Many of today’s body arts have their roots in African ancestral or ethnic body art. From scarification to body paints, body decoration has long been held in high regard in many African tribes. Fairly common in West Africa, New Guinea, the Congo and Southern Sudan, in many groups the body’s seen as a canvas for decoration. While beadwork and jewelry are also frequently used as a means of beautification, there are a few types of body art that dominate. Body decoration and transformation occurs at set times in a person’s life and the decoration’s thought to enhance a person’s status and beauty. Traditional tattooing in African culture is not a mere expression of one’s individuality. It’s a series of intricately designed patterns that carry major cultural implications, where the body displays the strength of the inner character. Tribal lineage, maturity, spiritual protection, political and social status as well as personal strength are all indicated through the art of African tattooing. The most common and known method of tattooing involves ink, which is practiced worldwide today. The other and lesser known method of tattooing is that of scarification, which is still practiced, though less frequently, in certain tribes of Africa.
Egyptians began ink tattooing as far back as 5,000 years ago. Unlike other African cultures, Egyptians limited the practice of tattooing to women. After the discovery of Amunet Kanika the priestess to the Goddess Hathor, new light was shed upon the significance of tattooed women of Egypt for they were regarded as symbolic and protective. Dot patterns and geometrically aligned lines were found across the breasts, belly and upper thigh.Amunet Kanika’s tattoos consisted of parallel lines on the legs and the arms, and also an elliptical pattern beneath the navel. The patterns on the belly are such that during pregnancy as the belly stretches, the dot patterns stretch also, forming a protective band marking them under the protection of the ancient Egyptian Goddess Bes. Female mummies who bore tattoos were found in burial sites reserved for women of high social status. In the Nubian tradition, men were tattooed for protection in war and women for blessings and protection during pregnancy. A dark pigment, usually soot and mixed with a woman’s breast milk or oil, would be applied to the wound for color.
“…Many traditions and types of beautification and body decoration we practice today can be traced back to the African roots dating back thousands of years….”
“The Proud Mark” is the art of marking the skin in decorative patterns. Marks can be packed with inks or dyes to form rudimentary tattoos, packed with dirt to form large, raised keloids or left in thin, delicate swirls. African history shows that while the art of marking may seem like a new and avant garde form of body art, the practice is really quite ancient. It was believed that marking was developed because the dark pigmented skin of the African people wasn’t ideal for tattooing. By opening the skin, the uppermost layer of pigment was broken and filled in with slightly lighter shades of scar tissue. There was just enough contrast for the marks to show after the wounds had finally healed. The Māori of New Zealand used a form of ink rubbing marking method to produce facial tattoos known as “moko”. Moko were considered to make the body complete. Māori bodies were considered to be naked without them. Moko were unique to each person and served as a sort of signature. Some Māori chiefs even used the pattern of their moko as their signatures on early land treaties with Europeans. Markings was also a popular practice among the Huns during the 4th to 6th century.
Reasons for Marking
Beauty: Marks are thought to beautify the body, and this journey for beauty often begins during childhood, especially for young African girls. In some cultures, these markings take place during celebration to welcome the onset of puberty, maturity, the first menstrual cycle and childbirth. Although there are other reasons for the practice, the quest for beauty is nearly always part of the goal.
Strength and Courage: Markings are also viewed as a test of courage because they are quite painful and require great personal strength to get through the procedure without crying out in pain. To cry out in pain would be to humiliate yourself. The amount of markings on a person’s body correlates directly with his or her perceived strength. The more markings a person has, the more respect he or she is given within the community.
Fertility: Marking is especially prized in young women of marriageable age. Abdominal scars are seen as an indication of a woman’s willingness to bear children. According to African cultures, this is considered a very desirable quality in a future wife. The marks are also looked upon as erogenous, due to their tender nature. They’re believed to make a woman more receptive to her husband’s sexual attentions.
Family Pride: Markings can also be a matter of family pride. One coming of age ceremony for a young man includes asking his sisters to endure a ritual beating that leaves their backs with a lot of markings. They are viewed as signs of love and respect from the sisters for their brother, and the girls endure the ritual without showing their pain. This brings honor to the entire family.
Protection from Death: Spirituality plays an important role in African culture and some cultures believe in the presence of spirits around them. Markings are therefore used as protection from the spirits of death.
They can also be used to mark significant moments in your life. This could be the birth of a child, the death of a loved one or anything else that has a left a permanent mark on your consciousness or changed the course of your life.Many traditions and types of beautification and body decoration we practice today can be traced back to the African roots dating back thousands of years. 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 body marking was once widespread throughout many African ethnic groups, it can now be found only in pockets. Body Markings is a form of body alteration in the United States and is beginning to gain momentum as an alternative to tattooing.