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Tattoos: The Human Body as a Work of Art

The colonialists, who came after them, fought amongst themselves over

control of the isles; they exploited the local natural resources, enslaved

the natives, and made them dress in European attires. In response, tattoos

became a symbol of resistance for the natives and were hence banned by

the new rulers.


European colonialism in Polynesia led to the extinction of

entire tribes, while many natives were banished or were forced to abandon

their tattooing customs. Thus, most of the tattooing traditions vanished

within a few hundred years.


The native Polynesians believed the universe was governed by animistic

hidden powers. Various artists and craftsmen, including artists from the

field of tattooing, which was considered one of the most important works,

were believed to be able to be working under divine patronage and hence,

communicate with these hidden powers. Moreover, the tattoo artists were

able to control the “mana” of the people they were tattooing, and even

endow themwith it. “Mana” is a super-natural power, which resides within

natural objects and substances, as well as within subjects, for instance

within humans – and in this context, in the tattoo artists and the people

they are tattooing.


Diverse practices of scaring and tattooing were common throughout

Africa. They also included a practice combining scaring with tattooing to

fashion a kind of tattoo relief. In the 19th and 20th centuries European

colonialism in this region, along with intensive Christian missionaries,

oppressed the belief and traditional artworks of the natives, hence effecting

a significant decrease in this custom. Nevertheless, tattooing remains a

ubiquitous practice in countries such as Ethiopia, Cameroon, Mali, Congo,

Benin, Morocco, and Mozambique.


Rural communities and ethnic groups originating from North Africa

(including: Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt), such as the



also as


), as well as nomad tribes, such as the


in Mali,

had rich tattooing practices, mainly because of a unique tradition that

combined Islam with animism. In the past, children of both sexes from

these cultures were decorated with apotropaic tattoos, especially if one

of their siblings had passed away. Women tattooed themselves in order