Africa Tattooing

Tattooing in Africa dates back thousands of years, from inked symbols of fertility on women in ancient Egypt to tattoos symbolising tribal hierarchy. Detailed documentation is hard to come by because of the time period and number of tribes, but tattooing both on the body and the face holds a fixed place in Africa’s history.

It is believed that the use of tribal marks on the continent increased during the period of the Atlantic Slave trade. Tribe members being shipped off as slaves to foreign countries were marked to identify them should they ever be rescued or freed – permanent signatures of their heritage. Tribal and clan wars, beauty, witchcraft and superstitious beliefs were also among the reasons for marking.

Many of today’s body arts have their roots in African tribal body art. From scarification to body paints, body decoration has long been held in high regard in many African tribes.In many tribes, little clothing was worn as the body was seen as a canvas for decoration. Body decoration and transformation occurred at set times in a person’s life and the decoration was thought to enhance a person’s status and beauty.While beadwork and jewelry were also frequently used as a means of beautification, there are a few types of body art that dominate.

Many traditions and types of beautification and body decoration we practice today can be traced back to African tribal roots. Body painting, face painting, henna tattoos, scarification and body piercings can all be traced to African body art.

What is most interesting is the fact that as many tribes begin to leave behind the practice of body decoration, these body arts are beginning to grow in popularity in the Western world. While scarification was once widespread through many African tribes, it can now be found only in pockets. Scarification as a form of body alteration in the United States and is beginning to gain momentum as an alternative to tattooing.

Modern Africa isn’t fighting tradition but disputing the historical rules, superstitions and practices that claim to assign us to our tribes and clans. Our traditional attire is evolving, as is our food and our languages, and some of our practices are expiring. In all the ways the West influences us, we subscribe to those trends out of choice; we aren’t defenceless.

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