Wednesday 19 March 2008

Tattoos, Marks & Identity

Mark, tattoos and culture

I was a bit amused by Moody Crab’s indecision regarding acquiring a tattoo and then hiding it from persons who might not take to it that well.

In fact, I have nothing against tattoos as long as they do not appear below the elbow or on the neck – I think there is a thing about class and discretion when one acquires a tattoo, in the West.

However, I remember that a lot of women of generations before my parents had black tattoos usually of their names on their lower arms and then artistic decorations on other parts of their bodies.

I am not sure they used pin-prick and pigmentation methods but some sort of indelible ink (Research topic).

Yoruba tribal marks

The Yoruba tribe in times past also used marks to identify themselves and these were usually on the face, a good deal of that went out of fashion around the middle of the last century.

These were cuts made into the skin and then filled with pigmentation; primitive as that might sound now, they were used to identify kinship and promote the stereotypes of the different tribal groupings in Yorubaland.

My parent’s Ijebu tribe had the less prominent marks which were a short line on both cheeks called Pele Ijebu; the rather more prominent ones are used to identify indigenes of Ogbomoso which comprised 3 deep angled lines on both cheeks and a slash from the nose towards the right cheek. Samuel Ladoke Akintola sported one of those.

In fact, this kind of scarification was not limited to Yorubaland but other tribes around Nigeria sport even more elaborate marks for identity or status in society.

With protection from cashew nuts

Beyond that there are animistic protection marks made to ward off evil and bad luck, these can be made on the chest or on the scalp with medicinal potions rubbed into those bizarrely inflicted wounds – it would be interesting to know how many of us have encountered these things.

But back to the tattooing topic, when we were in Rayfield, Jos, we had an orchard of 14 mango trees, a fig tree, a lemon tree and a very productive cashew tree. My aunt learnt from our maid that the sap from the unprocessed cashew nuts can be used for body painting so she proceeded to write her name on her thigh and arm.

Over days, the sap which was probably caustic created blisters and within a week it all dried up and we had the marks.

All was fine till the patriarch caught sight of those marks, nothing could be done to remove the marks, they were permanent, but he did give her no less that a ton of marks that eventually healed – we were utterly terrified.

Thankfully, the self-inflicted marks of shaving accidents only hurt for so long and disappear after a while.

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