The traditional tattoo (Nikisat) has a long history in Ethiopia. Legends have it Ethiopians started tattooing with the introduction of Christianity millennial ago. Traditional tattoo (Nikisat) is one of the ways women in Ethiopia express their beauty, especially in Gondar, Gojjam and Tigray. Mothers and young women look beautiful by tattooing different designs on their necks, foreheads, gum and hands. Even though the old tradition of inking bodies is fading, a contemporary tattoo practice is on the rise as a culture and a business, mainly in the capital, writes EBR’s Hemen Asmare.
Most moms in northern Ethiopia have tattoos on their hands, gums, foreheads, and necks, considerably enhancing their beauty. It was customary in Gojjam and Gondar provinces for ladies to have their tattoos mentioned in songs for them, highlighting the idea that tattoos are a physical embodiment of beauty.
In some parts of the World, tattoos have a long history, too. Viking tattoos first appeared at least in the 10th century. Vikings first sailed and travelled across Europe in the eighth century. Furthermore, as tattoos during this time were seen to be primarily for warriors, Vikings obtained them both before and after fights.
Funny enough, the Vegvisir, or modern compass, is one of the most widely used tattoos regarded as having a Viking tattoo. The practice is only from the 19th century, even if it is from the area and is Icelandic.
Although it makes sense that something designed to aid the wearer in navigating inclement weather would be the ideal Viking tattoo, it was developed after many incidents.
The Helm of Awe is among the Vikings’ most popular tattoo emblems. However, you can also find other vital symbols in Viking tattoo designs. According to tradition, these symbols provide the bearer with special ethereal abilities. Native plants, mythical creatures, and well-known Norse artwork and signs are other tattoo symbols in various historical texts. Some go back as far as 800 B.C., even further than the Viking Age.
This old tradition is also deep in Ethiopian culture. Many girls in rural areas get tattoed even at early ages. “I got a tattoo when I was nine years old,” says Yenework Tekilew, currently 46 years old and a mother of four children. She was born and brought up in what’s presently the state of Amhara, East Gojjam Zone, in a peculiar place called Asteriyo Mariam.
“During our childhood, tattoos are one of the features of beauty and expressions of our identity. There was no woman who was not inking because it was considered a tradition.” Now she lives in Motta, East Gojjam.
Women often have tattoos and dress traditionally for Epiphany celebrations. Tattoos on the neck can help women with goitres reduce swelling or growth and be aesthetically pleasing. The ten rounds and cross design on her neck tattoo (Nikisat) took me six days to complete since it was painful. But as technology advances, the Niksat tradition is now on the verge of extinction. According to Yenework, no longer any persons who perform traditional tattoos except those who are older.
Back in the days when the practice was widespread in rural Ethiopia, older women were the ones tasked with the responsibility of carrying out the Niksat. In the community, they were respected professionals known as Nekash, now tattoo artists. When a Niksat is attractive, the bearer is proud and admired. The Nekash, usually a woman, also gets sincere appreciation and respect in the communities for their skills.
Sadly, traditional tattoos are increasingly becoming less popular, leaving their place for more contemporary tattoos. On the other hand, the demand for tattoos in Addis Ababa is rising. Numerous tattoo shops can be found across the city’s neighbourhoods. Today, anyone can create whatever tattoo design and get photo-quality design printed on their skill for life. Tattoos are especially becoming common among young people of both genders.
28-year-old Natnael Alemayehu worked as a tattoo artist in 2016. His main areas of work are in the Bole District in Addis Ababa, where many affluent residents of the city live and tourists frequent. The fact that he loves painting and completed a one-month advanced training in Bangkok drove him to do what he enjoys now. He claims that he concentrated on developing the tattooing industry when he first launched the company. It was incredibly challenging when he started working because of how society perceived current tattooing.
Until recently, a person with a tattoo is considered to not have a decent personality in Ethiopia. These activities are becoming less common as more people have access to jobs. As more tourists and diaspora Ethiopians with tattoos are widely seen in the capital; and skilled tattoo artists with training overseas join the industry, things have significantly changed, and the industry is presently improving steadily both as an art and a business.
Although both men and women get tattoos, more men tend to do it than women, according to his experience. They can start skinning around 18 and typically do so until they are 35. Due to the lengthy process and the fact that only one person can complete a complex design, only two workers perform tattoos daily.
“In our country, many people choose designs that focus on religion,” Natnael says. “For instance, Christians focus on cross designs, while Muslims do the same to express their faith. The payment is based on the designs. The minimum price is ETB 700 up to ETB 800.”
Natnael claims that he shares his knowledge with new hires. Because there is not enough training material available locally, it is challenging to provide the whole range of training.
“Besides being a business, I use tattooing as an art. I study books and watch videos to acquire new techniques because I’m constantly working on fresh and original designs, which is satisfying for an artist”, he told EBR. “Modern tattooing has generally significantly expanded. Many people are entering the industry, and from what I can tell on social media, it has grown twice as much as before, and many people are arriving.
For Natnael, the main challenge has been the need for more resources. As most of the materials he needs are imported and cost a lot of foreign currency, he gets fewer resources than he would like.
Rahel Wolde, 27, has a jewellery shop in the Yeka District’s Megenagna. She is a particular tattoo enthusiast. She claims that she spends most of her time watching foreign films. When she noticed the tattoos on foreign actresses, she wanted to get inked similarly and was confident that she would get it done someday. Recently, Addis Ababa has seen some of the most incredible tattoo designs, and anyone can create anything they desire.
“I got my mother’s photo tattooed on my hand a year ago,” Rahel told EBR. “My mother has sacrificed a lot for my upbringing, so I thought I would keep that story inked on my body.”
Although tattoo studios had been in many countries for a long time, the first recorded professional tattooist was Martin Hildebrandt, an early American tattoo artist nicknamed “Old Martin”. Martin established a studio in New York City in the middle of the 19th century to tattoo Civil War soldiers for identification purposes. In addition, the city is credited with the invention of the first electric rotary tattoo machine in 1891, which was influenced by Thomas Edison’s electric pen.
According to studies, 48Pct of Italians have at least one tattoo, making the country with the highest percentage of tattooed people in the World. In Sweden, 47Pct of people are tattooed, while that figure in the United States is 46 Pct. Australia, Argentina, Spain, Denmark and the United Kingdom, with 43 Pct, 43PCt, 42Pct, 41 Pct and 40 Pct, respectively, are among the countries with many tattooed people. France, Germany and Greece also have a significant percentage of their people tattooed.
11th Year • June 2023 • No. 118 EBR