Tattoos are seriously entering Africa. I came face to face with a huge roaring dragon whose home is the back of a Congolese lady. I spotted the Brooklyn Bridge tattooed on the neck of a Marrakesh resident. I kept on meeting tattoos in 2016 from Johannesburg and Kigali to Kinshasa and Casablanca.
In the African context, can we see the tattoos and body painting as a reminiscence of the scars or scarification that used to define and distinguish various tribal groups, from the Congo to Ghana, from Mali to Ethiopia? For sure, tattoos look less dramatic than the scarification that entered my life decades ago. At the age of 8-10, I visited a couple of times an uncle who had the face fully covered with scarification. It was literally linear trenches dug into his skin. I used to stare at him at length while he was conversing with Dad. “He must have suffered atrociously as he had these scars put on his face. How can he smile and laugh with these painful things on his face?” I used to think. One day I dared to ask my father about scarification.
Dad said that scarification stood for both symbols of a high status in the social hierarchy in his tribe – like in other Bantu tribes – and for proof that the bearer had passed certain rites. “But that was long time ago” he concluded.
Today’s tattoos recurrently appear in the upper middle class and urban youth. They appear as a colourful coquetry or expensive accessories. Almost all the tattooed women I met, live in megacities, they drink imported beer and Coke Light, they are well connected and live active professional and social lives. Tattoos are in social circles where they are accepted, valued, even sought after. So far, apart from certain pieces, they are small or medium, they are to be discrete and visible at the same time. They are on hips, wrists, ankles, breasts, forearms, necks. But just to be clear, they are regarded with suspicion, even banned in corporate, established, powerful social circles. I actually have yet to see a mature, middle-age man with a tattoo.
The force behind the growing tattoo trend is urban youth, particularly those aspiring to be influencers and personalities. Many rising stars of the modern Congolese, Ivorian, and Nigerian music proudly show and brag about their tattoos. Like hip hop artists in the USA, modern African artists and personalities are tolerated but seldom qualified as role models. It therefore remains to be seen whether tattoos will outlive the hype and go beyond strictly identified borders in societies.