covers an astonishing array of tattoo design possibilities, from the traditional tribal tattoos of indigenous and aboriginal cultures, to the latest in graphic design for the body.
While today it is possible to find some incredibly breathtaking tribal tattoo designs, you’ll be hard pressed to experience the full, authentic art of the tribal tattoo experience in commercial America. Now, electric tattoo machines and high tech, high quality inks have replaced sticks, styluses, bone needles and plant dyes of the modern tattoo’s ancient ancestors. Modern tattoo artists have replaced the shaman and medicine folk of old.
Most likely, the very first tattoo happened on accident. All it takes is a few rowdy primitives playing around the fire. It wouldn’t take long for someone to fall in, get poked with a charred stick and later heal before they’d realized that they were on to something. The news probably spread as fast as the fires that prompted the invention. As a matter of fact, it is rumored that the first tattoos were of the sun or flames in honor of the sun god(s).
There were three major factors that took the practice of tribal tattooing from the realm of art and into the plane of the spiritual:Â Pain, Permanence and Loss of the Life Source (blood). This mystical trio elevated the tattoo from mere art and transformed it into a chance to draw people into a relationship with God, a god, magic powers, or a trance or vision state.
Because body and soul were generally thought to be identical to one another, your tattoos then existed on two planes: the physical and spiritual realms. Many of the tribes from Borneo believed that tattoos would not only be enough to get them to the proper spirit world, but that their tattoos also offered them special qualifications for advantageous occupations upon their arrival.
It has been found that most (if not all) primitive tribes used some form of body marking, be they tattoos, scarifications or the use of plain, temporary body paints. This art prevailed worldwide until the arrival of civilization as we know it, when the tattoo fell into a temporary loss of popularity.
In ancient times, tribal tattoo art was popular for many of the same reasons it is so alluring today. Tribal tattoos were employed for many motives.
Originally (and hence the name) tribal tattoos were employed to identify and group tribes, clans and families together. Not only did this enable you to easily identify one another, or recognize distant relatives, but it was generally believed that your tattoos would allow you to find your tribe and join it again in the afterlife. Today, fraternal orders, gangs, members of the military and other organizations also have designed tattoos that are recognizable to their fellow brothers and sisters.
In addition to a tribal tattoo, ancient men and women may also wear a marriage tattoo. Not only would this serve the same function as the modern day wedding ring (as a witness to your commitment to another), but again, would allow you to find your spouse in the afterlife. This was understandably important when husbands and wives would “cross the veil” several years apart from one another. In modern times, this form of tribal tattoo is still prevalent, and you will often see spouses and life-mates with matching tattooed armbands, “rings”, initials, and hearts as a permanent witness to their love and fidelity
Ancient adolescents approaching maturity would often come under the prick of the tribal tattoo point before being socially accepted as an adult. A woman who couldn’t bear the pain of a tattoo would be unfit for the impending pain of childbirth – making her unacceptable for marriage. A young man who couldn’t take it would be seen as unfit for battle or hunting, often dooming him to the role of outcast. Today, many teenagers eagerly await (or don’t wait) their eighteenth birthday and celebrate their entrance to adulthood by getting a tattoo.
Many tribal tattoos were administered as proof of the power of certain totem animals over the lives of those they chose to guard and bless. This was especially true amongst Pacific Northwest Native American tribes and the Druids and Celtic people of the British Isles. Being bestowed with a totem animal guardian was a two-fold blessing- not only would you gain the strengths and abilities of the totem animal, but the tattoo also served as a mysterious link between the animal spirit and the bearer of its marks. Different animals provided different strengths and virtues to their receiver. Today, animal tattoos are wildly popular. Lower backs, upper backs, shoulders and arms abound which have been decorated with gentle butterflies, fearsome dragons, and deadly scorpions in hopes that these creatures’ merits will take hold.
Probably the most documented and understood of the magically charged tribal tattoos was for the purpose of love spells and charms. These tattoo magicians would mix special herbs and potent concoctions to their dyes and would apply the tattoo to a small, generally hidden area to activate the magic. Generally, these tattoos were kept hidden because it would be foolish for an old married woman to go around wearing the marks of a foolish youth. Today, who doesn’t know someone who knows someone with an ex’s name tattooed somewhere, whether they’ve covered it or removed now or not?
In a single – yet perfect – stroke of the calligrapher’s brush, the Zen Circle symbolizes the entire universe. In the Zen school of Buddhism, the Zen Circle is a sacred symbol.
Although it is indeed a circle, a true Zen Circle has an obvious beginning and an end – where the artist’s brush first touched paper, and then when it lifted off. This small break represents the transition from life to death. But, still, the graphic is circular, suggesting that things keep going around, a wheel suggesting life-death-rebirth. And what about the space it contains? It appears as emptiness, which, to the mystic or the existential scientist, will be potent with the void. And therein lies the essence of Zen – dissolving into the void for an understanding of the nature of reality. This is nothing less than the reason we meditate.
A Zen Circle tattoo must by it’s very nature be a replica, since no tattooist can perform with the spontaneity so important to the Zen artist. A Zen Circle allows for no modification afterwards. The tattoo artist must copy an original work of art, meticulously reproducing the circle, which, to have been done right in the first place was accomplished by an artist in a single unthinking movement. It sounds like such a simple act, but to master the perfection of roundness takes great practice. Try it yourself. With pen and paper, attempt to draw a circle in a single perfect stroke. Some Japanese artists practice it daily.
The Japanese have a word for the Zen concept of ‘circle’. Enso. This isn’t to be mistaken for a kanji-like character, because it’s purely a symbol used to represent not only the universe, but enlightenment, the void, strength, and elegance. In Zen Buddhist art, it is seen as an ‘expression of the moment’ when the mind gets out of the way so that the body and spirit can co-create. It is used by some Zen masters as a kind of signature for their spiritual art.
Some enso are purposely asymmetrical, even lopsided, and may be formed with two brushstrokes. Many of them come accompanied with captions or written hints suggesting their meaning. The most popular inscription is ‘What is this?’ meant to advise the observer not to let others bamboozle you with theories about Zen. ‘Discover the meaning for yourself!’
Some aficionados of the Zen Circle point to the similarity of white space inside and outside of the circle. The circle has created a duality of inside/outside that doesn’t exist in reality. What is inside is outside, and what is outside is inside. As within, so without. A real Zen master would erase the line and meditate upon the blank page. This is zazen. Just sitting in full awareness, contemplating nothing.
Wearing a Zen Circle tattoo is to declare that you have the courage to approach your spiritual life through the most minimalist and ancient practices. You’re concerned about your personal development, and it starts with the circle, a sign that you view your life in its totality. You recognize that a change to one aspect of your life will lead to further changes, so taking responsibility for your life goes without saying.