Article © Lars Krutak. Originally published 2010 on www.vanishingtattoo.com. Revised May 2022.
TOP PHOTO: Two Makonde “best friends” who were initiated at the same time and tattooed by the same artist. They told me that: “These tattoos gave us great pride in ourselves. The pain was worth it. You couldn’t get out of it, and we were worried and nervous, but they were completed quickly.” Photograph © Lars Krutak.
DURING THE AGE OF EXPLORATION, Europeans became aware of the relatively extreme forms of body art practiced in Sub-Saharan Africa. One of these was scarification, a body modification procedure that offered a sculptural quality to the skin. Sometimes a colored pigment was added to the incisions forming a kind of tattoo, sometimes not.
In many African cultures, the words used to communicate “to scarify” and “to tattoo” had other meanings such as “to draw” or “to paint.” In other locations, these definitions extended towards other verbs including “to design,” “to inscribe,” and even “to succeed” and “to reach a goal.”
Because there were a plethora of meanings that were embodied within the sacred art forms of the skin, African body art moved far beyond the Western construct of “art” itself. For it represented a much wider corpus of knowledge and expression.
This article takes an encyclopedic look at tattooing practices throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and includes the island of Madagascar. It focuses on many tribes that are rarely mentioned within the artistic canons of tattooing, and whose customs of body modification have a relatively undocumented history outside of obscure sources not widely available to the general public.
It should be noted that this article is by no means complete as there are many other groups that practiced tattooing throughout the regions described here. So please keep in mind that this is a preliminary introduction to the subject and that future work by others will no doubt shed additional light on these incredible traditions of indigenous body art.
THE SAHEL & SAVANNA
The Sahel is the ecoregion or transitionary climatic zone located between the Sahara Desert in the north and the savanna grasslands to the south. It stretches across the African continent from the country of Senegal eastward to the Red Sea.
One of the largest tribal groups that inhabitant the western Sahel region (from Senegal to Chad) are the Fulani, who are variously known as the Peul, Fula, Fulbe, or Felaata. These nomadic herders are gradually on the move throughout the year, searching for new pasture and water sources for their vast herds of cattle. Some groups have become more sedentary and have settled down in villages or towns where they practice agriculture, engage in market commerce, and have become devout Muslims.
Perhaps one of the most heavily tattooed of all Fulani groups are the Wodaabe. In the 19th century, these nomads fled Nigeria to avoid the pressures of British colonial rulers and Muslim chiefs and migrated north to the plains and savannas of Niger where they roam a vast territory that extends across several international boundary lines. As one elder reported, “Here we are free to follow our traditions. We have room to move with our animals when and where we please.”
In the Fulfilde language spoken by all Fulani tribes, Wodaabe means “people of the taboo.” This moniker is appropriate because the Wodaabe are governed by a series of customary laws and behaviors passed down by their ancestors that emphasize humbleness and modesty, patience and fortitude, hospitality and physical beauty. Men also seek to repel bad luck through the use of many forms of talismans worn in pouches or placed in their turbans. Powdered tree bark, seeds, and leaves are believed to ward off evil words, enemies, or attract women and it is not surprising that throughout West Africa the Wodaabe are famous for their knowledge of maagani, secret cures both real and magical.
Wodaabe tattoos also reflect this magic because many symbols are associated with fertility or are employed as charms (toggu) to increase a man’s or woman’s beauty. Other marks are believed to hold medicinal cures.
I myself have encountered “magical” tattooing among the Peul in northern Benin. In a Bétamarribé and Waama village on the outskirts of Natitingou, I met Yaseku and his son Umaru – both Muslims – who dwell here during the rainy season. Umaru told me that he received his facial markings when he was eighteen years old. The Peul in Benin call tattooing tchouti and a series of facial markings cost 500 Francs or roughly $1.00. Peul tattoo artists can be male or female and the motifs were pricked in with a sooty pigment. Umaru said that the Peul tattoo for beauty which is not surprising because these distinctive people wear bright dress, much jewelry, and even facial makeup.
As noted, the Fulani are famous throughout West Africa because they are nomadic cattle herders who cover great distances in the dry season in search of water for their herds. Perhaps this is why Peul men are intricately tattooed so they might impress those women they meet during their long journeys through Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger. However, Yaseku noted quietly that he believed his tattoos also protected him from evil spirits (jinn) lurking in the landscape.
The aesthetics of Fulani tattoos vary from subtribe to subtribe. In Mali, women’s tattooing resembles the bold and dark mouth tattoos of the Ainu of Japan and completely surround and cover the lips in a circular pattern. According to my friend Michael Laukien (aka Travelin’ Mick), Fulani markings are called socou-gol and are pricked into the lips with needles by a throdi or female tattooist. Traditionally, only the lower lip and gum were tattooed with a pigment of charcoal mixed with shea butter when a girl reached puberty. After she had become marriageable, her upper lip was incised but today these practices have been largely abandoned and young women have their entire mouths tattooed before wedlock.
Wodaabe women also wear a similar tattoo on the sides of the mouth, but it is cut into the skin with a razor and resembles a more textured type of scar tattoo.
Other nomadic peoples of the great African savannas of Tanzania, Uganda, and Namibia also possess tattoos and these markings are produced in relief and resemble colored scars.
Among the Barabaig (also Datooga) of Tanzania and Karamajong of Uganda, these “goggle” tattoos surround the eye sockets of both men and women and are usually pigmented. The tattooist picks up a fold of skin and cuts the tip removing the skin from the body. A charcoal pigment mixed with cow urine is rubbed into the incisions resulting in small bumps that delicately encircle the face over time. Bantu-speaking Chowke women and their linguistic relatives living in Namibia and Angola bear similar designs.
Further south, many Bushmen tribes of Namibia and southern Angola cut the skin during initiation or when setting out on a hunt for large game. Using a stone knife or sharp arrow head, an old medicine man made a cut between the eyes of the patient and inserted into it a carbonized pigment with magical ingredients that included the pulverized remains of specific animals. This infusion was introduced into the wounds to give the bearer better sight, stamina, and a more powerful thrust of his spear.
The Kwengo Bushmen placed additional tattoos on important muscles. Special substances were rubbed into the cuts to make the owner more successful on the hunt. For example, the fat from the lower reaches of a slain deer or eland provided the hunter with speed and endurance and were rubbed into the cuts placed on the thighs. If these substances were introduced into marks on the right arm, they strengthened the force of the arm while it tensioned the hunter’s bow. The Nharo placed such incisions between the shoulder blades.
Among the Sekele, old men tattooed a successful hunter in return for an offering of game in order to give him good luck in finding the next buck. A piece of the foreleg biceps of the animal was burnt, and the ash was daubed into the incision.
The Bini or Edo people were the original founders of the Benin Empire (1440–1897) of southwest Nigeria. They were traditionally ruled by the Ogisos (Kings of the Sky) who called their land Igodomigodo.
One century ago, no male Bini citizen of the Kingdom without tattoos could exercise his prerogative of membership in the palace societies. Furthermore, the absence of tattoo in Bini society denoted that an individual was “alien” and “uncouth” for it seems that an unmarked body was considered polluted with a symbolic, clotted blood that could only be released through the tattooing ritual itself.
In fact, no one except tattooed Bini, Europeans, and people from Ufe from which the royal family had originally come, was allowed to enter the palace. The absence of tattoos (iwu) was a serious handicap, as “repugnant” as the absence of circumcision and clitoridectomy.
Among the Bini, any competent person – male of female – could tattoo, usually an osiwu (“one who sculpts tattoos”) that was called forth to operate. The profession was a hereditary position and some also specialized in autopsies and circumcisions. Like in other parts of Africa, long and fine tattoos were incised with a scalpel (abee) or knife-like instrument. Pigments were derived from charred asun (Randia coriacea) leaves that produced a dark blue-black color. As the wounds healed, their wounds were salved with medicinal substances like palm oil, soot, and the charred root of the elu (indigo) tree to suppress the formation of keloids that were regarded as unattractive.
It was said that in ancient times no Bini man would marry a woman without tattoos. This custom was verified in more recent times by the small number of men and women who continue to carry the designs of their ancestors. For example, one Bini woman reported that she received her tattoos at age thirteen, just after her first menses. Five years later her torso was tattooed prior to marriage. Her parents arranged for the “surgery,” but her future husband provided her with an “incision feast” to commemorate the event. Years later she had the tattoos redone because they were fading.
Women’s tattoos were “blade-like” and positioned in various configurations on the body. Women who acquired their tattoos by royal command owned seven of the “blades” that indicated that they were suitable to join the harem of the King. Women could choose the number of vertical forehead tattoos that also appeared on their cheeks and chin.
It is said that the practice of tattooing originated in the 16th century. The King at that time married the daughter of a neighboring Yoruba ruler. However, she refused to consummate the marriage because the Bini King did not have tribal markings. The enraged ruler abused her and word of his actions reached the daughter’s father. Soon afterwards, the King and his wife visited the father-in-law at his palace. The woman’s father immediately attacked the abusive husband with a cutlass and the King’s body thereafter bore the scars of the assault. So as not to embarrass their King, his subjects imitated them on their bodies with pigment.
There are several varieties of body markings and scars among the Yoruba of Nigeria but kolo are pigmented cicatrices that look and feel like raised keloids. According to the art historian Henry Drewal who lived with the tribe in the 1970s, the permanent designs served a variety of purposes including beautification and especially proclaiming the courage of those individuals who bore them.
Women were the primary recipients and Yorubas often commented that kolo are a “test” for the brave to endure so that they will be praised after their painful skin-cut tattoos have healed. Essentially, the patterns were acquired before marriage and prepared the woman for childbirth. They were not applied all at once, and were gradually obtained since aesthetic value was inextricably bound to their value.
Although physical appearances were highly esteemed in Yoruba society, the concept of outward beauty could not be separated from its complimentary interior dimension. As Drewal has noted:
Outer appearance may either hide or reveal one’s inner, or spiritual self. The Yoruba prayer, “may my inner head not spoil the outer one” cautions one to conceal and control negative tendencies because they can affect outer appearance and, therefore, can draw hostility from others. Conversely, positive attributes such as courage should be displayed openly, for Yoruba assess an individual’s personality both from physical appearance and behavior. Thus, elaborate body markings would be viewed as permanent and highly visible proof of one’s courage, fortitude, and strength – qualities that parallel those of the patron of body artists, the God of Iron, Ogun.
For these reasons, Yoruba tattoo masters were highly sought after and were held in great regard. They were called oniisonon or “skilled designer” or “one who creates art.” Renowned tattooists were praised for their speed, skill, dexterity, and technique. Some were quite famous since “200 faces know [them].”
Skin artists of the highest caliber mastered a repertoire of many kinds of cuts, from long and bold facial incisions (ko ture), to broad slashing cuts (keke), and bu abaja or short, shallow and faint designs, among others.
Most Yoruba motifs were derived from nature and featured cowrie shells (esa), lizards (alangba), palm trees (igi ope), arrows (ofa), ostrich (ogongo), vulture (igun), dove (adaba), chameleon (agemo), centipede (okun), butterfly (labalaba), corn cobs (agbado), and the “moon of honor” (osu ola). Other motifs were taken from the material world and encompassed dancewands (ose) of the Thunder God Sango, Islamic writing boards (walaa), arm amulets (apa tira), a king’s crown (ade oba), staffs of authority (opa oye), game boards (opon ayo), anthropomorphs, the tattooist’s Y-shaped blade (abe), and even scissors, airplanes, wristwatches, and personal names in recent times. Sometimes one or more of these designs were combined into composite and highly symmetrical motifs that were employed to decorate specific body parts and were named accordingly (e.g., “vagina design” placed on a woman’s thigh; “platform for the chest,” “back of the hand or leg,” “husband sits on lap [thigh]” and “carving the abdomen”).
Other Yoruba incisions were medicinal in nature, but instead of inserting soot or lampblack into these wounds body artists, priests, and village healers administered a variety of herbal remedies. Typically speaking, the location of such treatments corresponded to local ailments so, for example, short vertical marks placed beneath the eyes of children were incised to prevent them from trembling, a condition believed to have been brought to the living by spirits. Incisions infused with herbs near the mouth might add to a hunter’s courage and increase his memory, while medicines rubbed into cuts below the lip may have enhanced an individual’s curses against another since; “when the individual wishes to curse he licks his lower lip and whatever he says will come to pass.”
Finally, these potent substances were also employed to attract specific deities or their spiritual familiars into the bodies of the initiated. To accomplish such goals, small cuts were made on the crown of the devotee’s head and special herbs were then applied to “activate” the vital essence of the god. Small tufts of hair (osu) mark the location of these magical devices.
CAMEROON & EQUATORIAL GUINEA
The Fang are a forest-dwelling people who live in area of 112,500 square miles spread across the international boundaries of Cameroon, Gabon, the Congo, and especially Equatorial Guinea. Scholars believe that the current homeland of the Fang was reached in the 18th century as Muslim Fulbe (Fulani) and Sudanese tribes of central Cameroon pressured them to move southward from their ancestral domains.
In the 1950s, the eminent Catalan primatologist Jordi Sabater Pi (1922-2009) began documenting the tattooing practices of the Fang, which later led to a beautifully illustrated work co-authored and co-designed by his son Oriol in 1992. Several drawings from this book are reproduced here.
In the early 1950s, Fang tattooing was already in decline and Sabater recorded many ancient patterns that were only seen on the faces and bodies of the very old. His record of body art remains unparalleled because he witnessed the last generation of tattoo bearers that are no longer living today.
Sabater wrote that the Fang, who probably originated from the vast savannas of the north, looked upon the dense forests of Equatorial Guinea as a mysterious place “full of dangers and the temporary residence of good or evil spirits of ancestors incarnated in certain trees and animals.” But just as the jungle could be dangerous, it also served as the primary source of aesthetic inspiration in the tattooing arts of the Fang people.
Sabater interviewed and illustrated hundreds of tattooed Fang elders in the 1950s, but even at that time many of his informants could not recall the precise meanings of the marks they wore. They were simply “traditional” or imitations of particular animals that dwelled in the jungle. Sabater speculated that originally the tattoos of the Fang were possibly created “as a response to the need for identification or totemic protection.”
The Fang practiced two types of tattooing: relief tattoos (mamvam) that were a form of pigmented scarification, and flat tattoos (mevale) that were pricked with a comb-like tool into the skin. The former variety of adornment was already quite rare in Fang territory when Sabater began his investigations, but he was able to study old 19th century reliquary sculptures that were decorated on the chest and abdomen with special tattoos dedicated to ancestor worship. These forms of statuary were used as guardians to protect the baskets containing the bones and skulls of venerated ancestors and have always been amongst the most admired and sought-after genres of African art.
Several of Sabater’s informants recalled how the process of mamvam and mevale worked:
With [a] small knife in the form of a tiny ndong fish hook the tattoo artist took strong hold of the skin of the subject, which he then cut with the okengeng or tattoo knife; next the artist rubbed the stinging ondondó fluid into wounds to slow down the healing process until a protruding relief tattoo was formed.
Ancient legend tells that it was a blacksmith, from the Essakunan clan, who taught the technique of the flat or puncture tattoo to the Mobum [Fang subtribe], and it was later learnt by the Ntum, the Okak and the Fang-Fang [all southern Fang subtribes].
The Ntum knew the flat puncture tattoos by the name of mevale; the tattoo artist (nkeelekut) covered the face or body of the [client] with kaolin or ash known by the name of nkana; immediately afterwards he traced the outline of the future tattoo by puncturing the skin with several bamboo prongs tied together in the form of a comb and soaked in black soot (nviri-otu). Once this had been done, he would then apply a first coat of the remainder of the nviri-otu to the bleeding cuts.
The ethnologist Günther Tessman witnessed several tattooing sessions during his early Fang Expeditions (1907-1909) and also photographed them. He said that particular clans specialized in tattooing and that “only one in hundreds of men” were skilled enough to perform it. Many of these men were long remembered as masters of their art decades after they had died.
He continued that the operation of knife-cut tattooing was performed in the village meeting house without ceremony, and the patient sat or reclined while receiving their marks. The pigment (otu) was obtained from burning wood and collecting the soot on a pot shard that was placed over the smoking fire. The artist drew a stencil on the part of the body to be tattooed with a wet and curved piece of local grass, leaf stems of the umbrella tree (musanga), or he dipped his finger in the soot and carefully delineated the desired motif.
Before dawn, the tattooist began puncturing his client by making short and small cross-cutting and transverse incisions with what Tessman called an endolo – or handle-less iron knife. The artist wiped away any excess blood and rubbed in still more otu pigment with his thumb or forefinger. In other instances, a powder made from the seeds of the Xylopia aethiopica was vigorously rubbed into the wounds. This tree is a tropical evergreen bearing pungent, aromatic seeds still used today as a food condiment and folk medicine in West Africa.
After the cutting was complete, the body was washed to remove residual blood and soot. Then, another layer of pigment was rubbed into the clean wounds to make the color darker.
Tessman listed and illustrated numerous Fang tattoo designs and all of them were derived from the surrounding environment. Basic motifs included: diamonds; lozenges; parallel lines; ribbons of palm; sticks; bird traps, bird tails, and species of birds including the drongo, swallowtail, and hornbill (beaks); wooden rafters; fish and fish fins/barbs; arrows and arrowheads; basketry designs; full moons; the “vortex” motif; spear barbs; scorpions; monkeys; “tear drops”; spiders; frog’s legs; rattles; knives; the chameleon; and pipes.
According to Sabater, these kinds of tattoos were applied to boys and girls aged five to ten years of age. Family members would bring their children to the village tattooist and they often requested specific designs (half-moons, circles, leopard spots or whiskers, etc.) because of their association with protective magic and/or clan unity.
Another author, the missionary Father R.P. Trilles, traveled throughout Fang country in the early 20th century. He was exceedingly interested in Fang tattooing and recorded intriguing information regarding its spiritual and medicinal ramifications:
Therapeutic tattoos, for the elimination of afflictions, consisted of tiny linear cuts at the temples or on the arms of children. These wounds are filled with a fine powder of red pal wood.
The totemic or clan identification tattoos (nsam; nsilé) symbolize the protector animal. Thus, the members of the Amvom clan place the figure of the python (mvom) on their cheeks, while members of the Iemvi clan utilize a flower (mvi) in the form of two concentric circles with a center point. These designs not only identified clan members, but also reconciled the bearer with the animal [or plant] protector of the group.
The Fang also had several secret societies like the antelope (so), the gorilla (ngui), and the elephant (zok). And specific tattoos placed at the nape of the neck (bau) indicated an individual’s membership in these organizations.
Ntum Fang elders interviewed by Sabater noted that in the distant past other tattoos were placed on small children to prevent their capture by the Pygmies (bokui) who were the original peoples of the equatorial forest. More specifically, these markings were said to have aided the Fang in identifying previously kidnapped boys and girls when they conducted their rescue operations.
Nhúngüé and Chicunda
Throughout Africa, body modification was a visual cue by which individuals could evaluate one another, especially if placed upon the face for all to see. When some Nhúngüé men of Mozambique were questioned about their characteristic facial markings in the 1940s and why they chose this location, they confirmed that was an old custom. After war, they could easily identify the cadavers of their own tribe by their pigmented markings – they slit the throats of their enemies.
Some of the body markings of the Nhúngüé and the neighboring Chicunda were keloid in form, but the noted Portuguese physical anthropologist J.R. Dos Santos preferred to call them “tattoos in relief,” since a carbon pigment was added to the incisions. Any man or woman could be employed as the skin artist, although it is true that specialists existed and were sought after for their abilities. These individuals were known by the Nhúngüé as nhabézis or “doctors.”
The tools used to generate the tattoos were special lancets manufactured by the village blacksmith, but with increased contact with the outside world razors soon replaced the ancestral implements.
Nhúngüé and Chicunda women were profusely tattooed, on every region of the body. Aside from the common motifs, Dos Santos once saw two letters marking the inside of two hearts appearing on a Nhúngüé woman’s breasts. These letters corresponded to the initials of a white man that at one time lived with the woman.
In terms of the morphology of the traditional markings, they were composed of linear incisions, more or less punctured shapes distributed variably across the torso and thighs in cruciform, lozenge, and circular or linear arrangements. “Curious” ramiforms or fish spine motifs were placed on the sides of the cheeks.
No special significance was recorded for these female designs, although tattoos on the inner thighs were said to induce erotic excitement.
Heidi Gengenbach, who studied relief tattooed Mozambican women in the southern Magude District, also wrote about similarly erotic tattoos. She stated that unmarked girls were “slippery” like a fish and difficult for a man to “grasp.” But Gengenbach’s detailed study, that is replete with imagery and information on tattooing (tinhlanga) amongst several Shangaan-speaking peoples, artfully weaves her informant’s narratives into prose, revealing the female-centric values associated with their hard-earned markings.
Even though many interviewees laughingly confided that tattoos “make your husband happy” because when a man “grabs” and strokes a woman’s tattooed body his penis instantly “wakes up,” they clearly linked heightened male sexual interest with women’s own sexual satisfaction: tinhlanga not only induced a man to spend more time caressing his wife, they also helped to ensure that he “woke up” (when, for instance, his penis rested against her textured skin) for a second or third round of intercourse. Perhaps more telling, many women had their first tattoos done long before puberty and went on accumulating them throughout adulthood, in some cases even after a failed marriage had convinced them they no longer “wanted men.” While the desire to be attractive to men was certainly important, and other women who added to their tinhlanga later in life did so after they were widowed or divorced, partly in order to win another husband, women never portrayed their motivation for cutting tattoos as solely (or even primarily) to fulfill male sexual expectations… [Instead] oral accounts make clear that painfully inscribed standards of feminine beauty were targeted more at a female than male audience.
I will explain these motivations in more detail below, but first let me describe how these tattoos were produced in Magude. Gengenbach’s oldest informants were cut early in the 20th century. Their tattoos were keloid in form and were produced by female artisans who lifted their client’s skin with a fishhook, thorn, safety pin, or finger and then the tip of the epidermic fold was sliced one or more times with a razor blade or broken piece of glass. (I have been similarly scarified by a Hamar artist in Ethiopia and I can tell you from first-hand experience that the pain is excruciating!)
The Magude tattooist then rubbed ground charcoal mixed with castor oil or red ocher into the wounds to darken them.
I have also been skin-cut tattooed by the Makonde of northern Mozambique and they too use soot prepared from castor beans mixed with water for pigment. Castor oil is brushed on the completed tattoo to enable healing.
Between the 1920s and the 1940s, however, steel needles quickly replaced the traditional cutting tools in Magude and tattooing became far less painful for the client. This shift also resulted in tattoos that were less textured than those of past times and because they were less tactile, the sexual connotations once related to body modification were lost.
But these erotic traditions were not the only ones to have suffered at the hands of this new revolutionary tattoo technology.
Gengenbach argues that the central feature of female tattooing was not erotic; rather it was related to female empowerment. And many elderly women spoke about how they were “stabbed,” “chopped,” how their blood ran like a river, how they thought their “bowels were coming out,” etc. She explained: “Girls who sat through the process stoically were considered ‘strong’ or ‘steady’ (kutiya) and ‘courageous’ (kutimisa); women who were cut repeatedly wore on their skin permanent proof that they had no ‘fear’ (kuchava) because they had spilled large quantities of their blood.
[Blood is] a metaphor for both the deepest obligations of kinship and the effort required to fulfill one’s goals in life (“There is no tattoo without blood,” that is, no achievement without struggle); blood is a positive force, a substance that guarantees personal well-being just as it heals illness, misfortune, or spirit possession when spilled through animal sacrifice or consumed as part of a ritual cure. Yet blood is also the most treacherous of the body’s fluids: the loss of blood saps one’s physical and moral strength (someone who is corrupt or cowardly is said to have “weak blood”); blood that has fallen on the ground must immediately be covered with sand because “wizards” might use it to make deadly “charms” (called “tingati,” the plural for “blood”); and life-sustaining liquids such as milk or beer can be made life-threatening by being magically transformed into blood. [Thus] being tattooed means giving up one’s blood and allowing it to freely fall on the ground, which makes one vulnerable to the supernatural, physical, and social threats of all kinds. However, blood shed to obtain tinhlanga brings valuable rewards: new bonds of kinship (a kind of “blood sisterhood”); proof of nerve and bravery; and, ironically, a kind of dually re-gendered prestige, for if tattooing contributes to the making of girls into women, it does so in part by mimicking the battlefield heroics of men.
Among the Bantu-speaking Makonde of northern Mozambique, tattoos were and continue to be far more elaborate than those of other indigenous peoples living in the country. The resonance of tribal tattooing tradition here can partly be attributed to the landscape in which the Makonde inhabit, a place characterized by relatively inaccessible high plateaus that deterred European and Western contact until the turn of the 20th century. And also to Makonde oral history which to this day praises the deeds, knowledge, and superior physical attributes of the tattooed ancestors of the past.
Traditionally, Makonde tattoos were considered as regional indicators and each subtribe preferred specific motifs that were laid down in a variety of set patterns. The face and other parts of the body contained chevrons, angles, zigzag and straight lines with an occasional circle, diamond, dot, or animal figure. Today these patterns have remained largely intact, but they only appear on men and women over sixty years of age. Sadly, the Makonde tattoo artists of the Mueda plateau stopped inking their clients in the early 1960s, and today only a handful of elderly tattoo masters remain in northern Mozambique.
Dinembo: The Forbidden Tattoo
Like many African nations, Mozambique has been ravaged by decades of war since the 1960s. In the northern province of Cabo Delgado, the legacy of the country’s long war for independence is still evident: unexploded landmines, abandoned buildings, and numerous monuments to fallen heroes dot the landscape. In fact, it was here that the struggle of independence from Portugal was born, and it was the Makonde who were the spark that kindled the revolution.
In June 1960, large numbers of Makonde men and women were massacred by Portuguese troops at the town of Mueda. Their bodies were dumped off an imposing cliff near the abandoned airstrip on the outskirts of town. From this point forward, FRELIMO, or the Mozambican Liberation Front, began to grow as Makonde and other men filled its ranks. After ten-years of brutal war, Mozambique finally became independent.
FRELIMO (1964-1989) was not only a liberation movement, it was an official program of political socialism aimed at integrating all Mozambican peoples under its banner through communism. Tribal customs, such as tattooing, were basically outlawed because they were a form of “primitive individual expression” and not conducive to the homogenizing forces of FRELIMO Marxist ideology. In turn, tattoo masters stopped apprenticing their disciples, and Makonde tattooing, or dinembo, became the “forbidden” tattoo. One Makonde man told me that under FRELIMO, there was “No God, and no tattoos. Because God was the Gun.” He continued, “if the Portuguese troops saw your facial tattoos, they knew you were Makonde and they would kill you!”
Makonde facial tattoos always cost more than body tattoos. And around 1940, a completed facial tattoo cost seven times more than body work.
Makonde Tattooists and Their Clients
Generally speaking, men tattooed boys and women the girls although overlap between the sexes did occur to some degree. Makonde tattoo artists were “professionals” who learned their skills usually from their parents or from other family members. Sometimes tattoo artists doubled as traditional healers (curandeiros) who specialized in treating particular medical disorders. Today, many Mozambicans are cut by such healers with two small marks on various parts of their bodies. Medicinal plants are then rubbed into these wounds to relieve such ailments as head pain, respiratory complaints, arthritis, boils, and eye problems. Occasionally, these linear cuts resemble tiny scarifications or even pigmented tattoos.
The general Makonde term for tattoo is dinembo (“design” or “decoration”) and the tattooing process usually required one to three sessions with the mpundi wa dinembo (“tattoo design artist”) to produce the desired result. If a client’s skin was light, one meeting with the tattooist was usually enough, but those clients with darker complexions paid their tattoo masters several visits. Some boys and girls with darker complexions lost their courage if they had to be tattooed a second or third time and they never completed their tattooing. Those who ran away were ridiculed and even threatened by the woman who acted as their “godmother” during the dinembo rite, because for the Makonde the tattoo ritual was a sign of courage and “to show I am a Makonde.” One Makonde woman told me that “men would not be interested in a woman without her markings, and it was obligatory to get the tattoos for this reason or else you could not be married.”
Makonde tattooing practice was a form of skin-cut tattooing. After the cuts were made with traditional knife-like tattoo implements called chipopo, vegetable carbon from the castor bean plant was rubbed into the incisions producing a dark blue color. The tattoos were then washed with water and oil prepared from castor beans was applied with a feather for healing purposes.
Tattoo clients usually paid a nominal fee and were held down in a spread-eagle fashion by relatives or the tattoo artist’s assistant. When the painful facial tattooing was executed, the client was sometimes buried up to their neck in the ground so that they would not flinch during the skin-cutting.
Just before the tattoo artist began to ply the cutting tool, he mentally recorded which designs he would mark upon the skin. Moving carefully over the epidermis, the tattooist cut then rubbed the tattoo pigment into the wound, leaving the client to dry it in the afternoon sun.
Occasionally, young Makonde men who did not live a “respectable” life were only given a few tattoos on the forehead. The tattoo master Pius told me that, “everyone in the village would joke about you because you were not considered to be full Makonde after that.”
Common decorative motifs such as spiders (lidangadanga), sacred antelope (nandolo), and even yucca root bundles (nkaña) may have had magical associations in the past. And today Makonde women continue to believe that the tattoos placed on their abdomen (mankani) and inner thighs (nchika) are erotic and also have the supernatural power to attract a husband. Of course, the motifs used to decorate these areas, usually palm trees (nadi) or their fruit, and especially the lizard (ligwañula) or a group of lizards (nantchiwane) are believed to enhance fertility.
The Makonde practice of tattooing the navel and pubic areas was perhaps related to the long-standing tradition of prophylactic “magic” aimed at warding off penetration or possession by evil forces that targeted vulnerable body passageways, namely the natural openings of the body. Armitage (1924) cites several instances of navel scarification among Bantu-speaking Gonja and Dagomba women in Ghana “put on to ward off or prevent sickness” while the anthropologists Nevadomsky and Aisien described five tattoos stemming from the navel (“the center of life”) among the Bini women of Benin. Not surprisingly, the Bini prepared their tattoo pigments from leaves and lampblack (soot), and at funerals mourners “rub a line of lamp-black on their foreheads to scare away spirit of the deceased who tries to drag his relatives with him to the world of the dead.” The Makonde do not practice this ritual, but they do place lumps of charcoal on the woven mats they use for drying their crops to keep evil sorcerers away.
Spiritual Life of the Makonde
The Makonde adhere to a cosmology dominated by a powerful impersonal force (ntela), the propitiation of ancestral spirits (mahoka) who are sometimes good or evil, and a concept of pervasive bush spirits (nnandenga) and sorcerers who are believed to be a form of malevolence.
Mahoka are often called upon to send cures for sickness, and to ensure success in the harvest or in hunting. The spirits of ancestors also served as intermediaries between the living and Nnungu, a powerful deity who was invoked during major droughts when the Makonde collectively prayed for rain.
On the malevolent order, spirits of the dead called mapiko only terrorized women and the non-initiated, while sorcerers created invisible slaves from humans called lindandosa that were sent to the agricultural fields to work their evil magic.
Because excessive fear of death pervaded Makonde belief, its stigma had to be controlled or pre-empted because it threatened the basic assumptions of cosmic order on which society rested. Thus, every woman understood that her participation in society could provoke the negative intervention of powerful spiritual forces made manifest as mahoka, nnandenga, lindandosa, or mapiko who were the ultimate guarantors of social, physical, and economic survival. In this sense, Makonde tattoo arts were an important tool for fostering productive interaction between human beings and spirits, because it is clear that the designs repeatedly tattooed on women helped to secure their commitment to the potencies that bring forth life and to the socialization process of initiation itself. Tattoos also constructed a common visual language through which these relationships could be tangibly expressed and mediated to provide the individual wearer with a means to control her surrounding world.
Similarly, Makonde sculpture and more utilitarian objects like gourds (situmba) and water pots, which embody feminine and reproductive qualities, symbolically reinforced this commitment to order and stability because they were often decorated with tattoo designs. As “ancestral implements” used for carrying water, beer, honey, and seeds for planting, gourds were considered to be female symbols par excellence. And like the tattooed bodies of Makonde women, they acted as conduits through which symbolic meaning poured – meaning that connected the human, spiritual, and ancestral communities of the Makonde of Mozambique.
Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world and has been populated for nearly two thousand years. 17th century seafarers remarked about the inhabitants’ curious custom of tattooing their bodies and this tradition held fast until the early 20th century when it began to disappear from view. According to the Malagasy scholar Raymond Decary, tattooing (tombokalana, “to mark”) had already been abandoned in many parts of the country by 1950. And only traces of it could be found amongst the Antandroy, Makoa, Sakalava, Mahafaly, Antanosy, Bara and Tanala tribes.
The operative technique was the same everywhere. The tattoo artist, using a paste made from a mixture of water and soot, stenciled the desired pattern on the skin. Then taking three or four cactus needles, the tattooist pricked the skin repeatedly while taking care to remove any excess blood as it accumulated. Into the fresh wounds was rubbed a mixture of powdered charcoal from an ear of corn and nightshade or indigo juice. The mixture quickly penetrated into the multitude of small wounds, and the color obtained was jet black and very dark. During healing, however, the epidermis was highly turgid. When the scabs fell, the tattoo became more bluish in coloration. Well-made tattoos were said to last a lifetime without much fading.
Malagasy tattoo designs were innumerable. The Makoa, owners of very typical decorations, influenced their neighbors the Sakalava with their patterns which were mostly worn by men. Prominent among the Makoa were tattooed sets of straight lines or curves, simple or branched, with combinations of angular lines and points on the forehead, nose, and cheeks. Oblique lines, straight or curved, originated near the ear and ran to the corners of the mouth. On the chest, a single or double “necklace” spanned one shoulder to the other in a regular curve, and when a second line was tattooed it consisted of “suns” and stylized human figures that were cross looped in cruciform or swastika-like forms.
Women wore similar cross-like elements on their backs – especially on their shoulder blades and even down the back to the kidneys –that sometimes combined “solar wheels” and human figures into composite designs. On their arms crosses, triangles, anthropomorphs, and crocodile motifs were common.
Among men of the Sakalava, single and double lines framed the forehead and semi-circular elements crossed over one or both eyes.
V-shaped tattoos and single lines sometimes adorned the areas beneath the eyes and cases of linear asymmetry were frequent, especially on the cheeks where complex shapes were quite varied. The rest of the male body offered little tattoo diversity: “necklaces,” “sun wheels,” and other marks circled the wrist. Sakalava women wore similar designs, yet they were typically more complex and dense in their patterning.
In the Mahafaly and Antandroy region, large cross-like forms ending in circular elements were the favored design for a woman’s face, breasts, and back. The arms of men and women were also covered with the names of lovers, husbands, and wives. Some women were seen with five or six names side by side or superimposed in case there was a lack of space.
Further north among the Tanala, tombokalana were very characteristic and almost exclusively reserved for women. These tattoos consisted of rows of parallel lines, straight or broken, that decorated the chest, arms, face and calves. On the back, they were only found on the region of the tailbone and buttocks and were said to be “erotic.”
When Decary asked about the purpose and meaning of the tattoos, he usually received everywhere the same answer: “These are ornaments, objects of flirtation, which is why they are worn mainly by women.” An Antanosy woman added: “These are jewels we have in the skin.”
Despite the generality of these replies, Decary concluded that in the past Malagasy tattoos probably served ritual purposes. “Their original meaning was magical but lost in the mists of time,” he wrote. “And now they are almost always ornamental.” This, he explained, was why tattoos were becoming rarer in men than in women: “[ladies] considered them only as an additional attraction because it enhanced their beauty.”
However, Decary did record the functions of a few tattoos. Among the Sakalava, the masoandro or “solar road,” composed of two solar motifs bridged by a rectangular pattern filled with a zigzagging line, carried special meaning. It was believed to help “illuminate” the pathway that cattle thieves followed when working at night. Women also placed this favored motif between their breasts and other seductive locations to increase their skills in love because it was a symbol of strength and virility. Among the Tanala, stacked chevrons tattooed on the forearms of women were believed to offer them with physical protection from evil doers. The Antandroy tattooed the uhinkala or “scorpion tail” upon the outer edges of the eyebrows because it was believed to protect the owner from eye diseases. The Antandroy also noted to Decary that the cross was a lucky charm or a talisman against many other diseases, which explained its very high frequency. Sundry other tattoos were given to boys and girls when they received their adult names, thus they marked a rite of passage.
Today, all of these ancient tattoo forms have disappeared. One of Decary’s informants predicted this outcome nearly sixty years ago: “The earth is civilized [now]; it is no longer as it once was.”
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