Africa’s Tattoo Traditions
The African continent is considered to be the “cradle of humankind”, but a lesser known fact is that it is also the birthplace of tattooing! The oldest known evidence of symbolic tattooing was discovered on the bodies of two Egyptian mummies, believed to be over 5,000 years old. For thousands of years the African people adorned their bodies with permanent symbols as a method of curing illness, providing protection, showing loyalty to their tribe, and denoting social status. Tattoos were also used to demonstrate specific personality traits amongst ancient people, bearing a marked resemblance to tattooing’s culture today of self-expression and story-telling.
The Meaning of African Tattoos
When exploring the meaning behind African tattoos, we must first explore the connection that ancient people held with this ritual practice. Throughout Northern Africa many ancient people embraced tattooing as a means of identification, self-expression, and spiritual protection. One example of this stems from the upper-class women of ancient Egypt, who would use these permanent markings to signify fertility, blessings, worship, or status. During these times, a person’s tattoos worked to tell a story of who they were, where their allegiances lied, and what their rank was within society. As the spread of Islam grew, ancient African people were forced to abolish the practice of tattooing, as it was viewed by the religion as a form of self-mutilation, and therefore considered a sin.
While tattooing moved underground in Northern Africa, in the sub-Saharan region indigenous tribes continued to practice their own method of tattooing in the form of scarification. The patterns and symbols carved into the skin held great meaning to those who wore them, as they were believed to provide protection against undesirable energies while showcasing one’s milestones through life.
In current day Africa, the practices of tattooing and scarification are still alive and well, with the two having combined into a process known as “cicatrization”. Cicatrization is defined as a deeply symbolic and personal method of marking the skin in the form of scars, which are then additionally raised by adding soot or ashes into the wound. The scars are often created as geometrical markings or symbols that represent coming-of-age rituals, and emblems of spiritual protection. As a person ages, these markings become a great source of pride, depicting their incredible endurance and determination throughout life.
In modern day Africa, many people also elect to get “traditional” tattoos, created using needles and ink. These designs range from decorative to highly symbolic, and can still be used to signify rank, social status, and tribal affiliation. Outside of the more ritual aspects of African tattooing, there are also those who use their tattoos as a way to showcase self-expression and story-telling.
Popular African Tattoo Designs
Many looking to get an Afrocentric tattoo are drawn to the ancient symbols of the Adinkra. Originating in West Africa, the Adinkra symbols were used to represent important proverbs, historical events, and spiritual qualities. If you’re searching for an authentic Ghanian tattoo, these simple symbols are a superb choice as they are known to hold great power and convey deep spiritual significance. Wondering what the meaning is behind Adinkra symbols? We’ve listed some popular Adinkra tattoos and their intended meanings below for you to explore!
This Adinkra symbol is depicted as a bird’s eye view of two rams butting horns and is considered to be a powerful symbol of strength and humility. When used as a tattoo, this symbol can serve as a reminder to remain humble regardless of status or perceived power in life.
The duafe symbol is represented by a wooden comb and is used to denote femininity, self-care, love, and cleanliness. As a tattoo, the duafe can be a loving reminder of one’s own womanhood or African roots.
If you’re looking for a traditional African tattoo, the sankofa symbol is a powerful choice. The sankofa Adinkra symbol originates from West Africa, and is commonly represented by a stylized heart, or by a bird’s head turning backwards with an egg in its mouth. If you’re wondering what the meaning is behind the sankofa, the word itself translates to: “go back and get it”, and serves to represent the importance of bringing lessons from the past into the here and now. If you’re looking for an African symbol tattoo to help further positive progress in your life, the sankofa is a superb selection.
African Tribal Tattoo
If you’re interested in an African tattoo sleeve, or large-scale African-inspired piece, a tribal tattoo may just be the right choice for you. Traditionally, tribal style tattoos were worn in Africa to tell stories of hardships and victories, as well as for purely aesthetic reasons. The African style of tribal tattooing tends to be heavier on shading than other forms of tribal work, offering high-impact designs laden with meaning and depth.
African Warrior Tattoo
Whether you’re interested in a fierce Zulu warrior tattoo or an African symbol representing courage and bravery, African warrior tattoos are a popular choice among those looking to invoke a sense of strength while connecting to their ancestry.
South African Tattoo
Proud of your South African roots? Many have chosen to use symbols representative of the region to show their pride and connect to their ancestry or birthplace. A popular selection is the South African flag tattoo, whose beautiful colors can easily be crafted into a variety of creative and proud pieces denoting your African heritage.
African Woman Tattoo
Since Africa is considered to be the motherland for all of humanity, many have chosen to depict their love for the continent by selecting tattoos featuring representations of African women. From regal renderings of Nefertiti to the bronze-coiled necks of the ethereal Kayan tribe, tattoos depicting Africa’s women serve as reminders of strength, beauty, prowess, and intellect.
African Elephant Tattoo
If you’re searching for the perfect African animal tattoo, the elephant is a strong visual motif laden with deep spiritual meaning. In African mythology, the elephant was viewed as a wise chief imbued with the qualities of strength, power, and wisdom.
African Continent Tattoo
The African continent tattoo comes in many forms and often features authentic wildlife, historical figures, or intricate tribal designs. Whether you’re interested in a simple black outline or a full-color piece, the African continent tattoo is a beautiful way to celebrate Africa’s rich history.
African Lion Tattoo
One of the most popular and fierce African tattoo designs is the proud and powerful lion. Often depicted in a realism style, the African lion works to symbolize wisdom, authority, courage, and protection. If you’re looking for a more feminine symbol, the African lioness tattoo can be used to signify motherhood, femininity, and the powers of the moon.
African Goddess Tattoo
If you’re drawn to Africa’s vast mythology and feminine spirits, an African goddess tattoo may be the perfect choice for you. One popular selection is the goddess known as “Oshun”, who is worshipped for her ability to cure illness, manifest abundance, and generate fertility. Whether you’re looking for a Dotwork style tattoo or a Surrealist piece dripping with symbolism, African goddesses work wonderfully as symbols of feminine powers and strength.
African Roots Tattoo
If you are looking to pay homage to your heritage, the African roots tattoo, or “mother Africa tattoo”, can be a creative way to honor your ancestry. Crafted in a variety of styles, the tattoo commonly features an African Acacia tree, or the continent itself sprouting roots.
African Animal Tattoo
If you’re drawn to the beauty and power of African wildlife, there are a wealth of incredible animals to choose from when designing your Afrocentric tattoo. From the graceful giraffe to the ferocious leopard, Africa’s exotic range of animals all possess their own unique symbolism and hidden meaning when used in tattooing.
African Flower Tattoo
If you love Fine Line tattoos and floral designs, the African violet tattoo may be the perfect choice for you. Aside from its visually stunning appearance, the African violet also works to symbolize friendship and faithfulness, making it the perfect African symbol to honor an important relationship in your life.
The Ankh tattoo is a powerful way to pay homage to Africa’s ancient wisdom, while representing one’s own journey through life. The ankh was traditionally used as a hieroglyph in ancient Egypt meaning “life”, or “breath of life”. The symbol was used to showcase both the afterlife and the current life, and serve as a reminder that our earthly incarnations are only part of our eternal journey.
If your ancestry is rooted in Northern Africa, or you possess a deep love for ancient Egypt, the pyramid tattoo can be a stunning way to celebrate your ancestors. Draped in mystery to this day, the great pyramids are one of the 7 wonders of the world, and work to showcase the wealth of knowledge and spiritual power that permeates Africa’s history.
We hope that this inspiration article on African tattoos and tattoo ideas will help you on your journey to create an image that resonates with your culture and background. Below you'll find even more incredible Africa tattoos that encapsulate the power and beauty of the country, the people, and the animals who live there.