Tribal Facial Tattoos from Around the World

A Maori warrior at the Akaroa Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Tattoos have a long tradition – not only in certain cultures but in almost all, all over the world, supporting the hypothesis that tattoos did not originate in one place but developed independently in various locations. That explains why Oetzi the Iceman, said to have walked the Alps anywhere from the fourth to the fifth millennium, was covered in tattoos, as were mummies found from northern Chile to Egypt and Russia. Pre-Christian Germanic, Celtic and other northern tribes wore tattoos, and tattooing in Japan goes back some ten thousand years.

Brazilian Indian chiefs of the Kaiapos tribe during an interview.

Somewhere in the middle, the tradition of tattooing was forgotten in certain parts of the world but brought back with increased navigation of the earth, especially via sea routes. No wonder then that in our times, tattoos have often been associated with sailors who copied what they saw in other countries and then developed a tattoo subculture of their own.

There were, and still are, many reasons to wear tattoos – both among tribals and those copying them. They can be a sign of belonging to a certain group or tribe but also of exclusivity or being different. Tattoos are worn as sacred symbols, as talismans or to ward off evil, for religious reasons or to show spiritual devotion.

Girl of the Peul tribe applying a henna mouth tattoo with a needle.

Tattoos can designate status and rank but also mark bravery. Often, they are applied to mark a rite of passage like that from childhood into adulthood. In a related way, they are seen in many cultures as sexual lures or signs of fertility and beauty. In recent times, they have been worn as signs of protest or as political statements but also as negative marks for societal outcasts, slaves or convicts.


Image: Rob Greg

A Maori chief doing his thing.

Facial tattoos are probably the most striking of all body art because they are so permanent and impossible to miss. Among the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, permanent body and face markings were – and still are – prevalent. Called Ta moko, the skin was carved rather than punctured, resulting in grooves. Persons of high social status would receive moko in a prominent place like the face so that their special status was immediately recognizable.

Receiving moko was a special occasion accompanied by many rituals that marked the transition from childhood to adulthood for example. Moko were also considered to make a person more sexually attractive. Men usually wore moko on their faces, buttocks and thighs; women on their lips and chins. Those who received no moko were regarded as being of lower status.


Don’t mess with me – a Maori rugby player.

There is one tattoo effect we haven’t mentioned yet: Tattoos are also used to instill fear in an opponent, for example another warrior or a player of an opposing team.

Image: Kahuroa

A Maori chief as drawn by Sydney Parkinson, Thomas Cook’s artist (1769).

Since the late 19th century, needles replaced more and more the traditional chisels of the Maori tribes. For men, the moko tradition lost its significance altogether while women continued to receive moko well into the 20th century. Since the 1990s, there has been a revival of the moko tradition as a sign of the Maoris’ cultural identity.


Fulani woman with nose ring and faint mouth tattoo.

In Africa, various tribes wear facial tattoos even today. Mouth tattoos are common for women among the Peul and Fulani tribes of Mali. At the onset of puberty, girls first tattoo the bottom part of the lip as a sign of beauty (see picture above). After marriage, they also tattoo the upper part as a sign of belonging. One theory about why this particular mouth tattoo is so common among many African tribes is that it was applied to save girls from being sold as slaves, since slave traders were often looking for ”unblemished” girls.

Image: Mababa

Woman of the Ayatal tribe, Taiwan.

Among the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, mouth tattoos were common among women as well. As a mark that grew with the age of the bearer, the mouth tattoo started as a small spot on the upper lip that was gradually increased in size by applying soot. Also among the Ayatal, one of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, do traditional facial tattoos for men and women symbolise maturity. During Japanese rule, this tradition was forbidden.


Image: Picq


More is more – Kutia Kondh woman with traditional piercings and facial tattoo.

The Kondhs are an aboriginal tribe of India found in the states of Orissa, Srikakulam and Andra Pradesh. They are hunter gatherers who were known for their human sacrifices in the 19th century but also for their striking facial tattoos.

Girl of the Chindok tribe, Myanmar.

The different tribes of the Chin Hills in north-western Myanmar use tattoo marks to distinguish one hill tribe from another. It is common for girls to have their faces tattooed from early childhood on.


Image: haabet2003


A member of the Ukit tribe in Borneo.

The Ukit tribe in Borneo – currently only about 120 people strong – lives deep in the rainforests around Sarawak. Tribe members wear elaborate tattoos on the chest, shoulders and face.

Image: haabet2003

Mentawei women sporting facial tattoos.

The Mentawei people of the Mentawei Islands off Sumatra’s west coast are not only one of Indonesia’s most notable tattoo cultures but also one that has remained unchanged to this day. Among the Mentawei, the whole body is tattooed and especially for the men becomes a book that tells the story of successful hunts and other important events in life. The Mentawei are said to have inhabited their islands somewhere between 2000 and 500 BC.


Image: Nicor


Can you guess his tribe?

With modernisation catching up in even the remotest parts of the world, it is no wonder that one often has to refer to older images to even find examples of intricate tribal tattoos. In their native habitat that is. Just walk into the nearest tattoo parlour and you’ll find them all again – at your disposal. The fascination of the “civilized” world with tribal tattoos proves that body art is here to stay – the more prominent, the better.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7