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10 Photos of the Ancient African Tradition of Facial Tattoos and Scarification

• Sep 3, 2015

While African scarification and tattooing is a dying practice in more modern cities and villages, the practice was once a deeply valued tradition. Depending upon the tribe, the markings can indicate tribal hierarchy, tribal affiliation, female fertility, or simply beauty. Because many Africans have dark skin, the scarring is an alternative to tattoos, although some do draw tattoos with dark ink.

Scarification almost always happens in a culture where there is so much melanin in skin that it would be difficult to see a tattoo,” Vince Hemingson, a writer and filmmaker who’s studied body-modification, explained to National Geographic.

Facial scars played a deep role in identity, as wearers express;

Ms. K. Djeneba, shop owner, Ko tribe from Burkina Faso. “People find it pretty, but I think it’s ugly. We are not like others. In the past, when you had a smooth face, you were rejected! I used to like my scars; they were beautiful. We used to brag about them. But, now, in the city, it is definitely out of fashion. You are called names like ‘torn face’ and it hurts.”…

Mr. Mien Guemi, painter, from Ouro Bono, Burkina Faso. “I was a kid, but I still remember the wounds on me. When you didn’t have them, your friends would laugh at you, and put you aside. During wars, Mossie and Ko tribes would recognize each other, and therefore avoid killing one another. It was a way of recognition. When you would look for work, no one would ask you where you’re coming from… It is already done, and I like them. I cannot change. No need for an ID card, I already wear my identity on my face. This is the reason why people did it: to recognize one another. But now, this is over. We can no more be recognized.”…

Our parents did this not to get lost in life,” Mr. Konabé explained to her. “If you saw someone with the same marks on their faces, you would approach them because you knew you were related in some way. Today, those who moved to the city do not want to do it because they are teased.

And while the scars certainly carry pride for some, others feel they are barbaric and unattractive.

Pressure from religious and state authorities to “modernize,” coupled with the introduction of clothing in tribes, led to fewer and fewer instances of forced or voluntary scarification. Choumali wondered why an accepted and valued form of cultural identification became unacceptable and devalued. How does something become the cause of shame after being the norm?

The photos below showcase some of these markings and their tribal meaning and/or affiliation. You can read more about this fascinating, dying tradition here.

Woman with facial markings from the Ko tribe from Burkina Faso.

Surma girl from Ethiopia. Scars are a source of pride for the Suri people of Ethiopia

Woman of Dinka tribe of Sudan. Scars are performed on pubescent boys and girls as a symbol of initiation into adulthood.

Woman of the Datago Tribe, Tanzania.

Woman from Cotonou, Benin. Facial mark are used as a form of initiation into adulthood, beauty and a sign of a village, tribe, and clan.

Source: (Jean-Michel Clajot / Aurora Photos )

Source: (Jean-Michel Clajot / Aurora Photos )

Bétamarribé Girl from Benin. The scars from, “a grid, a series of vertical lines, and sets of superimposed Vs.” These patterns common to both women’s scarification and house marking. These patterns suggest plant growth, an important metaphor for both house and family well-being and fertility.”

Wodaabe Women of Niger. Scars and Tattoos are placed to both beautify the women and ward off evil spirits.

Pic: Copyright Timothy Allen. Source:

Photo Copyright Timothy Allen. Source

Afar Woman of Ethiopia

Woman from the Nuer tribe, located in South Sudan and western Ethiopia.

Fulani woman from Mali.  Women tattoo their mouth and lips in a tradition known as “Tchoodi” done for beautification and as a coming-of-age rite for teenage girls.

Are you familiar with African scarification and tattooing practices? 

About Lisa Jean Francois

I'm a Lipstick-obsessed Journalist and Fashion Blogger. You can find me over on my blog or youtube channel swatching lippies and strutting around in 5-inch heels. I'm a also a brand coach, specializing in video marketing and digital brand development. Find me @lisaalamode.

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6 years ago

Wow! These are definitely different. I guess in our culture we do these too, but call it plastic surgery.

I prefer the tribal beautification that’s not as permanrnt.

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6 years ago

Very interesting …I think I might get this ancient process done 😉

6 years ago

I’m African (congolese to be precise) but I’ve never really agreed with these practices along with the mutilation of young women private parts.

6 years ago

I think they are striking and beautiful.

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