From time to time, I get questions about tribal tattoo meanings, and they most often sound something like this:
"I am trying to find different designs and their meanings. How can I go about doing that. I have Googled and searched but I just get pictures and designs and I would like to know the actual meanings of some different designs. Any help would be appreciated."
The most important thing to realize is that modern tribal-style designs don't have meanings. Most often they are just co-opted art forms, taken and used without context because someone liked the way they looked, or they are an entirely new design that was influenced by the line style of a traditional tribal art form. Western (American/European) tattooing is something done by an individual for their own personal reasons as these cultures don't have established, cultural tattoo traditions.
True tribal tattooing was something that was incorporated into a broader cultural context. It was a something that was done to all the members of the tribal group, be it a men's, women's or unisex tradition. The person being tattooed did not have a choice as to what designs they would wear nor were they in a position to refuse being tattooed. If they did, they were often sacrificing some of their social standing and public perception by not participating. Many tribal tattooing rites were connected to puberty rituals and to not allow yourself to be tattooed meant that you would never be viewed as an adult by the rest of your society, or you might be denied ability to marry, own property or bear children.
In other cultures, tribal tattooing was a form of family pedigree. The Maori of New Zealand have elaborate facial tattoos that detail family lineage, what sort of work the person does, societal status and achievements. For people outside this culture to borrow or copy these designs is culturally insensitive, and making up designs based on these styles is meaningless.
To research the meanings of tribal designs, they need to be from a specific culture and will need to be researched from within the societal context in which they were worn. If you are trying to learn about tribal tattooing, your best bet will be to go off-line and do research in anthropological texts for the history and meaning of these tattoos.
To learn more you can read online about tribal tattoos, or you can specifically research Tattoo Traditions of Hawaii , Ta Moko: The Art of Maori Tattoo or Tattoos from Paradise: Traditional Polynesian Patterns.