A look at the history of tattoos in Africa

Deborah Dzifa Makafui August 31, 2022
Nigeran singer Davido shows off tattoo. Image via Twitter

Numerous African customs have historically included tattoos. Despite being widely accepted, most tattoos in Africa no longer hold the same meaningful meaning. Tattoos convey a keen sense of urgency and a deep love for one’s country on the skin. African Americans always seek ways to deepen their bonds with their ancestors because of the cultural significance of their African history.

There is a wide range of fascinating tattooing evidence from ancient African tribes. Tattoos show a profound understanding of the human body and the cultural values associated with the person, in addition to their religious and aesthetic connotations, rather than just their contemporary aesthetic value. Additionally, it represents the height of African individuality, and via these symbols, his ancestors’ history will go on. The inked person is a revered mascot who remembers one’s beginnings and offers good fortune and inner tranquility.

Tattoos have been used for thousands of years as a means of treating illness, warding off ghosts, demonstrating allegiance to certain groups or tribes, and expressing personality attributes like bravery, daring, and social standing. 

These tattoos, as expected, had extremely straightforward designs. On the priestess’s arms and legs, they were made up of pairs of straight lines, and beneath the navel (belly button) area, there was an elliptical design. 

Around 2000 BCE, a tattoo dating back to that time was discovered on an Egyptian mummy. In addition to this finding, numerous other instances of mummified tattoos have been identified and published. The renewal and fertility of women may have been signified and reflected by these tattoos, according to one Egyptologist.

However, several male mummies with tattoos have also been discovered in Egypt and other African nations, including Libya. Many of these tattoos appear to have been applied to demonstrate dedication and commitment to sun worship. 

In fact, males with tattoos that are thought to represent Neith, the goddess who ferociously led numerous troops into battle, were discovered in the tomb of Seti during excavations. These illustrations come from circa 1300 BC.

Marks of African Slaves 

The meanings associated with African tattoo traditions were lost as a result of the slave trade. The African tribes from which the slaves were purchased for the transatlantic voyage each had their own distinctive tattoos and tribal customs. However, these ancient Africans who were sold into slavery were marked (often with iron rods of various shapes charred by fire) in order to be recognized if they were freed or saved. 

In order to ensure that these slaves’ identity, ethnicity, religion, social status, life experiences, and accomplishments were forgotten when they relocated, these tribal symbols were likewise removed. Soon after, slave owners and traffickers noticed what was happening and started using African body tattoos as a technique of commercially classifying slaves. These markings allowed them to demand a higher price for slaves who wore them and were known to be brave. The detection of fugitive slaves and the collecting of taxes from slaveowners were two further benefits of the African body marks.

The cultural origins of tattooing are not well understood, however, it is thought that ancient Africans have been doing it for a very long time. Tattooing is a way to mark the body with ink and alter the color of the skin. Tattoos have historically been inked on the body to represent exorcism, worship, healing, or to indicate the position of the individual with the tattoo within their tribe. Because they were afraid of being perceived as outcasts within the group, ancient Africans tattooed their bodies in the same manner as their fathers. A distinct individual has little value; instead, he must be tightly linked to the neighborhood where he lives. In some ethnic communities, a person is a representation of an animal that was murdered by a magical figure, reincarnated, and now must carry the animal’s scars on his face or body.

Modern-day tattoos in Africa 

It’s interesting to note that in more recent times in Africa, tattooing and scarification have actually fused in several nations to form a procedure known as cicatrization. 

Cicatrization entails making deep cuts in the skin to form scar tissue, which is followed by applying ash or soot to the wound. While the ash and soot do give the scars some color as they develop, their primary function is to inflame the skin, which makes the scars stand out more than they would otherwise. 

Sometimes the scars are even reopened at a later date, only to have pebbles or pearls inserted beneath the skin to further accentuate the elevated appearance. Within several tribes, this procedure is occasionally employed as a ceremony. Although every tribe will have at least slight variations in their ritualistic practices, many boys in these tribes will be required to undergo cicatrization as they reach puberty. A few years later, as they progress toward manhood, their scars will be reopened so that stones or pearls can be inserted to further enhance their shapes and patterns.

One of the most popular kinds of body art in the world today is tattoo art. Their main objective is to “impress other people,” frequently using a painful history to further support their point. However, tattoos are rarely intended to be so superficial in the majority of African cultures. 

Most African paintings are inspired by concepts that go well beyond aesthetic appeal. It is not artistic; rather, it is a feeling of closeness with the neighborhood where they reside.

Due to the rare and uncommon nature of this topic, many people know nothing about the origins of traditional African tattoos and tattooing techniques, and many will probably have never given the matter any thought. But this enormous continent actually has a very rich tattooing past, and the more you learn about it, the more fascinating it becomes. 

Tattoos are long-lasting body art that is a part of many diverse civilizations all over the world and Africa is not left out.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: August 31, 2022


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