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Decorated skin: Transcending tattoo tradition in Ethiopia

Decorated skin: Transcending tattoo tradition in Ethiopia

The tradition of inking skin is a rather old one in Ethiopia. Children as young as 5 years old, mostly female, are tattooed with crosses, sun patterns or other religious and cultural symbols on their hands, necks or foreheads. As this tradition slowly fades away in rural parts it is gaining renewed momentum around cities; nowadays urban tattoo studios are becoming increasingly popular, writes Hiwot Abebe.

Nahom Michael, 30, runs Lucy Tattoo parlor around Olympia area. Lucy is one of the older establishments in Addis, having opened its doors 8 years ago. He says his clientele has increased and diversified over the years. There are many pictures plastered on the windows of his shop showcasing his artistic skill.

The tradition of inking skin is a rather old one in Ethiopia. Children as young as 5 years old, mostly female, are tattooed with crosses, sun patterns or other religious and cultural symbols on their hands, necks or foreheads. Many adults that had been inked in such a way wish they had a choice in the matter but there’s nothing they can do. Remote rural areas still carry on with the practice. In places like Thailand or Polynesia where tattoos are closely related to culture and tradition, tattoos are perfectly acceptable.

The number of tattoo parlors in the city has grown in recent years. It is hard to say whether the need led to the rise of parlors or the other way around; but it is clear that the availability would increase the likelihood of a person considering getting a tattoo. Of the one or two establishments a decade ago, there are now over two-dozen parlors all over Addis. There are many burgeoning artists determined to make a name in the trade. 

Such an artist does not require any formal training or accreditation. A tattoo artist simply has to procure equipment and begin tattooing trusting individuals. This trust must be complete or the tattoo receiver exceptionally aloof about permanently altering the largest and most visible part of the body could make the whole process difficult; but the event takes place nonetheless.

In a time of increased information and ever changing national (and world) landscape, choosing permanence is an impressive feat. Confidence that you will continue to love that person whose name is emblazoned on your chest or you will continue to be an adherent lover of tigers leaping out of your back, or passionately enthralled by butterflies on your lower back is astounding.

But the love of tattoos is not necessarily a declaration of undying love, constancy or permanence. It is a statement to the world and a reminder to oneself. Eden Tamiru, 24, has a series of numbers on her wrist she says are dates she finds important. She says people frequently ask her what they mean but she rarely shares the meaning with anyone. The numbers relate to her parents and that is as much as she is willing to give away.

“I got the tattoo 6 months ago. I don’t think I will ever regret it. It represents something I care deeply about. It is really important to me. My parents were not happy I did it. I explained its meaning and that helped a little but they still don’t like it.”

Registered tattoo parlors are annually reviewed by the Ethiopian Medicine and Drug Administration. The expiration dates on chemicals, sterilizers, the hygiene of needles and other equipment are regularly checked. Nahom imports ink from the United States and makes sure each item has at least 3 years before it expires. He wears gloves when he draws on clients and a mask if the fumes are too toxic to breath in for an extended length of time.

These precautions do not apply to the homemade tattoos of the inked majority of the country. The tradition of tattoos in Ethiopia may be rich and their methods refined over many years but their methods certainly to do not comply with modern hygiene or safety standards. The shoddy non-traditional establishments are much worse.

These tattoos are made with unapproved ink in unsterile conditions. The needle usually pierces deeper than the standard tattoo gun, penetrating below the epidermis, the upper layer of the skin. This leads to a bloody, and more painful, ordeal that usually leaves the skin bumpy. Professionally done tattoos blend seamlessly into the skin, leaving a smooth feel soon after.

Homemade tattoos of this kind are rampant in the city’s prisons. Inmates tattoo each other frequently with depictions of Jesus on the cross, poorly formed heart shapes or names of mothers and girlfriends.

Abel, 21, is a taxi attendant in the Lideta area. He has his mother’s name Aster inked on his right arm. On his left is a dotted cross. He got the tattoo a year ago from his friend who he had in turn tattooed with a similar cross and a heart. He says the procedure was not very painful and is not worried that he will regret the choice. “It’s no problem. I love my mother. I just want to remember her all the time. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s just a reminder.”

These ill-conceived tattoos may inadvertently lead to health problems. The risk of hepatitis is high. The spread of disease through shared needles is impossible to prevent. Ink that was cooked up using charcoal, kohl or burnt tire scraps enters the blood stream when the skin is pierced too deep. The impact of this is difficult to gauge but clearly affects the health of the individual. Doctors warn not to donate blood for 6 months after getting inked until infections that enter the bloodstream during the procedure manifest in blood tests.

The practice, however, is not restricted to prisons. Many young people choose to undergo the procedure because it is usually free when performed by a friend and the decision is usually sudden. While some might take weeks deciding to get a tattoo and then a bit more time deciding on a design, for others the choice is impulsive. Nahom has had to cover up tattoos of those that regretted the choice. The poorly done tattoos are difficult to alter since the skin is irreversibly damaged. Drawing skillfully around that and hoping to create an original work is complex, and even daunting for untested tattoo artists.

Fasil Tadesse, 27, is from the Merkato area and has given tattoos to a few friends. “There is nothing to do in my neighborhood. All we did back then was play pool or PlayStation. It is a crazy neighborhood though,” he laughed. His own tattoo is of a barbed wire heart located on his stomach. He chose the place because he had gotten stabbed there during an altercation with a neighboring gang.

A simple 4-letter word tattoo at a high-end parlor might cost as low was 600 Birr and less than an hour. A complexly designed tattoo that will take more than one sitting to complete can be price at 10,000 Birr. A skillfully designed full-sleeve or whole back area can take several days or weeks to complete. Leul Muluneh, 28, has a tribal tattoo on his left bicep he got while in the US.

“I got this tattoo over 2 days. It doesn’t mean any specific thing but I like how it looks. It’s a Maori design. It’s fun. It’s well made. I wanted to decorate my skin. Have something that separates my body from all the others out there.”

The placement of the tattoo on the body is an important decision and the choice is usually gender specific. The most common areas for men are biceps, upper back or chest while women choose forearms, wrists, ankles or the lower back area. Nahom has been known to refuse to tattoo certain areas of the body like the face or neck, fearing the recipient might come to regret the choice soon. He also refuses to ink young teenagers or couples that seem to have come to the decision impulsively and without forethought.

Some artists are not so discerning. Aside from being immediately visible some areas like the soles of the feet can be exceptionally painful. Others, like hands or fingers, can be impractical because they fade easily from friction, frequent exposure to water and other elements.

Modern tattoos are becoming less of a taboo. The stigma attached to permanently inked skin, namely that the individual is irresponsible and unreliable, is beginning to lift. Many young professionals in the city have tattoos that are easily visible.

The fear that you will not be able to get a job and be deemed unprofessional when an interviewer notices a tattoo is lifting. The quality of the tattoo plays a role here. A well-drawn and carefully considered tattoo can now establish a person as cool or interesting. Young people that work in modern offices or are more inclined to work in startups or their own entrepreneurial initiatives face little backlash in the professional setting. Eden works in a local advertising company and says nobody minds that she has a tattoo. “They didn’t ask me any questions when I first interviewed and it hasn’t come up since. I think even my boss has a tattoo. She’s a cool lady.”

Whether it is a poorly drawn mess, one is sure to regret or beautiful representations of a person’s beloved, tattoos are clear methods of self-expression. As social constraints loosen and individuality flourishes, the pervasive popularity of tattoos signals a sure shift in Addis Ababa’s social institutions.