Humans have marked their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years. These permanent designs—sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate, always personal—have served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and even forms of punishment. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian “tatu” which means “to mark something. One of the most striking ones you will encounter is an African tribal tattoo. Tattoos have a sacred place in African tribal culture, and its connotations run deeper than pure aesthetics. What makes these tattoos unique to the African culture is the process of scarification.
In ancient history, tattooing wasn’t exactly what we would call mainstream. This led to people engaging in scarification, a process that is not for the faint-hearted. During scarification, one incises the skin with a sharp instrument such as a knife, glass, stone, or coconut shell. Sections of skin are then sliced into shapes and patterns so that as the skin heals the shape, or the pattern would remain forever. For the extremely brave ones out there, there is also cicatrisation, a special form of scarification where a gash is made in the skin with a sharp instrument, and irritation of the skin caused by applying caustic plant juices forms permanent blisters. As if that doesn’t sound hardcore enough, dark pigments such as ground charcoal are rubbed into the wound for emphasis. These cuts, when healed, form raised scars known as keloids. The most complicated cicatrisation was probably found in the Congo Basin and its neighbouring regions, and among the Akan people of West Africa. Scarification is a long and painful process, and a permanent modification of the body, thereby transmitting complex messages about identity and social status.
Permanent body markings emphasize social, political, and religious roles. Beautiful and complex designs aren’t just about the artist showing his skills but also how tolerant is a person to pain. Facial scarification in West Africa was used for identification of ethnic groups, families, individuals but also to express beauty; scars were thought to beautify the body. It was also performed on girls to mark different stages of life: puberty, marriage, etc. These marks were supposed to make women more attractive to men. They were regarded as appealing to both touch and look at, and as a testimony that women could withstand the pain of childbirth. Princesses across the land used to sport amazingly beautiful and intricate marks. The sculpted face of Queen Idia of Benin Kingdom showcases two marks on her forehead. Amongst the Karo people of Ethiopia, men scar their chests to represent killing enemies from other tribes; women who scar their torsos and chests are considered particularly sensual and attractive. Today, the art of scarification is changing in Africa, and can mostly be spotted on elders.
In the past, Africans would have scarification marks that would not only distinguish them from everyone, but also reveal their rank in the society, family, clan, and tribe. Furthermore, it symbolized their beauty or strength. One look at the African sculptures in the museums around the world, it’s clear that this was a major aesthetic and cultural component. They denote both beauty and lineage, and in some cases, they are believed to provide protection against evil spirits. Given the superstitious nature of many indigenous people from this area, these practices were drawn and provided to create a protective barrier against various forms of evil and harm that may be presented to a person throughout their life.
While the humble tattoo has undergone a serious makeover over the years, their cultural significance is always evolving, making it a part of several cultures and subcultures. So, if you’re looking at getting inked, make sure you do your homework. Because unlike the little decisions we make every day, the aftermath of getting a tattoo is something you’ll have to deal with for life!