Revealing The Most Mysterious Origin of African Tattoos

November 18, 2021 7 min read

Revealing The Most Mysterious Origin of African Tattoos

Tattoo art is becoming one of the most well-known forms of body art in the world. Their major goal is to 'impress other people' often with an emotional past to further solidify their intent. However, in most African cultures, tattoos are never meant to be so shallow.  

Most paintings in Africa are motivated by ideas that go well beyond mere beauty. It is not artistry, but rather a sense of intimacy with the community in which they live. 

So, what glorious heritage of ancestors is hiding behind the African tattoos?  

Let's dive into! 

Comprehensive History of African Tattoo 

The Very First African Tattoo 

The very first recorded African tattoos were discovered as plain-ink drawings on the mummified graves of women around the zenith of ancient Egypt's civilization about 2000 BCE. These ladies utilized tattoos to promote fertility and renewal. This was due to the shapes of the tattoos and the body parts where they were discovered. These marks were found on the abdominal and pelvic areas of ancient women.  

Photo by Monstera from Pexels

For men, the oldest tattoos discovered date back approximately to 1300BCE. They were painted to symbolize Neith, the ancient goddess of battle and weaving. Ancient tattoos often focused on parts such as the face, arms, calves, and chest with a combination of simple motifs such as straight lines or ellipses. 

North African Tattoo 

It is commonly acknowledged that Northern Africans embraced tattooing as a part of their religious and ritual traditions more than Southern Africans or tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa. Tattoos were utilized by Northern tribes and, later, sovereign nations to display their heritage, affiliation to a certain tribe or society, or self-expression. 

Surprisingly, upper-class African women were the ones who popularized tattooing throughout ancient Egypt and Northern Africa. This was because tattoos, or permanent body marks, were thought to represent a woman's fertility, prestige, and reverence. 

Photo by Breston Kenya from Pexels

Tattooing became less prevalent among Africans after the entrance of monotheistic religions, notably Islam, in Northern African nations. This is because tattooing is regarded as a form of self-mutilation, therefore, a sin in Islam. It is considered that God-given treasure is inviolable. As a result, the practice of tattooing was prohibited. 

As a result, several tribes in these areas utilize henna patterns to create temporary tattoos. Muslim women are urged to use henna to tint their nails in displays of female sexuality. This tradition is also growing more common nowadays, and it is certainly a key feature of Islamic brides' bridal makeup. However, it is equally important to realize that henna drawings themselves are not tattoos. 

Tattooing, on the other hand, is still practiced by non-Islamic tribes, who have passed it on to successive generations. Traditional African tattoos are still used by a substantial section of North African populations in nations such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria. 

Sub Saharan Africa Tattoo 

Scarification is the most frequent kind of tribal body marking in Sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of utilizing archaic ink, these individuals would cut symbols and designs into their flesh, resulting in lasting scars. Scars, like tattoos, were thought to be a sort of protection from bad spirits or a remedy for the disease. 

Sharp tools are employed in this scenario to cut deep enough into the skin to leave a lasting mark. They would cut portions of flesh into patterns and designs so that when the skin healed and scarred, it would produce a shape or design that would last forever. 

Scarification's primary goal varies from one location to the next. However, most people thought that scarification, especially on the face, rendered the wearer less appealing to the spirit of death. Scarification was often used among ancient African women, particularly young girls. Scars were seen to be a sign of both beauty and motherhood. 

The procedure of skin scarification, on the other hand, is a terrifying experience. It may also be deadly because the absence of aftercare meant that victims caught infections via the puncture wounds, which often resulted in death if quick treatment was not provided. Scarification, however, is prevalent mostly in the Sahel area, which runs from Senegal to the Red Sea. 

African Slave Marks 

The slave trade played a role in the loss of the meanings of African tattoo customs. The African slaves sold for the transatlantic ship came from various tribes, each with their own tattoos and tribal practices. When enslaved, however, these ancient Africans were marked (frequently with iron rods of various forms burned by fire) to be identified if they were released or rescued. 

These tribal insignia were also erased to guarantee that these slaves' identity, race, religion, social rank, life experiences, and achievements were forgotten as they relocated. Soon after, slave owners and traffickers realized what was going on and began to employ African body tattoos as a commercial method of slave categorization. With these markings, they could command a premium price for slaves who bore marks designating them as courageous. The African body marks also aided in the recapture of escaping slaves and the collection of taxes from slaveholders. 

African Tattoos' Primary Meaning 

Although not much is thoroughly documented about the cultural origins of tattooing, ancient Africans are believed to have followed this practice for thousands of years. Tattooing is a form of marking with ink on the body, thereby changing skin pigmentation. Traditionally, tattoos are engraved on the body with the meaning of exorcism, worship, healing, or showing the status of the tattooed person in the tribe.  

Ancient African tattoo their bodies like their fathers did for the fear of others seeing them as isolated individuals in the tribe. A separate individual has no meaning but must be closely associated with the community in which he lives. In some ethnic groups, an individual is a symbol of an entity that is killed by some mystical being, then reincarnated, and must bear on his face or body the remaining traces of that animal.  

 

Photo by Bob Brewer on Unsplash

A tattoo is not only a mark but also a kind of passport for that individual to officially join the community. For other ethnic groups, they consider them as confusing and backward signs of primitive tribes who have not yet approached civilization. But for successive generations, they are symbols of the legends and myths of ancient origin. 

The meaning of each tattoo of many small tribes living in Africa varies according to the territory of the tribal group. There are many tattoos painted on children's faces from birth. The African tribes believe that the tattoo is left to concretize the birth cry of the baby. Each human face must have the totem of the tribe to prove the connection with the community that the ancestors of that tribe built. 

Tattoos are no longer exclusively tribal, religious, or ceremonial. This body art is now often used for merely ornamental purposes by many people. However, it is undoubted that African tattoos are one of the most enlightening sources of the tattoo culture. African tattoos are becoming extremely prevalent as we no longer produce plain markings but artworks depicting African art and heritage. 

From Ancient to Current, Here's How to Tattoo in An African Way 

Not only have social perceptions and popular designs changed over time, so have the tools and inks used for tattooing. Before modern tattoo guns, tattoo tools were made from a variety of materials. 

Ancient Egyptian tattoo needles were made of copper. Needles came in a variety of sizes, to create both complex and basic designs. The tattoo tools used in some of the African tribes required two people to make a tattoo. These tools included a simple chisel and a hammer. Tattoo artists made a series of small cuts to the skin. The ink was then pounded straight into the area around the wounds.

Similar techniques were found in the minority tribal communities scattered across the African highlands where the culture of tattooing acted as a passport across tribes. However, the tattoo formula of these tribes is still a mystery. 

The first tattoos used homemade ink. These inks can be made from ash or soot, mixed with oil or breast milk. Traditionally, tattoo ink is made from a candle that is melted over a hot flame. Then, soot is collected from the burning seeds and mixed with sugar and water. Depending on the use of the tattoo, tattoo ink is sometimes mixed with other ingredients such as animal blood, herbs, essential oils, etc. to cure diseases, repel insects, wild animals or perform rituals in religion. 

The tattoo guns used today have more humble origins in 1891. The first electric tattoo machine was patented by Samuel O'Reilly. The design is based on a modified version of the electric pen, created by Thomas Edison. The advent of electric tattoo machines has seen a steady increase in the popularity of tattoos.

Photo by Lucas Guimarães from Pexels 

The ink used in firearms is generated from geological or mineral sources. Black ink is made using iron oxide or carbon, and cinnabar is used to make red. Different shades of orange, red and yellow are created using different cadmium compounds. Modern technology has recently seen a shift away from mineral-based pigments. Organic pigments are more commonly used today. Modern inks also contain a variety of fillers, binders, and preservatives. 

Wrap-ups

Tattoos have long been a feature of various African traditions. Despite being generally accepted, most tattoos have lost their profound significance. Tattoos express a strong sense of urgency, expressing love for the homeland right on the skin. It is the cultural value of African heritage that makes African-Americans always want to strengthen ties with their forefathers. 

Tattooing evidence in ancient African cultures is diverse and interesting. Tattoos, in addition to their religious and aesthetic connotations, demonstrate a profound consideration of the human body and the societal values linked with the person, as opposed to their current aesthetic worth. It is also the pinnacle of African personality, and the legacy of his forefathers will carry on through these symbols. The tattooed is a meaningful worshiped mascot that brings luck, peace in life, and remembers the roots. 

There is still much to be found about tattoos throughout African history. Do you want to try a new and unique tattoo? Learn about x tattoo ideas and their meanings right now. 

Always Treasure the Diversity of Your Ancient Cultural Heritage! 


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