Tribal marks: Art caught between tradition and modernity

Whether it’s two lines drawn vertically on each cheek, or a series of lines, sometimes numbering seven or more for each cheek, tribal marks for indigenes of the South-West serve various purposes, including, identification, beautification, and protection. For those so marked, they hold by those lines a rich heritage of history and sometimes, are an illustration with mysterious implications. Kehinde Oyetimi examines the intricacies surrounding the seemingly fading age-long tradition of the Yoruba tribal marks practice.


Tita riro la’n ko’la;

T’oba jina tan, adi oge

(The process of having tribal marks can be a gruesome, dreaded experience; but when it heals, it becomes beautiful)


Gombo, Abaja, Pele, Owu, Jamgbadi, Mande, Bamu, Ture, among others, constitute the various kinds of tribal marks existing for indigenes of the South-West. Tribal marks, popularly known as ila in Yoruba language is a part of Yoruba culture. Dating back to over 200 years ago, the practice of marking people according to tribe has its worth in the rich history and tradition of the Yorubas.

Some early accounts hold that tribal marks became popular after Sango’s wife asked that an adulterous slave be beaten and given scars on her face, especially because she was beautiful. However, according to the account, the scars only made the slave more beautiful and as such, tribal marks became popular. Another account states that tribal marks became popular during the slave trade as means of identification of people from various tribes.

Tribal marks vary according to ethnicity. According to enroute.ng, there are various kinds of tribal marks according to area.



The Ogbomosos people in Oyo  state have a quite interesting pattern. It usually comes with six lines from the middle of the head to the jaw on both sides and one across from under the jaw bone, another one right across the nose ridge. It consists of multiple straight and curved lines about a half of an inch apart inscribed on the cheeks on both sides of the mouth.


People from Ibadan have four or three horizontal lines on both cheeks straight to the boundaries of the ears, often thicker than that of Ogbomoso’s. Abaja can be both basic and also complex in style. In its basic form, it is either three or four horizontal stripes on the cheeks. This tribal mark is unique to the indigenes of Oyo, Nigeria.



The Pele style is three longitudinal lines, inscribed on the cheeks. Pele have different variants. The variants include: Pele Ife, a three longitudinal line inscribed on the cheek. It is peculiar to the Ile Ife people. Pele Ijebu and Pele Ijesha are other variants of Pele. Both variants are similar to the Pele Ife, but shorter.



Owu tribal marks consist of six incisions on each side of the cheeks and peculiar to the indigenes of Owu, a historical city in Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State, Nigeria.

Other Yoruba tribal marks include Ture, Mande, Bamu and Jamgbadi.


My tribal marks are my identity –Obasanjo

“Not many people know that I have three identity cards. The first is the international passport; the second is the national identity card and the third is my tribal marks.”

The above were the reported words of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, in November 2014, as he collected his electronic national identity card from the National Identity Card Commission (NIMC). The former president has six lines on each side of his cheeks, marks peculiar to Owu indigenes of the Ogun State capital, Abeokuta.

tribal-marksLike Obasanjo, facial stripes for many indigenes of the South-West play the primary role of identification. They are one of the easiest means to tell a person’s tribe or origin. Some traditionalists have suggested that tribal marks helped to prevent wars, narrow down identification of criminals. Beyond the identification, tribal marks can sometimes have spiritual undertones.

Getting a tribal mark according to people that have gone under the blade is a very  painful experience and the wound if not well taken care of, can get infected and lead to serious health conditions.

They added that one cannot determine how soon the sound heals as it depends on how deep it is, the hygiene level of the individual and skin condition of the person involved.


My marks forewarn me of danger –Adeyeye, businessman

Mr Eniola Adeyeye, a businessman, in an interaction with Nigerian Tribune, noted that his markings were for protection. According to him, “interestingly, in our lineage, we have more sons. In fact, for some of my relatives, we usually had only sons. If any of us had a girl, then we had to be doubly sure that such a child was our blood and there were ways we found out. According to what I was told, many members of the family were usually conscripted into war and the facial markings were to protect us. Even as civilisation took over and many of us moved into urban areas, we still carried on the tradition of facial markings. Beyond the identification as members of the Adeyeye generation, they served to ward off evil spirits. That’s why you see that the markings point towards the centre of the head. Sometimes, if I want to embark on a certain trip, and such would not be successful, my marks have a way of forewarning me; whether through dreams or a certain itch.”

When asked if there were consequences for flouting the marks, Adeyeye simply laughed and said, “with what I’ve seen of those who claimed to be too civilised for the marks, I would rather play safe. I know it could be coincidence that these bad things happened to these people, and I won’t say I haven’t experienced downturn at some point in my life. However, since the marks do not bother me, I will gladly pass them on to my great great grandchildren.”


Between ancient tradition and modernity

Through the years, civilisation gradually encroached on culture and consequently, tribal marks seem to have fallen out of fashion and has become a thing of the past among many.

But some have argued that the culture has not waned like many believe, as no matter the level of civilisation, it is the tradition in some families and a must that some of their children have the identification of the family. According to Nigerian Tribune findings, there are still many communities, even in this age, in which tribal marks are not an option.

To them, the shame and insults passed by peers on their children will not stop them from following tradition as they believe that there are weightier issues to tradition than avoiding shame as many do not even believe that traditional marks are things to be ashamed of.

Speaking to Nigerian Tribune, 35-year-old Toyin Olugbemi from Ogbomoso, Oyo State, stated that in her family, every first child, irrespective of the sex, is compulsorily given tribal marks though she doesn’t know if there will be a fallout if anyone flouts the tradition.

“In my family, every first child gets the tribal mark; I was given this mark because I am the first child of my parents. I know in some families, only the first son gets it but for us, whether you are male or female, you get the tribal mark once you are your parents’ first child.

“I don’t know if there is a repercussion for flouting the tradition or what will happen to anyone that refuses, but I know there is compliance among the people at home. There’s a family member saddled with this responsibility. She is also the one that circumcises the male children in the family and she does it for outsiders too,” she said.


‘Whoever wants to get rid of them doesn’t deserve the good they bring’

Scar removal creams, use of makeup, mini surgery, skin laser treatment, and even bleaching creams are various means that have been suggested to get rid of tribal marks. However, for Dr Ayo Ogunleye, a lecturer, removal of tribal marks as a result of shame has its root in a person’s complex.

“The problem with us is that we are in too much hurry to copy the West and as such, discard our own. I have tribal marks, and I can tell you that it has brought me more good than shame. When I travel out for academic conferences, foreigners are sometimes fascinated by them. It stands me out from the crowd and there’s nothing more fulfilling than having a unique identity.”

Even with the argument that tribal marks are gradually fading off, considering the signifier of the rich cultural heritage they represent, and the fact that the population of those who have gradually shed the practice does not in any significant way outweigh those who still swear by tribal marks, ila and the various meanings they hold, especially for natives of the South-West, will stick around for decades to come.


‘Despite civilization, we still do tribal mark for patrons’

Alhaji Asiru Alagbe, 87, was born into the family of those who dress human cheeks with tribal marks. He has spent his last 70 years in the trade. In this interview by TUNDE BUSARI in his family compound in Iwo, Osun State, he shares his experience. Excerpts:

Pa Alagbe
Pa Alagbe

For how long have you been in the art of carving marks on peoples’ cheeks?

Let me say it is our heritage. It is inheritance. The whole town knows that there is no other compound where circumcision is done except here. It is the job of my forefathers which is passed on to different generations. I met my father doing it and I took over from them. Our panegyric is derived from the trade.


What is the importance of tribal marks?

It is so important in that it reveals the identity of the bearer. Tribal marks distinguish one person from another. It tells which family or town you come from because different towns have their peculiar marks. If you see an Ogbomoso man or woman, the marks on his or her cheeks confirm this. Same goes to somebody from Owu and other towns. It is a means of identification which is well recognised across Yorubaland.


Aside from identification value, what other purpose does it serve?

It adds to the beauty of the bearer. Even if your family is not carrying mark because of beauty you would want to come to us to have it.


Is that claim still valid today?

Unfortunately, things are changing. People don’t want to have marks again.


What do you think is responsible for this change?

It is essentially the influence of Western civilisation. And it is unfortunate because of the fact that we are unable to hold on to what belongs to us. I am not saying Western civilisation is not good but we should not allow it to erode our own. The influence is not on our tribal marks alone, it affects our other ways of life.


Does it mean you no longer have patronage?

It has not got to that level. I am only saying that it has reduced. Even few hours before you arrived, I performed one on a baby. We still have some families who cannot compromise it for any foreign influence.


You just called out one of your children whom I observed has no mark. Can you defend this sir?

It is true but my older children of 40 years and above have marks. I was persuaded to leave the younger ones when my brother returned from abroad and told us the new trend in the world. He did not force us but appealed that we should not be left behind in the modern world.


You said the trade is hereditary, does that mean you don’t train outsiders?

We don’t train outsiders. You made me to recall one Nupe man who came to train. He was so serious that he was ready to do anything to be trained. Because we don’t do it, I turned down his request. I could not go against the tradition.


How did a Nupe man get to know you?

I travel to as far as Niger State to do the job. From Mokwa to Bida, they know me. I no longer go but one of my children still goes till date.


Is there a peculiar thing about tribal marks?

There is no other thing apart from the fact that those of us in the vocation don’t tell lies. It is forbidden we tell lies. Go and find out. We have our extended family across Yorubaland. We are respected for always telling the truth.


Can you tell me more about your family which only occupation is making tribal marks and circumcision?

We are not known for any other job. In fact, in 1945, I was an apprentice of some Baptist Church white officials who taught me carpentry. I was with them till 1949 after which I returned to making tribal marks.


Are female members of your family into it?

They are not because it is not a job for them.