Morocco’s Berber Tradition of Facial & Body Tattoos, Past & Present
Berber women in Morocco are adorned with facial tattoos long part of an ancient tradition that dates back to pre-Islamic times. Historically the Amazigh, “free people,” used facial tattoos to convey their social or marital status. The placement of facial tattoos also symbolized the purpose of each tribe, the history of their land, and their familial ties. Usually, the first facial tattoo was called the siyala and placed on the chin for fertility; other tattoos were added as a milestone to mark the onset of puberty or protect from disease and death. Later in life, a facial tattoo might evolve – if a woman was widowed for example, she might wear a tattoo from one ear to another to symbolize a beard for her husband. There is a lot of symbolism in Morocco’s facial tattooing art. The siyala, for example, is a palm tree drawn in a straight line surrounded by dots representing seeds. This tattoo reflects the Carpathian goddess Tanit, the symbol of fertility, war, and lunar goddess to the Amazigh people. Other notable symbols are animals which represent female sexuality; diamond shapes such as the eye or flower which offer protection from evil spirits.
The practice of facial tattoos began to decrease with the occupation of the French at the beginning of the twentieth century. Some rebellious women continued to use tattoos to show their independence, freedom, and inspire Moroccan men to work harder. Travelers who some of Morocco’s most intimate and remote Berber villages will have the opportunity to discover and engage with Amazigh women who still carry on the facial tattooing tradition. A tattoo artist also known as a tattoo mistress would add her unique signature and special designs customized for the village and tribe. Historically, ink is prepared by saturating fava beans, sharp needles, incense, black coal, and aromatic herbs together. The modern generation in Morocco has opted for henna art instead of tattoos; both art forms can be seen worn on the hands, feet, and the face.