When I saw King Tchalla’s brother pull his lip down to reveal his glowing blue, vibranium-powered Wakandan tattoo, the body modification evoked for me the palpable rush of ancestral memories and spiritual longing for a Black utopia, an uncolonized land and body that Black American spirituals have envisioned (what scholars call sonic utopias.)
The lip tattoo is a brilliant bit of worldbuilding. The Wakandan diaspora is, at this point in the movie, a sort of secret society. Having a glowing tattoo shows that the mark is genuine (one presumes it could only be produced with vibranium and therefore not easily forged). Placing it inside the lip means it is ordinarily concealed, and, because of the natural interface of the body, it is easy to reveal. Lastly, it must be a painful spot to tattoo, so shows by way of inference how badass the Wakandan culture is. But it’s more than good worldbuilding to me.
The Black Panther film tattoo electrifies my imagination because it combines both chemical augmentation and amplifies the African identity of being a Wakandan in this story. I think the film could have had even more backstory around the tattoo as a right of passage and development of it in the film. Is it embedded at birth? Or is there a coming of age ceremony associated with it? It would have been cool to see the lip tattoo as a smart tattoo with powers to communicate with other devices and even as a communication device to speak or subvocalize thoughts and desires.
How can we imagine the Wakandan tattoo for the future? I co-designed Afro-Rithms From The Future, an imagination game for creating a dynamic, engaging, and safe space for a community to imagine possible worlds using ordinary objects as inspirations to rethink existing organizational, institutional, and societal relationships. In our launch of the game at the Afrofutures Festival last year at the foresight consultancy Institute For The Future, the winner by declaration was Reina Robinson, a woman who imagined a tattoo that represented one’s history and could be scanned to receive reparation funds to redress and heal the trauma of slavery.
Doreen Garner is a tattoo artist in Brooklyn who acknowledges that tattooing is “a violent act,” but reframes it in her work as an act of healing. She guides her client-patients through this process. Garner began the Black Panther Tattoo Project in January 2019 on MLK Day. She views the Black Panther tattoo as reclaiming pride as solidarity through a shared image. It represents Black pride and “unapologetic energy that we all need to be expressing right now.” Tattooing is a meditative exercise for her as she makes “a lot of the same marks,” and fills in the same spaces for her Black Panther Tattoo project clientele. When folx are at a concert, party, or panel—and recognize their shared image—they can link up to share their experiences.
What if this were a smart tattoo where you could hear the tattoo as sound? Right now, the tech outfit Skin Motion can make your tattoo hearable “by pointing the camera on a mobile device at the tattoo,” where you’ll be able to hear the tattoo playback an audio recording.
Garner, speaking as a Black female tattoo artist, exhorts future artists, “don’t be held back” by thinking that it is a white, male-dominated profession. “White people did not invent tattooing as a practice, because it belongs to us.” They are not the masters. There are many masters of tattooing across cultures.
The Wakandan tattoo as an ancestral marker reflects a centuries-old tradition in African culture. In Black Panther we see the tattoo as a bold, embedded pillar of Wakandan unity, powerfully inviting us to imagine how tattoos may evolve in the future.
Black Futures Matter
Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support Black lives. For this post, support the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM): Sign up for their updates. The organization sends email notifications about special launches, network actions, programs, and partnerships. Being connected to the network is one way to stay unified and support BSAM work. Look out for the launch of the California BSAM regional hub network soon. Listen to the Afrofuturist Podcast with host Ahmed Best as well where Black Futures Matter.
Upcoming BSAM event
On Aug. 17, join BSAM’s Look For Us in the Whirlwind event as it celebrates the Pan-African legacy of Marcus Garvey.
A Virtual Global Gathering of Afrofuturists and Pan-Afrikanists
This event is a global Pan-African virtual gathering to honour Marcus M. Garvey Jr.’s legacy. It will feature a keynote from Dr. Julius W. Garvey, the youngest son of Marcus and Amy Jacques Garvey.