Two of the world’s biggest religions are not exactly in support of tattoos for various reasons. That is not why we are here. Their reasons make sense according to the adherents of both faiths. I’m sorry, that is not why we are here.
Well, if religions older than our grandparents are worried about tattoos then one thing we can be sure of is that tattoos are not some recent fashion statements or fads as certain TV reality series would have you consider.
Earlier this year, I went to Oyo town in Oyo State and “branched” Ibadan on my way back. If you think I was on a mission to find out which of the two ancient towns has the best “Amala”, “gbegiri” and “ewedu”, all I can do is to forgive you for such slander by thought. I do not travel about researching food; I just eat whatever I see. I have my name to protect. Yes!
I was on a journey to learn the stories of Yoruba women with tribal marks and tattoos. Any Social Studies textbook in Nigeria that does not have a chart on recognising particular tribal marks and matching them to their origins should have its authors rounded up and tried for “kwarupshun”. I saw tribal marks, I saw beautiful tribal marks and I saw the beautiful and gracefully-aged women that the marks adorned. When I asked about the origins of the marks, I was treated to a nice crash course in Yoruba history. Lovely!
However, it is the stories behind the tattoos that brought me here. And yes, that is why we are here. See, according to the women I spoke with, tattoos were employed for two primary reasons; fashion and “eje gbigba”. Of course you know what fashion is; it is one of the primary reasons behind the modern tattoo as well. “Eje gbigba” on the other hand is a concept I can only describe as noble.
Literally, “eje” means blood while “gbigba” means to collect or collection in the Yoruba language. What does this have to do with tattoos? I can hear your think and ask. Well, during the circumcision of a male child -a process known to be painful, a relative of the child, usually a sister, an aunt or a grandmother would volunteer herself to have the tattoos painfully drawn on her arm. (Men are not exactly known to be heroic in these kind of situations). Such a tattoo is drawn as a tally mark or the child’s name is written on the selfless relative’s arm. The idea is simple in principle; the tattoo inscription being a painful process, transfers the pain to be suffered by the helpless baby boy to the arms of the volunteering relative who is then said to be “collecting blood” on behalf of the little boy. This process, they believe, alleviates the pain experienced by the boy. In this context, blood is directly associated with pain.
I could not hide my skepticism and one of the women was quick to point something out. She said no one can tell with certainty the effectiveness of the method but most people still practise it as a form of solidarity. A true version of “I feel your pain, baby”. As if that mild lesson in philosophy was not enough, she added “the dead know nothing about moments of silence we bestow on their memory, we still do it anyway”. Enough said. I left there a believer.
Just for kicks, some tattoo the names of their “first love” on their arms, some write significant dates in their lives while some just draw animals and objects.