In the tribes of Africa, body art is not characterized by the traditional ideas of tattooing. The ancient practice of scarification takes place as the dominant form of body art in this region of the world. As an integral part of African culture, the practice involves the use of unique blades to carve intricate, meaningful designs into the skin. Members of these African tribes receive their first scars as a young child, most often as a right of passage, and continue to receive scars as landmarks of maturity.

Dating back to the 14th century, scarification began as representative of tribal culture and ones ancestory. Over time, it has evolved into serving medical purposes as well as personal protection. For example, the introduction of slave trade began a significant shift in the purpose of scarification; some tribes believed they could use the scars as a way to dissuade slave traders from taking them, as they would be too ugly to be of benefit to slave owners. The practice of scarification that still exists today is central to the routes of tribal culture and representing a tradition introduce by generations and generations of ancestors. 

As shown throughout this exhibit, the painful practice of scarification is an extremely important to tradition and element in the culture of African tribes. This exhibit examines the socio-cultural significance, the procedure of scarification, it's roles in medical therapy, and contemporary issues surrounding this cultural practice. 


Lindsie Levinson


1. Meaning Behind the Marks

In African cultures, each social group defines its own rules about scarification. Scars are often specific to the community and based on the ancestors of the tribe. The markings also vary based on gender, age, social ranking, etc. By the time individuals reach adulthood, they will have recieve several sets of scars, each representing a stage of life or specific characteristic. Both men and women subjected themselves to these costly incisions because their societies placed such importance on the display of scar patterns. Scars indicated a person's rank and age in society. In many cultures, a woman's eagerness to bear the pain of scarification is an indication of emotional maturity and willingness to bear children. For men, it is often serves as record of personal accomplishments in war or hunting. 

2. Methodology

Traditional African scarification is a painful, extensive process. Extraordinarily integral to these tribal communities,  the ritual performed by the local the scarmaster determines as childs first scars as well as that will be added throughout their lifetime. The profession of scarmaster is generally passed down from parent to child as they teach them the complexities and dangers of working with blades and human skin. This section focuses on the tools used in the scarification processes as well as the importance of the scarification ritual. 

3. Scarification: Change Over Time

Over time, significant events such as civil war and the introduction of slave trade have played a huge role in the evolution of scarification, changing both its purpose and overall importance. In recent years, much attention has been brought to scarification, questioning its importance and claiming the practice as inhumane. In several regions of Africa, local governments has outlawed or banned on terms of brutality. However, it has been popularized into a form of body art that is offered in tattoo shops around the world.

4. Scarification Images

This final section features the images collection of African body art. 

5. Reference

This section is a list of references used in the composition of this exhibit.