You have probably come across at least one person in your lifetime with a tattoo, right? You know… the butterfly on the forearm or leg, the heart with the cupid arrow, the stars running across the neck area or even more “extreme” – a tattoo on the face like Lil’ Wayne, Mike Tyson and the likes.

While I was embracing my own moments of boredom, I stopped to wonder why people get tattoos or where this form of body art originated from. And so, my research ensued; I was both pleasantly surprised and alarmed at the reasons as to why some people get tattoos.

In ancient Egypt, for instance the practice of body art dates as far back as 3000 years ago and was characterised by bright colours to symbolise life and resurrection, fertility and birth. Some of their ancient art forms were only reserved for women and were done by female tattoo artists who were perceived to be seers. In Persia, tattoos were used as a mark to distinguish criminals and prisoners of war.

Some have maintained that the widespread popularity of tattoos across the globe has a certain ancestral commonality and origin in that, East Asian tattoo styles were inspired by religion, spirituality and mythology much like the Egyptians. In some parts of the world like Africa for instance, body art is used as a form of “ceremonial couture” whereby the vibrant and vivid paint colours drawn on African bodies symbolise a certain event, allegiance to a tribe or rites of passage.

This can be seen in the Maasai tribes where warrior men take on the rites of passage – a true test of manhood – where they are required to kill a lion armed with only their wits and a spear. The success factor in this practice is symbolised by warrior men wearing the lion’s mane as a head wrap to show everyone that the hunt was worth the kill. Along with this, warrior men will smear ochre on their bodies that distinguish them as warriors.

Temporary body art can also be seen in some ethnic groups in South Africa for different cultural ceremonies and rites of passage. The different patterns and sometimes colours are reserved for different age groups and genders. Married women, maidens and young girls in the IsiXhosa culture mostly use dots diagonally across their faces as temporary body art when they attend traditional ceremonies. Xhosa boys spread ochre across their bodies when they come of age and transition to manhood. All these are accompanied by very specific traditional regalia, colours and patterns. Sangomas and traditional healers have their own unique patterns, colours and textiles all paying homage to their practice, culture, beliefs and ceremonious events.

There are many forms of body art across the globe for different cultures, each specifically tailored to symbolise an event or milestone and it is impressive to note that the passage of time has not done much to erode and erase these. One would suppose that the tattoos we now see in popular culture or in recent times are meant for a myriad of reasons; some tattoo their bodies as a sentimental gesture to remember others. Others do this out of their own choosing or to remind themselves of a specific period in their life.

Whatever the reasons are, this much can be said, there is a deeper meaning behind why one would decide to have their body altered, enhanced or decorated.

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Tell us: Do you think tattoos are culturally significant? What are your reasons for or against them?