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Yoruba Scarification & Tattoos

 

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Many Yorubas now have tattoos. The modern ink tattoos. Depending on how one feels about tattoos , you may find them beautiful or an eyesore.

 

dark skin tattoo

Yoruba of old  (and some  of the present day ) desirous of  body art employed the skills of an akomola. Yoruba body art involved making cuts on the skin with a knife or blade and using natural dye in the fresh wound.  The problems of visibility did not arise because the wound would form either a raised or sunken scar to display your body art.

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Yoruba woman. Nigeria. The photograph depicts woman with facial scarifications. This photograph was taken when Eliot Elisofon was on assignment for Westinghouse Film and traveled to Africa from October 26, 1970 to end of March 1971.

 

Not all scarification is done on the face. Body art worn by Yoruba women on the torso or limbs were done for beautification and fashion. And not all Yoruba body art required scarification. Indigenous vegetable dyes were used to produce intricate and dainty tattoos on shoulders, waists, chests, arms and backs.

 

 

Scarification has a long history within the Yoruba traditions and religion.

Many reasons have been given for the origins of it. Some say  it indicates the tribe of Yoruba one belongs to. Some say  the facial scarification began during the age of heightened suspicion and wars in the  Yoruba homeland  ie the period of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, and enabled people to be immediately identified as foreigners in the region,  or as  Yoruba from another area. It was said to  also help with identification in instances where people were reunited with their family after wars or in strange lands. Others say that it was a matter of fashion and denoted how wealthy the wearer’s family was. Still others believe it was used mostly for spiritual protection.

Whatever the origin the practice is dwindling. Most people are in favour of this especially because the scarring is done in childhood where the person has no choice on an aesthetic decision that they will carry for the rest of their lives.

[Image of a baby receiving ila has been removed due to request]

And now that the wildfire of European tattoos is sweeping across Nigeria specifically, is it time we revived and refashioned the skill of the akomola? Perhaps not on the face though, and not on babies and children.

Why spend dollars to buy ink and equipment when the traditional skills and equipment  are readily available locally?

In any case, body art among the Yoruba looks to be coming full circle in the future because according to one UK newspaper “A British (scarification) practitioner told Katie Piper, who presents Bodyshockers, that demand for their services has doubled in the last year.”

 

[image of Western scarification of animal paw prints on an arm removed due to request]

If scarification is on the rise in Europe, will akomolas be able to keep up with demand when the trend is revived  again locally as our youth follow the European suit as usual?

 

 

2 thoughts on “Yoruba Scarification & Tattoos

  1. I only recently learned from an elder that scarification was used on children so that if they were kidnapped into slavery they would be able to identify them if they were reunited with their parents. It’s heartbreaking to think about.

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