Tribal tattoos immediately take us back to a long-gone aesthetic: A time when we were proudly wearing tribal printed T-shirts in elementary school, or when curved shapes were decorating hair clips. But looking at today’s fashion landscape, one can’t deny there certainly has been a comeback of this long-gone trend – as the Dior Homme A/W 18 Show proved. In it, the long-banned pattern fought its way back to the catwalk: Red suits that simply could not do without the curved shape of the 90s tribal, prints on shoes, and embroidery that gave colorful sweaters an edgy feel. And it was not just Kris Van Assche who recently sensed the return of the iconic print – Vetements and Prada equally showed some love for tribal details.


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Diving deeper into the history of the often frowned upon look, one if first of all met with a tattoo trend that many people seem to rather regret embracing now. Nonetheless, tribal tattoos represent the initial form of tattoos. Thousands of years ago the ancient people of Tahiti, the Maori or the Celts already decorated their bodies with patterns that got under the skin. Inspiration was found in the things their rural environment offered: the sun, fire, water or the stars. The look was very coarse and flat, as the practice was carried out with thorns or wooden pegs which left little room for detail. The traditions were handed down over multiple generations, carrying strong spiritual symbolisms such as tribal affiliation or warrior markings. Tribal tattoos were traditionally mainly associated with masculine energy and strength, used to intimidate enemies before a battle.

Making a slight jump over a rather oppressive period when tattoos were perceived as un-chic and banned by the church, the 1970’s and their increasingly open mindset finally saw the stigma around the aesthetic erased. The triumphal march of tattoos in fashion was then led by Martin Margiela in the late 1980’s. It was only a small step from body art to incorporating the look into garments – a power play with the permanence of a tattoo in relation to the short term aesthetics of clothes. This specifically inspired the aforementioned Martin Margiela for his debut in 1989 as well as Jean Paul Gaultier, who brought together models of different ethnicities in a colorful mix of cultural influences for his S/S 94 offering ‘Les Tatouages’. He sent models down the catwalk with semi-permanent tattoos and included tribal patterns into the collection.


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The fashion of the 90’s stood in stark contrast to the aesthetics of the 80’s. Glamour and magnificence gave way to deconstruction and conceptual designs, which changed one major thing: The Message. While the fashion of the 80’s was still largely without political approach, the new style found inspiration in dealing with the current developments in Chernobyl or the war in Yugoslavia and related to music styles such as grunge or techno. And this was where tribal came into play: its symbolism has a direct connection to ancient warriors who have always stood for power. Sporting tribal patterns, whether that’s on skin or clothes, is a form of self-expression in the sense of adopting the traits of a warrior.

But how did the famous 90s’s tribal become this wide spread, if there have been so many different styles around throughout history, you might ask. Well, now please welcome George Clooney to the tattoo stage: His film ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’, which mad quite some headlines 1996, saw Clooney embody badass Seth Gecko, introducing to the public the large-scale tribal tattoo we still know today. Shortly thereafter, it became a mainstream trend to hack one’s body accordingly to honor their fierce role model. Responsible for the tattoo in the film was the artist Leo Zulueta, who began tattooing in the late 80’s and allegedly shared a notebook with Ed Hardy (consider this circle closed).

The pattern was also strongly propagated in the late 90’s by a very special subculture: The Gabber, known for their hardcore techno affiliation. Their strong political attitude perfectly fit the tribal look – they had to fight some battles on the dance floor after all, in keeping up with the bass. The gabber aesthetic was strongly geared towards working class attire, athleisure and they were strong multipliers of the tribal print and subsequently inspired Raf Simons to create his ‘Summa Cum Laude’ collection in the early 2000s. Gabber and hardstyle techno is having a moment again as well – the Polish Rave Crew WIXAPOL S.A. shows the tribal in their logo and the Italian blog Gabbereleganza exclusively deals with this particular aesthetics.

‘It’s not a disgrace to be a gabber’ also seems to be the motto of contemporary brands, such as Maria Ke Fisherman or WASTED PARIS, who let the tribal come alive again in their current collections. The tribal today compared to the late 90’s pattern seems smaller and more concise – a less ornate look could for example be seen at Maria Ke Fisherman.


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Even though the typical 90’s tribal can’t be directly linked to a particular tribe, referencing it still has more than once lead to a brand being accused of cultural appropriation. The case of Nike in 2013 shows how strongly the people of Australia and New Zealand still identify with the typical Samoan patterns. After a massive shitstorm, a line of sportswear was withdrawn from circulation because it was strongly reminiscent of the traditional male tattoo ‘pe’a’ and offended the people that related to it.

Whatever the personal stance on tribal patterns may be: wearing a symbol that stands for fierceness always is a powerful personal form of expression – just make sure to know your references and treat tribal patterns with care.

Header image “From Dusk till Dawn” Film Still

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