The New Times (Kigali)

Rwanda: Body Art - Self-Expression or Self-Mutilation?

Body art (tattoos and piercings) is said to be as old as civilisation, if not older. In 1991, a frozen body with numerous tattoos and pierced ear lobes was discovered at a mountain slope at the border of Italy and Austria, archeologists dated it back to 5000 years ago indicating the age of the practices.

In the ancient times, both tattoos and body piercings were practiced by Egyptians and Japanese with various explanations before the rest of the world caught up with it. A closer observer would notice that Rwandans have not been left out in permanently inking their bodies or piercing various body parts like earlobes, belly buttons, noses eyelids and even tongues!

All over the world, body art has been used for religious, transitional, graphical, ornamental and expressional purposes and also put on various body parts. The society in turn reacts differently to people who adorn their bodies.

The tattoo lover:

27-year-old Angie Mukaruliza*, a marketing official at a local bank, doesn't fold the sleeves of her blouses or wear short sleeves to work no matter how hot it gets. She is hiding something - a few tattoos.

She has one on her left wrist; a phrase that she says helped her get through difficult moments. On her right bicep, sits another one of a flower and a date below it, a day she says something special was taken from her. You can also see another one on her back when she bends.

"Tattoos for me are a form of expression and also represent my individuality. Before having any ink on my body, I have always thought hard about it because I know it is permanent," Angie narrates.

Not everyone appreciates her need to express herself or prove her individuality; she says that some of her relatives and friends of her family have accused her of being demonic and not fit to be anyone's wife. Others say she is too western probably because she went out of the country for her degree. "Rwanda is a very conservative country, and people are quick to form an opinion of people with any form of body art. We (people with tattoos) are seen as less responsible and not well disciplined. I was once asked by an usher in church to cover myself in a shawl because my tattoos were distracting worshippers. I rarely wear my nose ring," she says.

She adds that she hides them because one day she wants to head the marketing department and doesn't want to ruin her chances by not looking responsible enough. "Exposing my ink may cause the Human Resource Department and my superiors to have an opinion of me that may lower my chances. I do not regret having tattoos though," Angie points out.

The artist:

Julius Mugisha a famous tattoo artist based in Nyamirambo explained that people get tattoos for various reasons. "Most of my clients want a tattoo because it means something to them. Others want one because they think it will look good on them or because they saw it on someone else. I always remind them that it is not temporary and they should be sure they want to have it," Julius says.

When it gets a little extreme:

When it comes to piercing, it is no longer an ear thing. A good number of Rwandese women and girls have taken a liking to piercing odd parts of the body like the eyebrow, tongue and even lips. Sandra* is only 17 years old. But you get chills just by looking at her. She has a nose ring that goes through the nasal septum of her nose, like a bull. She has a shiny little ring right above her left eyebrow and another one on the left side of her upper lip. But that is not all. When she speaks, you can see her silver tongue ring. "I'm obsessed with piercings," she says. "I study in Los Angeles and no one really cares about piercings at my school."

When asked about what her parents have to say about her obsession she smiles and says, "They are not that happy about it but then again, it's my body. There is not much they can do about that. They should be glad I'm not into tattoos too." She then lifts her vest to show off a dangling heart belly ring.

What does religion say?

On this issue, the stand of most religions is the same. "Islam does not allow self-mutilation; it is against the will of Allah to permanently mark your body. His work was a masterpiece and shouldn't be altered. Earrings are for ladies not men," Mzee Ibrahim, an Islamic Religion facilitator at a Mosque in Kayciru says.

Pastor Tunde Taiwo of Redeemed Christian Church of God has Bible verses to show anyone thinking of getting a tattoo; Leviticus 19:28. Pastor Tunde adds that not even tattoos of crosses or bible verses should be put. "Faith is not by the marks you put on your body but by one's heart and actions. After all your body is a temple, why should you subject it to such mistreatment?" He also adds that responsible men do not don studs in their ears.

People are beyond what is on the surface:

Donatha Mbabazi, a 21 year old first year student at UNILAK who is yet to pierce any body part, thinks people should have the freedom to express themselves any way they please. "Tattoos and piercings are by choice and people should not be judged because of them as long as they are within reason - not overdone. I wouldn't mind going out with a person with any of the mentioned forms of body art, though it would be a task convincing my family that people are beyond what is on the surface."

You can't please everybody - Oliver Serugaba:

Soon to be 26 years old in September, Oliver Serugaba, a graphic designer, dons a silver stud in his left ear, has a tattoo of a cross - the size of an adult fist - above his left breast and another one on the left side of his neck that is clearly visible when he is in a t-shirt. He has no apologies or regrets for the piercing or the tattoos.

"You cannot always please everybody, at times you have to go ahead and do whatever makes you happy. At times you may be victimised for your choices." Oliver says he has noted that that some people treat him coldly or watch their wallets closely when he is around because of the visible mark on his body but he still doesn't regret his choices. He also has a Bible verse for anyone against piercings, Exodus 32:2, where Aaron asked the Israelites to remove the gold on the ears of their sons and daughters to melt them.

Think it through - Cynthia Umurungi:

Cynthia Umurungi, also known as Ginty, a famous radio presenter at KFM and also the Secretary of the National Youth Committee says she doesn't think anyone should be judged by their appearance or body art. "However intelligent and civilised, people should know the limits of what they do. Before piercing or tattooing your body, think it through, remember that one day you will have kids and they may want to know why you have certain marks on your body. Will your explanation be good enough?" Cynthia asks.

Cynthia who says she would get a tattoo, cautions people not to be in a rush to mark their bodies if they haven't thought it through well enough.

Research shows that a frighteningly growing number of teens and young adults around the world are injecting dangerous chemicals under their skin in the name of art and self-expression. A trend that started growing in America and Europe in the early '90s, tattooing soon became so popular that 36% of Americans aged 25-29 had at least one body tattoo by 2003.

The numbers have undoubtedly risen in the 10 years since; tattoos are now well-entrenched in the mainstream.

What's formaldehyde and antifreeze doing in your skin?

A far cry from their tribal predecessors made with dyes from the natural environment, many of today's tattoos contain an unknown conglomeration of metallic salts (oxides, sulphides, selenides), organic dyes or plastics suspended in a carrier solution for consistency of application.

In the European Commission's report on the health risks of tattooing, they note that close to 40% of organic colorants used in permanent tattoos in Europe are not even approved for use on the skin as a cosmetic ingredient and just under 20% of the colorants studied contained a carcinogenic aromatic amine.

Many of the chemicals found were originally intended for use in writing and printer inks, as well as automobile paints. These inks are injected deep enough into the skin that often tattoos will not even be destroyed by severe burns.

In America, the FDA regulates some of the ingredients in cosmetics worn on the skin, and vitamins, drugs and food additives ingested into the body, but it does not regulate these toxic inks we put under our skin.

Their official stance: "Because of other public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety concerns, FDA has not traditionally regulated tattoo inks or the pigments used in them.

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