Although Native American tattoos are popular regardless of heritage, many people choose these designs based on pride and respect for their cultural ties. Many Native American pieces are based on special symbolism that is associated with a particular tribal group. This style is most often used by those who want to feel closer to their ancestors and heritage. For those who do not have any particular ties to the culture, the use of tribal designs by modern artists, an adaptation of a traditional symbol or script based on the Cree or Cherokee writing system may be better options.
Native American tattoos were once used for spiritual purposes and as a way to identify a person with a specific group. Although this practice is not as common today, many still use this style of body art for those exact reasons. The styles and symbols used are largely dependent upon the group. For example, three Mohawk tribes were once distinguished by the appearance of bear, turtle and wolf tattoos, while Cree men and women were identified by several lines on the face and body. Animals that take the form of spirit guides are also commonly used for traditional Native American pieces and can include such creatures as hawks and owls, cougars and dogs, frogs and alligators.
Although modern Native American tattoos include many of the same characteristics as traditional pieces, they are often made up of more complex imagery. For instance, spirit guide animals are frequently placed into a scene or in front of mystical-looking designs and patterns. For example, the face of a coyote might be placed in front of a starry background, while a salmon may appear to be fighting its way upstream in brightly-colored water.
Many Native American tattoos, whether traditional or modern, include elaborate symbols that are used to describe the elements, identity, and life as a whole. Some symbols serve to tell of a person’s birth, such as zodiac animals, while others may aid in focusing cultural identity, like the Hopi Tawa kachina. More modern styles will typically include several symbols as a way to represent the wearer overall. For example, the wearer may place an elemental symbol or a zodiac animal at the center of a Sioux medicine wheel.
While symbols are popular choices, some prefer to create large, intricate scenes instead. For instance, some pieces may include the silhouette of a Native American riding a horse at sunset. These images are sometimes framed in artifacts such as dream catchers, crossed arrows or woven patterns.