Designs dating back to 4th century increasingly seen as backward among young

By Tesfa Mogessie |

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Ethiopia’s traditional art of tattooing is fading as fast as some of the designs inked on adherents’ skin.

Tattoos were introduced to Ethiopia in the 4th Century, when Christianity spread to the Horn of Africa.

But traditional designs, which are as diverse as Ethiopian society and usually indicate the bearer’s cultural, religious and ethnic background, are rapidly falling out of fashion to be replaced by designs that would not look out of place on the streets of London or New York.

Like many traditions that date back centuries, the tattoos that modern Ethiopians’ ancestors carried are increasingly seen as a sign of backwardness and ignorance.

“As urbanization expanded, the standards of beauty changed making it irrelevant for people to want to cling to traditional Ethiopian tattoos to look good,” Solomon Tessema, an expert on traditional practices at Addis Ababa University, said.

According to Tessema, trinkets and jewelry increasingly took over as forms of outward display, replacing tattoos, while cosmetics became a more popular beauty substitute.

Improved education on the dangers associated with tattooing, which is usually carried out by unregulated practitioners, also discouraged the tradition. The procedure is often painful and carries a risk of infection.

Traditional tattoos have many forms — from rows of blue or black lines from chin to chest, dots on the forehead to crucifixes or crescents on the back of the hand and gum tattoos designed to darken pinkish gums.

The experience of 28-year-old Almaz Tafa, who carries a row of tattoos on her neck, is typical of most young carriers of traditional tattoos.

“I had difficulties while getting a tattoo print,” she told Anadolu Agency. “I got it willingly for the sake of beauty. My mother advised me to get tattooed as she believes it will add to my beauty.”

However, when she moved to Addis Ababa, Tafa found her markings carried a different meaning for her new neighbors than for her friends and family in the rural community where she grew up.

“That was when I wanted to scrub it off my body,” she said.

Tattooing was introduced to Ethiopia in 4th century as Christianity arrived via the ancient Aksumite kingdom of northern Ethiopia, Tessema said. Five centuries later, crescent designs introduced alongside Islam became popular in eastern Ethiopia.

“Though tattoos have long been a symbol of ethnic and religious identity, there were also cultural teachings that insisted they protected attractive-looking people from evil eyes and added to human beauty,” Tessema added.

The ubiquity of modern tattoos around the world has also hit Ethiopia, particularly in urban areas.

Tattoo artist Simegn Abebe, who lives and works in the Bole neighborhood of downtown Addis Ababa, uses a sterilized needle to imprint designs, many of which, such as the crucifix, are a modern interpretation of traditional designs.

“Many people come with the design they want or we show them custom models,” the 39-year-old said. “I love a job as a tattoo artist. My customers said that they feel happy wearing tattoos.”

It seems the explosion of modern tattoos could sound the death knell for Ethiopia’s traditional designs. (Anadolu Agency)

Source: Fulton News
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