These days, the practice of getting tattoos is more of a fashion statement than anything else. However, in olden times, the art of tattooing was employed for distinguishing between members of different tribes. Tattoos even helped in identification of the status of members of a tribe. African tattoo designs also served this purpose. Even within a tribe, each hierarchical strata was easily recognizable by the tattoos that were inked on their bodies.
Also, some of the tattoos were considered to be protective measures against harmful spirits and apparitions. In the era before Christ, especially in Egypt, tattoos were an important part of the culture and traditions. There's no dearth of designs, and you can get a beautiful design inked on your body to look fashionable. Also, the objective of getting such a tattoo would express one's desire to respect the heritage and history.
The first evidence of these designs that has been discovered leads us to the mummies of ancient Egypt. These mummies were regularly inked with tattoos as a symbol of their family's history, or to signify the achievements of that person in his life. Some designs were also believed to offer protection to the mummified person in the afterlife. The oldest tattoo was found on the body of Amunet, who was a priestess of the Goddess Hathor from 2160 to 1994 BC. The most common designs were parallel lines and intrinsic elliptical patterns on the arms, legs, and the navel.
Women too had tattoos that signified fertility and rejuvenation in the lives of these women. Male bodies with tattoos were discovered in Libya, and the designs signified worship and offerings to various deities, especially the Sun.
Some designs were also meant to distinguish warriors from other men, and the most commonly seen tattoos signifying this were those of Neith, a Goddess who supposedly led men into battle. This was popular around 1300 BC, and subsequently became more widespread. Another important aspect was a process known as 'Cicatrisation'. This method was popular amongst extremely dark-skinned African tribes, who used this ornamentation method to conceal the original color of their skin. The method involved cutting the skin open, and rubbing some ash on the wound so as to leave a permanently raised and designed pattern on the body. The term is derived from the French word 'Cicatrices', which means 'scar'.
African Tattoos in Contemporary Times
If you are planning to get an African tattoo inked, all you need to do is surf the Internet. You can find numerous such designs. Even people who have absolutely nothing to do with African heritage and civilization can get these designs inked. Some of these designs look similar to common tribal tattoos, whereas some are depictions of deity worship. African culture is still shrouded in a lot of mystery. Even if you are unable to determine the accurate meanings of these symbols, you can ascribe a meaning yourself. After all, it is your perspective, or your motivation behind getting that symbol inked that matters the most. Many of the popular designs signify courage and bravery.
If you are opting for tattoos that are pertinent to, or are derived from certain cultures, then you should learn about the meaning of the design, rather than blindly getting the design inked, just because it looks good.