An ontology specifies an abstract model of a domain of interest via a formal language that is typically based on logic. Although description logics are popular formalisms for modeling ontologies, tuple-generating dependencies (tgds), originally introduced as a unifying framework for database integrity constraints, and later on used in data exchange and integration, are also well suited for modeling ontologies that are intended for data-intensive tasks. The reason is that, unlike description logics, tgds can easily handle higher-arity relations that naturally occur in relational databases. In recent years, there has been an extensive study of tgd-ontologies and of their applications to several different data-intensive tasks. However, the fundamental question of whether the expressive power of tgd-ontologies can be characterized in terms of model-theoretic properties remains largely unexplored. We establish several characterizations of tgd-ontologies, including characterizations of ontologies specified by such central classes of tgds as full, linear, guarded, and frontier-guarded tgds. Our characterizations use the well-known notions of critical instance and direct product, as well as a novel locality property for tgd-ontologies. We further use this locality property to decide whether an ontology expressed by frontier-guarded (respectively, guarded) tgds can be expressed by tgds in the weaker class of guarded (respectively, linear) tgds, and effectively construct such an equivalent ontology if one exists.