Cool tribal tattoo. Is it from the '90s?
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Cool tribal tattoo. Is it from the '90s?
Leo Zulueta, who is generally credited with pioneering and popularizing tribal style tattoos in the U.S., at Spiral Tattoo in Ann Arbor, Mich., May 16, 2023. Tribal style tattoos, once dismissed for being culturally appropriative, are back in vogue. (Nic Antaya/The New York Times)

by Joseph Bernstein

NEW YORK, NY.- Sometimes, a customer walks into Name Brand Tattoo on North Main Street and asks Julian Bast to design a tattoo just like the ones on his Instagram account. They use words like “psychedelic,” “abstract” and “swirly.”

“You mean, tribal?” Bast responds.

At this point, according to Bast, some of the customers recoil. No, not those bold, all-black, geometric designs, allegedly based on Indigenous motifs, which adorn the biceps and deltoids of meatheads and cultural appropriators around the Western world. Everyone knows tribal tattoos are uncool, permanent reminders of 1990s bad taste. Right?

Maybe not. Today, thanks to the alchemy of the long-term trend cycle and the social media algorithm, tribal tattoos are making a return. On arms, legs and torsos from Los Angeles to London and from Santiago, Chile, to Seoul, South Korea, spiny tribal shapes climb hip bones, cross chests and crawl up necks. Some of them look like they’ve been lifted straight out of Woodstock ’94 (or ’99). Others are a new twist on the old patterns, idiosyncratic to individual tattoo artists.

“Sometimes there will be a week of nothing but tribal,” said Bast, 30, whose long hair and neo-Deadhead style give him the look of an Online Ceramics model.

Appropriating the … 1990s?

Just as those seeking tribal tattoos 20 and 30 years ago were drawn to the aesthetics of an exoticized, ancient culture, so too are many of the new, Gen Z tribal fans: specifically, to the years 1997 to 2004, and their curious folkways.

That is the cultural period Aesthetics Wiki defines as “Y2K,” an era that is in the process of being strip-mined by cool internet people under 30 for outfit ideas, design trends and general vibes.

“The street culture pages on social media are relentless in the way they upload ’90s and 2000s content,” said Lewis James Dixon, who runs Cold Archive, a social media research firm and brand consultancy.

For some of these customers — and some of the tattoo artists — a dash of authentic ’90s bad taste is the whole idea.

“It all started for me when my ex-girlfriend wanted a tramp stamp,” said Gian Luca Matera, a tattoo artist in Berlin, referring to the lower back tattoos that were popular around, yes, Y2K. “And she wanted it to have a trashy ’90s tribal vibe.”

Matera, 26, found an enthusiastic response on Instagram for his tribal-inspired work. “I probably stepped into it at the right time in the right place,” he said. Now he has cultivated his own style, a sort of severe tribal-meets-BDSM, which is popular with young ravers in the German capital.

In the ’90s, he said, tribal tattoos had a fairly limited range of design, but now the art is a little looser and tattoo artists can do “whatever comes to our mind.”

An ‘Outlaw Scene’

The man generally credited with pioneering and popularizing the tribal style in the United States is Leo Zulueta, 71, a tattoo artist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who recently retired after a 40-year career and has mentored younger artists such as Bast.

Zulueta, who is Filipino American, grew up in Hawaii and developed a passion for collecting old images of Indigenous tattoo designs from Southeast Asia and Polynesia, traditions that are several thousand years old. (The word “tattoo” comes from the Polynesian word “tatau.”)

According to Lars Krutak, an anthropologist who has studied Indigenous tattooing in about 35 countries, tattoos in those cultures were frequently used to signify tribal identity, as well as to mark rites of passage.

At first, Zulueta displayed his riffs on a handful of these designs in a San Francisco gallery. Then, in 1980, he did his first tattoo — on his own calf, under the supervision of his mentor, Don Ed Hardy, the legendary tattoo artist. (Hardy’s name is better known to the general public for the namesake clothing line that licensed his name and art.)

With Hardy’s encouragement, Zulueta went to work trying out his tribal designs, mostly on Los Angeles punks.

The tattoo world at the time was dominated by a largely underground network of bikers, skinheads and body modification enthusiasts — sharp contrast to the broad acceptance that tattoos have in Western culture today. In this milieu, a tattoo from Zulueta was a signal of membership in, well, a kind of tribe.

“It was a very outlaw scene,” said Ron Athey, a performance artist who was tattooed by Zulueta in the 1980s. “There was a lot more stigma and therefore a lot more cool around it.”

In 1989, the punk publisher V. Vale released “Modern Primitives,” a book documenting the body modification scene: tattooing, piercing and scarification. The book, which featured Zulueta’s work, was a hit, and pointed the way toward the mass adoption of piercings and tattoos by the Lollapalooza set.

Two years later, in 1991, Zulueta created a set of designs — called “flash” in the tattoo world — that featured some of the most iconic contemporary tribal motifs, including a rosette and a scorpion inspired by Indigenous tattoos from Borneo. Though tattoo artists could exert far more control over the ownership of their designs before the internet, these images proved so popular that they quickly passed into the common vernacular of tattooing.

“I try to be humble,” Zulueta said. “But this flash made people a lot of money.” He said he still sometimes receives envelopes in the mail bearing cash from grateful artists.

‘What Tribe Are You From, Chad?’

As Zulueta’s profile grew — he tattooed Dennis Rodman, Jim Jarmusch and Tommy Lee — his style of tattooing became widespread. Jean Paul Gaultier’s celebrated 1994 Les Tatouages collection featured tribal tattoos, and in “From Dusk Till Dawn,” a 1996 movie, George Clooney wore a huge tribal flame design on his arm and neck. Bad imitations followed.

“There were legions of people trying to do this and screwing it up,” Zulueta said.

Dave Holmes, an editor-at-large at Esquire and an MTV host from 1998 to 2002, remembers the tattoos as part of the mid-’90s uniform in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, along with the Caesar haircut and a sleeveless T-shirt.

Then, Holmes said, “the line between Chelsea gay guy and Jersey Shore guy got super-blurry. The big muscles and the eyebrow maintenance and the tribal tattoos.”

By the early 2000s, tribal tattoos had become a punchline. “What tribe are you from, Chad?” comedian Carlos Mencia joked in a 2004 performance, summing up a general attitude about the designs.

The question of cultural appropriation still hovers over tribal tattoos, as it does for many tattoo designs.

According to Anna Felicity Friedman, a tattoo historian, it’s a complicated issue that depends on the culture the tattoo comes from, as well as the intention of the person getting tattooed. For example, the Maori of New Zealand, she said, have a stronger prohibition against their tattoos being given to outsiders than other Polynesian cultures, some of which have designed tattoos specifically to be used on foreigners.

As far as the American versions of these tattoos go, Friedman said, many of them are fairly abstracted from their origins.

“The problem is more in the name,” she said. “If they just called it neo-blackwork, there wouldn’t be an issue.”

A New Riff

The newer generation of tribal enthusiasts seems to have largely avoided these questions, perhaps because their inspiration comes from a fantasy about a lost time in their own culture rather than a fantasy about a lost culture out of time. More than that, the contemporary tribal artists appear intent on establishing their own styles.

For some, that means pulling from their own cultural heritage, as Zulueta did 40 years ago. Evgenij Weimer, a tattoo artist in Berlin, bases his tribal work on the intricate designs inside the nomadic yurts from his native Kazakhstan. For others, like Bast, who is part Filipino, it means developing a style that juxtaposes the American traditional tattoos he’s also known for with tribal designs inspired by Zulueta.

One place to see this style is on the torso of Nathan Collier, 31, given over entirely to Bast’s work. Black, Borneo-style tribal tendrils stretch from Collier’s collarbone to his shoulders and down his flanks, crossing his chest and his lower abdomen, framing his other, American traditional tattoos. Collier, who lives in Lincoln Park, Michigan, said he gets plenty of compliments on the tribal ink on his neck that is visible in a T-shirt.

“A lot of people think it’s cool,” Collier said. “But hey, I’m sure no one is going to come up to you and say, that’s a terrible tattoo.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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