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History of Amazigh tattooing

Blog post by Tamazgha History that could also be found on Taszuri creations (in French).

Woman and man from Beni Mellal, Morocco, 1930 (from Ajdad Al Arab website).

Amazigh tattooing: an ancient practice

Tattooing is a sacred ancient practice for many cultures around the world adopted as a form of identity, communication, or protection against bad luck, etc. Among the Amazighs (Berbers), native people of North Africa, this practice is found under the name ticraḍ. It was preserved and transmitted since time immemorial, but it has been on an ongoing decline since the last century. In this article, we will focus on exposing a concise history of the Amazigh tattooing, and how it has survived to modern times.

The origin of the Amazigh tattooing is unclear, but it could have originated in the oldest evidence of the African rock art dating back to the Neolithic period, and more precisely, from the Capsian period (ca. 7500 – 4000 BC) found in North Africa, as mentioned by the prehistorian and expert on the Amazigh history, Gabriel Camps. This Neolithic art, characterized by archaic geometrical patterns, would very probably have inspired the tattooing, but also the weaving pattern of the Amazigh tapestry, as well as the painting patterns on pottery and walls (see below patterns of prehistoric and antique North African pottery). We can notice on some North African rock art, as the Tassili n’Ajjer’s ones for instance, characters with body marks, but it is difficult to say whether they are tattoos or just paint.

Ancient Neolithic ceramics with incised decoration from the Eastern Rif and the Algerian Tell (after J. Daugas et al., 2008, fig. 9).
Ceramics from the early phase of the Cardial Neolithic of the Tingitane Peninsula (Lusitano-Moroccan group): El Khil, the Idoles and Oued Tahadart (after El Idrissi 2011) (after A. Ballouche, 2012, fig. 4).

The first remains of Amazigh tattooing in ancient Egypt

The earliest representations of the history of Amazigh tattooing were found in the Egyptian art of the Antique period. As a matter of fact, several remnants of ancient Egypt, dating back to a thousand year BC, show ancient Libyans with heavily tattooed arms and legs (« Libyan » is the name given by the Greeks, the Egyptian and some Latin scholars to the ancestors of the Amazigh people during Antiquity). It should be known that in Egyptian art, Libyan women are not much present and do not have tattoos, but we cannot definitely affirm that this little evidence is enough to say that the Amazigh women of Antiquity did not have tattoos at all. Libyan men, on the other hand, are not all depicted with tattoos; which led some historians, like Oric Bates, to believe that this was perhaps an exclusive practice to chiefs or high-ranking men. Another form of body art is mentioned by Herodotus, an ancient Greek writer (ca. 484 – 425 BC), who claims that two Libyan tribes, the Maxyans and the Gyzantes, smeared their body with red ochre. Regarding the tattooing methods used during this period, no evidence were found.

Faience of a Libyan prisoner, Medinet Habu Temple of Ramesses III (13th – 12th century BC). Antiquities Service Excavations of 1910. JE 36457 D, A Cairo Antiquity Museum.
Libyans chieftain, representation of the Book of Gates, tomb KV17, room No. 5 of Seti I (13th century BC), Valley of the Kings, Theban Necropolis (Luxor), Egypt by Theban Mapping Project.
A Libyan prisoner under Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye’s thrones (14th century BC), found in Egypt, tomb TT 120 of Anen his chancelier. Replica of Nina de Garis Davies, tempera on paper, at Qurna for the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1931.
Numidian vases, 2nd and 3rd centuries BC found in the ancient Roman city of Tiddis (in Constantine, Algeria): checkerboard-like triangles of plowed land with solar, plants and fertility symbols.

From ancient Egypt to the 19th century: a practice shared orally

The Amazighs, belonging to an oral culture, did not leave any writings about the practice of tattooing during or after Antiquity. In addition to the representations of ancient Egypt which provide valuable historical evidence, we had to wait for the anthropological studies carried out during the European colonization of North Africa, during the 19th and 20th centuries AD, in order to find out more about this topic. These anthropological studies, as well as the oral tradition, show that tattooing is part of what we could call « medicinal-magico-religious » rites which are still practiced among isolated Amazigh populations where Islam partially merged with the pagan beliefs, because tattooing is in decline since the last century due to the dogmas of Islam which strongly condemn any form of body mutilation. As a matter of fact, as mentioned by Germaine Laoust-Chantreaux, « When a woman dies, we cover her tattoos with henna ́ so that the angel of death does not see them, otherwise he would tear them off (they say) with the « claws of hell ». (Laoust-Chantreaux, 1994)

Why and how were the Amazighs tattooed?

The practice of tattooing, ticraḍ, is linked to various purposes, such as to indicate a social status, to express a feeling, for prophylactic reasons, to protect from the evil eye, or for ornamental purposes, etc. It is a form of scarification of the body that involves superficially poking or cutting the skin according to the desired pattern. These patterns, inspired by nature or everyday objects for example, are usually performed using a needle point or a cladode thorn of a Barbary fig cactus burned for picketing.
When it comes to incision, a sharp scalpel or razor knife is used in this case, but incision is usually uncommon on the face. For the patterns to appear, the next step would be to rub the skin with a mixture of antimony (khol or tazult), or lightly wet carbon black (soot). The last step will strengthen the color blue / green of the patterns, and to do so, one needs to apply a paste (tizegzawt) made from a macerate of « bean leaves, sprouted wheat grains or black nightshade [tucanine]. […] This paste is applied by very well rubbing the not yet healed skin, several times a week. After a month, the woman burns blue or black fabric if she wants a darker result. She mixes the ashes with a little bit of oil and smears the drawings with it. When it is dry, the tattoos are then permanent « . (L. Brousse, 2012)
At the beginning of the last century, Jules Bouquet testifies of the existence of tattoo artists (ouachchâm) in Tunisia who “were earning a good living and whose reputation extended over an entire region” (J. Bouquet, 1936), but this practice does not exist anymore.

The symbols used for tattooing and their meanings vary from region to region, and they can be performed on any part of the body. Women and men are part of this traditional rite depending on the tribes, which, therefore, remains more present and ornamental among women. However, during the antique period, men tattoos were very decorated as shown by Egyptian representations.

Face tattoo (Tunisia) (after M. A. Haddadou, 2000).

Amazigh tattoos: the rise of the temporary tattooing

For many years now, and especially because of the religious taboo, temporary tattoos such as henna, harqus, and body pencil drawing have been increasingly used, since they are excellent alternatives to traditional permanent tattooing by scarification or modern ink tattoo. Note, however, that the use of henna predates Islam. Ink tattooing, meanwhile, grew in popularity during this last decade among young Maghreb people with the influence of globalization and social networks. In addition to the modern aspect of black ink, we can see that tattoo artists and / or the client choose without distinction traditional tattoo symbols or craft symbols (pottery, tapestry) that they place on the desired body part, and not where the pattern should traditionally be.

In conclusion, the Amazigh tattoo is undoubtedly an art that defies time! The fact that it has survived at least two millennia shows how very conservative folklore is, despite what one might think, but until when? This practice « lives a risk of disappearance with the elderly women who are still branded by it, as shown by the photos of grandmothers ». (L. Brousse, 2012) The reasons for this decline are diverse, between religion and influence of globalization, but the Amazigh tattooing has been able to adapt to modern temporary and ink tattoo trends that coincide with the awakening and the identity struggle led by the Amazigh youth for the recognition and preservation of their language and their culture. The survival of this tradition, and of the Amazigh heritage, now rest on the hope carried by future generations.

Modern Amazigh ink tattoo by tattoo artist @Adasiya_Kahina

Parenthesis: tattoos and cultural appropriation

A new modern topic is currently highly interested in Amazigh tattooing, and this topic is « cultural appropriation« . Some foreign tattoo artists (not all of course) discover the sacred and ancient Amazigh symbols on social media or during a trip to Moroccofor example, and decide to use them in their art without any mention of their origin. The reason? Personal gain and profit. Does that remind you of plagiarism? This is a deep disrespect to the Amazigh culture and our ancestors who have preserved our traditions over the centuries. Cultural appropriation, not to be confused with cultural appreciation, is a phenomenon that harms and threatens the integrity of a culture (especially oppressed cultures) that struggles to preserve its heritage and identity.


Bates, Oric, “The Eastern Libyans, An Essay”, MacMillan and Co. Limited St. Martin’s Street, London 1914.

Ballouche, Aziz, et al., « Néolithisation et néolithique ancien du Maroc », Encyclopédie berbère, 34 | 2012, 5499-5512.

Bouquet, J., « Tatouages décoratifs tunisiens », In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 24e année, n°93, 1936.

Brousse, Lucienne, et Ocre, Eliane, « Beauté et identité feminine: lewcam, les tatouages féminins berbères, régions de Biskra et de Touggourt », Dar Khettab, Alger, 2012.

Camps, Gabriel, « Avertissement », Encyclopédie berbère, 1 | 1984, 6–48.

Camps, Gabriel « Aux origines de la Berbérie, Monuments et rites funéraires protohistoriques », Arts et métiers graphiques, Paris, 1961, 628 p.

Camps, Gabriel, « Les berbères. Mémoire et identié. », Actes Sud, 2007.

Daugas, J., et al., « Le Néolithique ancien au Maroc septentrional: données documentaires, sériation typochronologique et hypothèses génétiques», In: Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, tome 105, n°4, 2008.

Denoun, Nadia & Yefsah, Salima, « Symbolique et imaginaire du tatouage chez la femme kabyle », Memoire de fin de cycle, 2014/2015.

Haddadou, Mohand Akli, « Guide de la culture berbère », Paris Mediterra, 2000.

Herodotus, “The Histories”, from the 1890 Macmillan edition, text placed on line by Project Gutenberg, ca. 430 BC, § 4.191, 4.194 (trans. by A. D. Godley, 1920).

Laoust-Chantréaux, Germaine, « Feuillets kabyles (Ait Hichem, 1937-1939) », dans Études et Documents Berbères, 12, 1994: pp. 157.

Mesouani, Hannah, « Inked Bodies, Blank Pages; A Study Of Amazigh Tattooing » (2019). Theses and Dissertations. 1096.

Moreau, Jean-Bernard, « Les grands symboles méditerranéens dans la poterie algérienne », Société nationale d’édition et de diffusion, 1976, 191 p.

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