Is It Really “Not In Our Culture?”: Tattoos

Young people in Nigeria have grown up learning that some things that they do are immoral or just “not in our culture.” I’ll give some examples:

Wole

Wole stays in Ibadan but schools in Unilag. He comes home for the Christmas holiday and his family is happy to have him back. Because they shared a room, his brother is the first to notice that there’s something different about him. Wole only gets dressed in the bathroom or when nobody is in the room. Out of curiosity, his brother forces his way into the bathroom one morning when Wole is getting dressed.

He cannot believe his eyes. “Mommy Mooommy,” he screams and his mum comes rushing down. There’s a tattoo of a dove on Wole’s chest. “Wole you have killed me ooo. Tattoo? This is not how you were brought up, it’s not in our culture, it’s not in our religion.” He just stands there, not knowing how to respond or what to do.

Amina

Amina is washing her feet before prayer, so her friend notices something on her leg. “When did she get this scar?” She thinks to herself until she realizes it’s actually a tattoo. “Aminaaaa!” She screams. “Why have you chosen to embarrass your family? I know you’re in a rebellious phase, but to get a tattoo? That’s not in our culture. I’m letting Habiba know, she must report to your parents.”

The common thing in these stories is that these people were told having tattoos is “not in our culture.” It is difficult to find detailed documentation because Africa has so many tribes, but having tattoos has a big place in the history of the continent.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a tattoo is an indelible mark or figure fixed upon the body by insertion of pigment under the skin or by the production of scars. 

Here’s what I know. In Africa, it is difficult to make colored tattoos because of our skin color. So we came up with scarification, which is made by cutting the skin with anything sharp and rubbing special sand/ash in the patterns. Patterns, which follow local traditions. 

The marks, which are usually made on the face and arms are used to identify a person’s family, tribe, or class before even talking to them.

My issue now is this. I believe that Nigerians (or Africans as a whole) have this thing where we have been brainwashed by Westerners into not being able to differentiate between what is our actual tradition and what was introduced as religion. It’s even funny that they introduced these things to us, then adopted our own practices and have now refined and claimed those practices. Things such as piercing of their body parts, including eyebrows, tongue, lips, nipples, etc. Those piercings all originated in Africa, but now, it’s “not our culture.”

In Nigeria, tattoos are usually associated with irresponsibility. You are either a cultist or an ‘ashawo’ when you have a tattoo. This is quite laughable because of the fact that many of our grandparents have them. Personally, I think they are frowned on now for two possible reasons. Either because they are not ‘tribal’ or religion condemns them.

The argument is that the traditional forms of body markings are more meaningful than tattoos today. I don’t agree with that because there are various reasons why people get tattoos.

Why Exactly Are People Getting These?

Some people get them to help deal with their depression. Tattoos remind us of what we’ve already been through… as well as the continued strength and hope that the future brings.

Tattoos can be used to cover imperfections. They can be used by people who want to mask just about anything from stretch marks and scars to beauty marks and discoloration. I got mine to cover some scars/dark spots that were on my arm.

Other people get tattoos to honor a family member or close friend that has died. They might choose a design that evokes a memory that reminds them of that person. A memory that represents everything that person meant to them.

Tattoos are a way to stand out in a crowd. So some people get them to express individuality. They get tattoos to express something about themselves. Whether they’re quirky, badass, or intellectual, they want a tattoo will display that side of them.

Many people get them because they are trying to honor their favorite writers, singers, actors, and artists. They are saying thank you in the best way they know how to.

Lastly, why is it bad for someone to have one just for the sake of it? Why must there be some sort of deep meaning behind getting artwork on your own skin? People might be compelled to get one because they are enamored with a particular design or image and want it permanently inked on their skin.

I’ll tell you what’s “not in our culture.” Nigeria and Africa, in general, is traditionally a welcoming society. So being intolerant is foreign to our culture. I will also commend this generation for being more accepting (especially in work environments) of people with tattoos.

I want to end with this question. Do you think that if you came back from the village with a ‘tribal mark’ people would be more tolerant than if you came back from abroad with that same mark? I ask because it’s something I’ve thought about for a while. Is the problem with the mark or that a machine was used to get it?

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