Mark making on skin, like body painting, inking and keloids satisfies diverse needs in Southern Africa.  This practice still underpins rituals, is used for therapy, consolidates identity and defines status. It is used for adornment, is deliberately edgy for sexual attraction, can convey a veiled threat and above all clarifies our humanity.




Clay as body paint is common in Southern Africa for sacred and secular purposes. It connects the user to the spiritual realm and ritual, traditionally symbolizing a multitude of concepts.

This practice is popular amongst the Xhosa of the Eastern Cape:  During puberty and initiation rites, naked boys are painted white indicative of their transitional state and this imparts a liminal, ghostly appearance to the body captured in the many selfies available. On another level clay has an apotropaic function protecting their vulnerability during this time. Likewise, the faces of Xhosa traditional healers are painted with clay during ritual practice for interaction with the ancestors.

In a similar way, boys in Limpopo province are painted red with iron oxide after initiation.

Besides the body, clay spread on hair creates sculptural effects. Red or black oxide daubed on dreadlocks designates the status of initiate traditional healers. Ornamental bonnets made from combining clay, hair and fat transform the heads of Ntwane married women, into classical statements of sophistication.

Today, female musicians like Amanda Black, or fashionistas of Xhosa descent, daub their face with lines of white dots in decorative patterns usually around the brows, mimicking an age old secular practice of adornment.




The earliest document of keloid facial patterns in the Transvaal, was recorded in clay, on the sculptured faces of the Lydenburg heads, dating from the 6th century A.D.  Later in 1840, Albasini documented people from the Lebombo hills area and Origstad as being characterized by facial keloids, known to the boers as knobneusen, for the line of marks running from forehead to the tip of the nose, similar to those depicted on the clay  Lydenburg heads.

Besides South Africa, keloid decoration was common practice in Mozambique and Junod stated that South of the Save river, customs of facial decoration and keloid scars held ancient roots.

Created using fish hooks, ash and castor oil, aggressive keloid designs, were incised on the belly and lower pubis for Chopi women in Southern Mozambique. Termed tinhlanga, patterns were performed after puberty by female artists and believed to make the body beautiful. The belly evolved as an embossed vellum manuscript over time with the designs recording the owner’s history and interests so each body was unique. These symbolic images signified adultery, illness and anti-witchcraft symbols. They also included an array of birds and reptiles from the natural world.




Seamen visiting the Cape from earliest times, imported the art of tattooing.  But inking really gained a grip in the Witwatersrand prisons and mines in the early 1900s, when  members of prison numbers gangs like the 26, 27, 28’s adopted tattoos as an act of defiance against authority, utilizing specific symbols, words and colours to communicate and defend their gang status.

Tattooing is declared illegal inside. But rusty nails incise flesh and pigment is obtained from mixing spit with burnt paper, brick dust, and ground rubber or plastic. The dark blurred results across faces and torsos depict their history and daily struggle to survive. Necessary inside, these marks transmit an underlying threat, repelling viewers and relegating owners to permanent unemployment once outside, unless they undergo surgical removal.  Examples of paroled Cape prisoners are documented in the extraordinary photographic exhibition, Life after, by Araminta de Clermont in 2011, one example below.


Tattooing for therapeutic reasons forms part of spiritual therapy as some traditional healers incise clients with two small lines at relevant intervals on the body, and apotropaic medicine is rubbed into the incision, resulting in a permanent form of body protection.

Until the 1960s, the Makonde of Mozambique, performed finely angled tattoos called dinembo, on the face and body comprising a series of chevrons, lines and diamond shapes made with vegetable carbon. Not only was the finished product acknowledged as a badge of fortitude and courage, but also believed to enhance virility acting as an enticement for sexual encounters.  Dinembo practice, together with triangular filed teeth and labrets, inspired a ferocious appearance that besides promoting group identity, may have arisen initially, as a means to repel the avarice of slave traders operating in Northern Mozambique and Southern Tanzania, intent on filling their ships off the coast.

Dinembo tattoos are also commemorated in another way:  By inscribing or adding beeswax in similar patterns to the wood helmet masks, used during mapiko ceremonies by Makonde people.


Today, contemporary interest in American subculture inspires members of the music industry to cultivate tattoos on local rappers, hip hop artists and those seeking to emulate this life style. DJ Fresh is one example.

Conrad, a professional tattoo artist at durandtink, in Johannesburg states that black and grey shade tattoos are nationally popular and like the prevalence in fine art, figurative images prevail on the bodies canvas. Archangels, Christian iconography or images of local wildlife are favoured and rendered all over the body. Tribal style patterns are sometimes used to cover up previous tattoos.

Large hollow ear plugs as a lifestyle and fashion statement are increasingly popular, stretching the  ears skin and reminiscent of an existing but different tradition widespread amongst the Zulu people in the mid 20th century. Those interested in Zulu ear plugs can check out the post on August 27 2015.




Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher in African ceremonies 1999 and African Ark people and ancient cultures 1990, portray the extraordinary effects of body painting by folk across the continent.

In The Nuba of Kau,  Riefenstal. Leni, documents the Nuba  of Sudan applying clay to their skin and creating organic patterns with the fingertips transforming the body into a canvas, as a prelude to courting rituals.

Lars Krutak anthropologist, in The tattooing arts of tribal women. 2007 and Spiritual skin – magical tattoos and scarification. 2012.




Interview at Durandtink, Norwood with Conrad 2/06/2017.

Exhibition termed: Life after, by Araminta de Clermont in 2011, shows selection of paroled prisoners.

Schneider, Betty. 1973.  Body decoration in Mozambique. African Arts magazine, 6 (2) pg 26 – 31.