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beauty is pop culture // sex rules the world 

  • Arianne Obi

African Parents and Tattoos: What's the Beef?

Straddling Cultures: Navigating the Generational Divide on Tattoos in African Households

It's possible that my mother is one of the chairwomen of the Anti-Tattoo Club. She believes that 'tattoos are disfiguration, not decoration'; a doctrine that I think is meant to come off as equal parts wise as is does threatening. My parents, like many Africans, wince at the sign of body art, and though I’ve spent hours pouring over sticker-like flash, I've often stopped in my tracks. I even used to work at an agency where tattooists came in every now and then to give us free (FREE!) ink, but each time was haunted by a voice at the back of my head in pidgin warning otherwise...I'm glad though, when they gave me my marching orders it was a relief not to carry the cult's logo on my arm for life. If you go down a rabbit hole on TikTok, you'll see many young people pulling pranks (or not) on their parents that they got a tattoo and the reaction is pretty clear. Hopefully nobody died in the making of these videos.

African or not, I’m sure I’m not the only one to experience a confusion or concern coming from parents with regard to body decoration. We know up until fairly recently there’s been a taboo against tattoos for their association with crime and gang culture, rap culture and just being down-right ‘vulgar’. Even countries like South Korea and Denmark are still dubbed ‘tattoo unfriendly’, despite being inherently trendy. That said, in the UK tattoos are fairly normal at around 26% of the population having them - and I can assure you this number skyrockets among creatives.

As ever, there’s a steely tension between Western Liberalism and Black Culture, particularly African Culture. This encompasses certain views on race, gender, sexuality and religion which feel hard to question in the eyes of the parent. There’s the ugly truth that in cultures where explicit decision making over your children entitles you to a feeling of ownership clashes with ‘soft parenting’; and moral dimensions of personhood go neck-and-neck with liberalism; things can get a little tekky.

When parents still see you as their property - under their roof or not - of course there are expectations on how you should express yourself. As if it was instilled to them at birth, African parents always seem to have a superfluous way with words, and if you’re lucky, a cheeky little bible verse at the ready. They’ll pull out quotes about how the body is a temple and thou shall not make scars (or something) to inflict a sense of guilt and reinforce their power over the matter. It turns out that different among the Christian faith, the rightness or wrongness depends on who you ask. It's less likely that the devil is taunting you, and more that your Pinterest Algorithm is.

For all it’s worth, I’d argue that it’s less about what they think, and what they think other people will think. Within Western Culture there is a forceful reliance on individualistic culture, driven by the ‘me’ and sense of independence, whilst several African countries are more collectivist; basing decision making and values on cautiousness, conformity and more skewed notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Let me break it down for you: 

Example A) Creativity = Lack of Prospects = Bad

Example B) Self Expression = Rebellion = Bad


This engenders a sense of judgement from wider communities and concerns for future prospects. How on earth are you going to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer with inky drawings on your arms? Who is going to marry you with that thing on your back? It feels like a slap in the face to a parent who wants the best for you.

If we dive back in to history, there is a slight irony to this as Tattooing and methods of scarification have remained relatively common. The first tattoos were found on the Egyptians, and for a hot sec tattoos were seen as a way of curing disease, protecting against spirits, showing affiliation towards certain groups/tribes, and reflecting personality traits such as bravery, courage, and social status, and scarification is a practice that spans many societies in western and sub-saharan Africa.

I suppose a Tribal Scar isn't the same as a tramp stamp, but all in all it's clear that African societies had a complicated relationship with this practice. For some these serve as reminders of personal value or cherished memories, and for others this manifests as boldily decoration for the shits and gigs. There are even artists using needles with the sole purpose of connecting people their west african heritage in an effort to reclaim their autonomy and roots through art.

Credit: Emmanuel Uchenna Item

What's clear, however, is that existing in a judgement-focused society is conducive to people's relationships with body art. Boomers have to accept world is changing and that habits and customs are transcending global barriers. For some it may be worth straddling between two cultures to achieve happiness and self expression, or simply just neutralising opinions towards a little bit of ink.

 Are you passionate about exploring the intricate worlds of beauty, sex, wellness, and culture? Do you belong to a marginalized community and have unique perspectives and stories to share? If so, Nightstand Service is eagerly seeking contributing writers like you! Get in touch:


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