Symbols: Tribal Design

There has been a huge growth in the popularity of tribal design in nearly every aspect of our culture. Motorcycle enthusiasts incorporate tribal designs in things as simple as the mirrors on the handle bars to the paint job. Likewise, tribal designs are popular on many clothing designs from t-shirts, to hats, shoes, wallets, etc. This design is also extremely prevalent among tattoo designs. There simply seems to be no area where “tribal” is not affecting. One question no one seems to really be asking is what is tribal design?

These tribal designs were used for what the name implies, to designate a person as belonging to a certain community or tribe and they were almost always in the form of a tattoo. I suppose you could compare it to the gang colors of today, which mark someone as belonging to a particular gang. Unlike today, for many hundreds of years tattoos were not a fashion statement and people didn’t get them “just because.” Traditional tattooing was an extremely painful and long process; as pointed out in an excellent article on, this process could last up to three months. Tattooing in the United States is performed in almost every city and with modern equipment that makes the tattooing process much more efficient and much less painful than the more traditional methods. These methods employed the use a single needle that was often manually tapped into the subject being tattooed and then applying the ink followed by more needle tapping. These designs were often earned and were sometimes the final rite of passage to be considered a man. They were often indications of “social rank and affiliation.” In other cultures, such as the Egyptians, once a person was initiated into a temple’s service, a person would often receive a particular tattoo to indicate his/her temple affiliation.

It is for these reasons that the Bible opposes tattoos: Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:28). The PBS article mentioned above also addresses that tattoos were often used as a sign of mourning. Because tribal designs have become so popular in American society, many of the designs today are completely devoid of any symbolic meaning. Therefore, caution needs to be used and the question needs to be asked if the design does have a meaning before one wears it on a t-shirt, etc. There may be some who will decide to avoid tribal designs all together, that is a decision you as an individual will have to make on your own.

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