Whilst the practice of traditional scarification and tattooing is now considered primitive and even outlawed in some African countries, the age-old ritual is not quite dead. Instead, body art has transmogrified into modern cultures in cities across Africa, with the young and the young at heart now finding it fashionable to sport a tattoo for whatever reasons – art for art’s sake; protest; beliefs; to mark an occasion; as a show of love; the list is endless.
Others are influenced by popular culture, especially music and sports – think hip hop and rock and roll and contact sports such as rugby – where the often full-torso and facial tattoos serve either as badges of machismo or markers to increase the aggression of the prize-fighters in the eyes of their opponents. Think of Mike Tyson’s facial ‘warrior status’ tattoo borrowed from the Māori in New Zealand, or those worn by the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team. Much as Tyson’s and the All Blacks’s body art seems hip and current, it all serves the age-old purpose – to scare the opponent – just like it did in the cases of Dinka and Maori warriors of yore.
There’s really nothing new under the sun.
That said, there was more to body art in African cultures than as an ornament of war. Beauty; identity; rites of passage; and the need to keep evil and death at bay were some of the reasons body art was practiced. The markings were done either early in childhood or at puberty when young men and women were about to transit into adulthood. These were incised scars, pricked dotted patterns or dyes made out of tree bark that were rubbed into the skin. Some of the earliest tattoos were discovered on an Egyptian mummy, Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor in 1891 CE.
Before Beauty, Pain
These sometimes beautiful and other times scary markings were achieved in various ways, including by burning. Scarification was especially popular among the darker-skinned nations like the Dinka of South Sudan, who carved a series of vee-shaped scars on the forehead to signify bravery when boys came of age. As for the Nuer of southwestern Ethiopia and South Sudan, the pattern consisted of six parallel horizontal lines called gaar across the forehead, with women using dotted patterns on the cheeks and around the eyes.
On the other hand, tattoos and dyes were more popular with the lighter-skinned nations like the Wodaabe and Mbororo sub-groups of the Fulani people of northern Nigeria. During slavery, parents incised huge and ugly markings on the faces of their children as a form of protection because the slavers found them too ugly to be sold, and so they had no interest in capturing them. The Atlantic Slave Trade saw a spike in the practice, the special tribal markings helping the captured slaves to identify themselves in the new lands, or in case they were rescued or freed.
The Kru people of eastern Liberia, a proud seafaring nation who would rather fight to the death or take their own lives than be captured, were famous for resisting capture into slavery by use of scarification, which disfigured their faces and reduced their market worth. Their skills at navigating the Atlantic also made them more attractive to the slavers as sailors and navigators on the slave ships rather than as slaves. To distinguish themselves from others, they rubbed a blue dye into their tattoos.
But while they might serve to identify a person’s nationality, tattoos could also endanger the same person’s life. A case in point is in South Sudan where, because of prolonged conflict often pitting one nation against another, scarification among the Nuer is being abandoned because it makes it easy for the warrior to be identified and killed by their rivals.
Sex, War and Childbirth
Because scarification was a painful process that was done using crude instruments like blades, thorns or chips of rock, it tested the endurance of whoever went under the blade. For women of child-bearing age, it signified that they were capable of withstanding the rigours of childbirth. As for the men, it showed they were courageous and ready to become tribal warriors.
But it was not always about beauty or identity.
Scarification, especially on women’s bellies, had a lot to do with sex. In ancient Egypt, tattoos of the protector god Bes were worn on the belly and thighs by pregnant women for protection of the child in the womb and during childbirth. In many nations, tattoos on the abdomen and breasts symbolized fertility, and that the woman was ready to have children. Other than that, tattoos also had a practical use. It was believed that caressing the sensitive scarred tissue during sexual intercourse aroused the woman and enhanced the sexual experience with her partner. As for men, the special marks made them appear macho, and worked in their favour to win them mates, especially when they came of age and wanted to marry.
The More Things Change…
And as we progress, it would appear as if we are going back to this ‘primitive’ artform for inspiration, as exemplified in tattooing in modern sports, images of which are beamed into the living rooms of urban kids who may never have been in an African village. And as the young consume these sports on pay-tv at home, they soon follow suit and visit tattoo parlours to take part in a ritual that is as old as the hills, only that this time not for some tribal ritual purpose. Or perhaps it is. Maybe by going under the tattoo artist’s needle and having dyes forced under their skin to claim their badge of honour, members of Gen Z are transiting to a hip age set, albeit this time not on a primitive goatskin spread under a tree but in a sanitized modern studio.
And as tattooing continues to gain acceptance and transmogrify into a cult, tattoo studios are now popping up at modern shopping malls spread across Nairobi and other cities, the artwork getting more sophisticated and intricate, often employing computers and thermal printers to generate stencils of complex images. Thanks to these intricacies, modern body art doesn’t come cheap.
The Range – Designs and Body Parts
Modern tattoos range from flowers to all manner of gothic symbols. Religion hasn’t been spared either, with some opting for bible verses to express their faith. And just like in the older days when ash and other plant extracts were used, the tattooing techniques vary, with the wound often being treated with chemicals that range from peroxide to lemon juice to attain the effect the artist and client want after it heals. Some of those dyes have even been found to contain arsenic, a poisonous substance, which is the reason the practice is banned in some African countries.
As for where they are done, it would appear like the entire body is the artist’s canvass, with some clients opting for one in the strangest of places, including nipples, butt-cracks, tongues, armpits and penises. If anyone thought ‘primitive’ Africans were crazy with how far they went in embracing body art, then the lengths to which younger Africans are willing to go with body art will leave them dumbfounded. Nothing, it seems, is off the table. And neither pain nor judgment are a deterrent.