When Senegal Met My Tattoos

My cousin Brittany was curious to hear what Senegalese people think of my tattoos. I was going to wait and tell her in December when I come home for Christmas (I’ll try to pencil you, but I’m booked solid), but yesterday in the Kaolack market I saw two children staring and pointing at my legs. If you don’t already know, I have two tattoos. I have a small owl on my right ankle (shout out to Allyson!) and a line drawing of a camera on my left leg.

When I first arrived in Senegal, I was very conscientious about hiding my tattoos. When I accepted my invitation to come here, all the paperwork told me to bring conservative clothing that hides any tattoos. I also couldn’t have any bizarre piercings (not a problem because I took out my lip ring years ago). As a result, in my first few weeks, I wore long pants every single day, even though it’s insanely hot here (in AFRICA…I know, crazy right?).

Slowly, as I got familiar with this country and its people, I realized how much more relaxed everything is. Yes, in the north of Senegal (on the Mauritanian border), it’s a lot more strict. Women must wear long skirts that cover their ankles. Luckily, in my neck of the woods (just north of the Gambia), people are super chill. An added bonus is that my area is heavily populated with Sereers. Sereer, like Wolof, is both a language and a group of people. In general, Sereers are Catholic, so normally they’re more chill because their religion is less strict and they can drink alcohol.

Sokone, my town, is 60% Sereer. When I first moved there, I was a good little volunteer and tried to remain respectful of the local people, but as I walked around town, I would see women showing their knees and men wearing shorts. I decided to test the boundaries of my clothing options. I started by wearing shorts around the house. The first few times my family eyed my tattoos and said nothing. The more I wore shorts though, the more they stared. Finally, my host sister Sophie pointed at my camera tattoo and said, “That’s pretty. Do you like to take pictures?” It was something that a lot of Americans ask me. She didn’t yell at me for being disrespectful or make me put pants on. She oohed and aahed and asked if I had any others. It was a normal conversation with absolutely no judgement.

After that, I started walking around town in shorts. People stare, yes, but I figure they are going to stare at the white kid anyways, so I might as well give them something to look at. Adults don’t stare as much, and a lot of them ask me about my tattoos. Kids are crazy though. They stare and point and summon their friends to come and have a look at the toubab with the tats. A lot of the time I find myself being circled by children. They walk around me completely, checking for more body art. I often feel like I’m prey being circled by a shiver of sharks (a SHIVER? Google it). I guess, in a way, I am. If you’re wondering how I feel about the local children, read any of my previous posts. Senegalese children and I have an, um, interesting relationship.

A few weeks ago, I had a long conversation with my host brother about tattoos. He is about 45, and he was really interested in the subject. He asked me how long each tattoo took to get done, how much it cost, and whether or not it hurt. He was shocked at how expensive it was (I told him the prices in West African CFA). I was expecting him to freak out that I spent so much money on frivolous body art. The amount of money I spent on a small owl tattoo could have fed his family for a week. Instead, he told me how much he liked them. Oh, and during this whole conversation, my host brothers were outlining my camera tattoo with their fingers. Perhaps they were trying to see if it would come off.

One reason why I think people are chill about tattoos is because henna is so popular here. Senegalese women love getting henna done on their hands and feet. They do it for baptisms, weddings, and holidays, and a lot of the time they do it just because it’s beautiful. It’s the same thought process in America: people get tattoos for legitimate reasons (like commemorating something or honoring a loved one), but they also do it just to decorate their bodies. Henna is done for the same reasons, only it’s not permanent.

I don’t know why I was so worried in the beginning. I guess I was trying to integrate and be respectful, but most people here don’t care. Perhaps in other African countries it’s a big deal, but Senegal, I have found, is actually a really amazing country with a lot of laid back people. It suits me.

Oh, and one more thing, the lip ring comment was a joke.

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    • Sca-rah
    • September 10th, 2011

    I wonder if it is a generational thing too. Like how does Baba and Na feel about them? For most people in the US older people are fine with it but don’t really understand it as much as younger people because tattoos have become more popular and mainstream. 

    • B
    • September 11th, 2011

    i love that the kids were tracing it while you talked…do they have owls in Senegal?

  1. When I was preparing for my trip my work provided me with a packing list for guidance and there was an emphasis on being conservative. However like you said when we were there people were much more laid back. We stuck out because we were foreign and nothing we did would change being noticed. At the time I didn’t have tattoos but I had a few facial piercings as well as my tongue pierced. No one said anything.

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