“I found makeup to accentuate previously buried features, new clothes so I could shed the old skin of my teenage self, and a tattoo to act as my rite of passage.”Tweet
I got my first tattoo a few months before my twentieth birthday.
Before I had ever stepped into the tattoo parlor, images of a dirty, poorly lit den of vice filled my mind. When I was eleven or twelve, I learned that the personalities of people could be summarized from their outward appearance. An older woman in a faded print wrapper tied above a blouse and polyester skirt was probably a widow. If she carried a bible with faded lettering — she was more than likely a pious widow. A young man with dreadlocks and long fingernails like a movie vampire was an Indian hemp smoker, one who enough investigation would reveal to be a source of family shame. And a woman whose waist swayed with the sound of waist beads, wore makeup and had any tattoos was always a prostitute. A sentiment that was part of my society’s core and often repeated among family members and school teachers was that no decent person sought attention in such a vulgar fashion.
I grew older and kept to my secret method of categorization until a year before I graduated secondary school. At seventeen, I was safely past the acne-filled stage of adolescence but not yet introduced to the world of young adulthood. Social media sites like YouTube and Instagram became my personal holy land where I travelled to learn about the world. I chatted to strangers, watched videos about how to read tarot cards and discovered the lives of people who were as foreign as aliens to me.
By the time I had graduated secondary school, the blissful ignorance that was my sheltered childhood had been broken. I was going away from the well-ordered world where conversations about sex were taboo and people fell into two categories: good or evil.
Like most things I knew, I took my research of tattoos to the internet. I spent months deliberating on what kind of design I would want, how much pain I would experience and if I was at risk of losing my arm because I trusted it to an unhygienic stranger. My decision to get a tattoo was one that was influenced directly by my decision to become an unrecognizable version of my old self. I found makeup to accentuate previously buried features, new clothes so I could shed the old skin of my teenage self, and a tattoo to act as my rite of passage.
When I made my final decision on where I would go for my tattoo, I told no one. I was almost twenty, newly alone in a different city and full of cautious optimism–nothing could stop me. The tattoo parlor was twenty-five minutes away from my university. After my Foundations of Communication class, instead of taking the bus that took students back home, I went in the other direction.
The tattoo artist was six-foot-five, maybe taller, and both ears bore gaping holes he had decorated with silver plugs. I had never seen a Nigerian with ear gauges. People like that existed on TV. I remembered the word for them was rocker. Underneath that thought was my mother’s disapproving voice: that one is a wayward child. No responsible young man looks like that.
I spent fifteen minutes telling the tattoo artist, Victor, what kind of script I liked, where I wanted the tattoo, and if I had any medical conditions that would make getting a tattoo dangerous. Laying on a leather seat in the studio, I wore only my t-shirt and underwear, my pants folded neatly on another chair. I thought about how similar this experience was to a visit to the hospital. The only difference was there was no doctor, and I was paying a strange man to permanently mark me in the name of art.
I thought about the African slaves I had learned about from my father, how they endured months of pain and fear in the belly of alien ships before being spat onto a foreign shore where they were marked with the names of their owners. I remembered stories of the past when young men and women were circumcised before receiving the tribal tattoos that initiated them into adulthood.
My tattoo was my initiation into adulthood. Like the slaves and the young initiates, I would carry around a symbol of who I was through the ink on my skin. I would be a storyteller.
The man’s name was Alani Adenle.
I saw the Jameson “More Than Alte” campaign by accident while watching a YouTube video. The ad showed a man covered in tattoos. He looked confident, well-spoken, and was the reason I decided I would go back for my second tattoo. In my mind, here was a person just like me who had found a medium of self-expression. In the ad he spoke about being shy, how the tattoos became a kind of bridge for his voice. I could relate to that yearning for some medium to tell my stories.
Alani Adenle appeared in the music video for Tems’ “Try Me,” a song that was on every radio station in Abuja and the rest of Nigeria. He was the representation a young, still-uncertain woman like me needed to see so I could be confident in my decision. My first tattoo was a Latin phrase I had memorized from a book: non omnis moriar. I shall not altogether die. The second tattoo was a small bee that sat just under my ribcage, on the left side. The bee was a symbol of hard work and dedication.
Months passed before I was confident enough to talk about my tattoos. I told my best friend about them and she insisted we would be together when I got the next one. This small act of encouragement made me feel less alienated by my decision, and in my mind, I could see a line between my timid childhood and the self-assured adulthood I was stepping into.
H Tattoo and Piercing Studio was a small space that shared a floor with a local church branch.. Somewhere along the line of renting a space, the church goers and tattoo artists had been forced to share a floor, with both parties having a direct view into the world opposite them.
As I sat for my tattoo, the sound of prayers amplified through a small speaker floated through the studio, mixing with the sounds of afrobeats coming from the TV in the studio’s waiting room. The tattoo artist, a man with dreadlocks and GOD tattooed on the back of his right hand explained to me that he was hoping to get a new studio soon. The constant prayer meetings and looks of disapproval his clients were greeted by was a bit uncomfortable for everyone involved. I had a brief flashback to my childhood habit of categorizing strangers based on physical appearance. We were all guilty of making assumptions without ever considering that the people we made assumptions of were affected by our short-sightedness. I was a product of my society with its unflinching and shallow view of the world we lived in. If the people who had shaped my childhood could see me, the whispered consensus would have been “she has gone astray.” I had not in fact gone astray as much as I had given up my childhood prejudice.
I went back for two more tattoos from H Tattoo and Piercing Studio. I had the phrase honey tattooed on my upper left arm in honor of the orisha Osun, who’s favorite food was honey, and a wreath of flowers on my right arm. I had become one of the very people I had spent my childhood misunderstanding: a woman who wore beads and had tattoos.
Leilani Evans is a writer, foreign language film enthusiast and coin collector. She lives in Abuja, is currently a Journalism undergrad and is passionate about telling African stories through a crystal lens.