The Tattoo Artist Connecting People With Their West African Heritage

Emmanuel Uchenna Item incorporates traditional West African art and writing systems like nsibidi into his designs, connecting the diaspora to their cultural heritage


Body art has always been a way to express our identities, beliefs and experiences. From coded symbols and signal sexual preferences, to the nihilistic attitude of the ignorant tattoo generation and prison tattoos created with a guitar string and an electric fan – tattoos can serve as a permanent reminder of who we are, what we stand for and what we have gone through.

For 28-year-old Emmanuel Uchenna Item and his clients, tattoos are a way to reconnect with their cultural heritage. The Austrian-Nigerian tattoo artist incorporates traditional West African art into his designs to create contemporary abstractions that help the diaspora feel closer to their ancestry. “When I get the opportunity to tattoo African-inspired designs on these people, it feels like my gift to them – giving them something they didn’t know they lacked,” he says.

One of the primary sources of inspiration for Item is nsibidi, an ancient method of writing used in the fourth century by the southeastern people of Nigeria, including the Ejagham, Ibibio, Efik and Igbo people. It is most famous among secret organisations like the Ekpe secret society, and has no western influence nor is it related to any spoken language. Nearly 1,000 symbols make up nsibidi, which may be written on textiles or human skin, and signed in the air as gestures.

After being lost for more than 400 years, this historical writing style has been making a comeback through work like Black Panther, where nsibidi inspired the Wakandan writing style. Artists like Item are also breathing new life into it, drawing inspiration from traditional designs and giving them a modern refresh.

Born and raised in Vienna, now living in Berlin, Item had no contact with his African heritage and felt like some part of himself was missing until he started making regular visits to Nigeria. “Incorporating a part of my cultural heritage into my work means that I am aware and reminded of where I come from every waking and working day,” he says. “It makes me so proud and confident.” Now he is doing the same for his clients, people from the diaspora who want to connect to their heritage through art. He plans to visit major cities with significant Nigerian populations – including Lagos, London, and Paris – to hold tattoo sessions and give people of Nigerian descent top priority.

Did you always want to be a tattoo artist?

Emmanuel Uchenna Item: I’ve always been drawn to anything bright, colourful, different and out of the ordinary. As a child, I was fascinated by punks who would rock coloured hair, wear crazy outfits and top them with black leather jackets. In Vienna, at the time, these were also the kinds of people that had tattoos, and I admired them.

Towards the end of my teen years, I started playing in a metal band and got my first tattoo. I did a lot of drawing on paper during this period, too, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. I felt that my drawings were not relevant and I wanted to create something more meaningful than just a “beautiful drawing on paper”. That became the moment I decided to take up tattoo art.

What motivated your transition into creating African-inspired tattoo designs?

Emmanuel Uchenna Item: After a year of working from the studio in Berlin, I noticed we had no clients or artists come in from Africa. We had people from South America, from Russia and even South Korea come by, but not one person from an African country. And this would happen when I travelled to other places. It became evident that the connection to Africa through my work needed to be more present. As the African in my circle of colleagues and my workplace, I decided to take it upon myself to create that connection [for diasporans or people with mixed heritage, like me] that would transcend beyond skin colour and put Black people on the map of the western tattoo scene.

How did you come across nsibidi, and how did you learn it?

Emmanuel Uchenna Item: Many parts of Nigerian and West African culture are not well documented. It’s sad that nsibidi as a system of writing is going extinct, but through my work, I try to preserve some parts of it. I researched online for traditional symbols in Africa, then travelled into villages to chat with old natives, who frequently mentioned Uli drawings – which are traditional abstract designs peculiar to Igbo people. I continued my research with this information and later met someone in Lagos who introduced me to nsibidi. Through him, I studied the symbols and learnt their translations from Igbo to English.

Seeing that your design inspirations are very cultural, do you think they could be appropriated?

Emmanuel Uchenna Item: Some people don’t care as much about these things. They want something beautiful that may or may not be tribalistic or nsibidi related. But I’ve had interesting conversations with people based on who should have these kinds of tattoos on their bodies. And from these conversations, I’ve realised no person is entitled to these things – but it’s imperative to understand the history, culture and background of the craft and symbols.

I always have to ask myself whether or not I want to be the person who puts symbols from a different culture on the body of someone who knows nothing about that culture or even the meaning of the symbol. Since I’m the one with the information, I’m always careful and conscious when working with people from other cultures.

In what ways are you careful and conscious?

Emmanuel Uchenna Item: Generally, I keep nsibidi symbols to Nigerian people, though I’ve had a few non-Nigerians demand nsibidi designs to be done on them. I tell them that it isn’t just Nigeria alone that has traditional symbols. I tell them they can find beautiful art forms, patterns and symbols from Kenya, Ghana or Germany. So I encourage them to dig into their roots and find something they would connect to because I believe you can make something beautiful out of every culture.

Recently you did a Balkan-inspired design for someone. Do you also learn about other cultures and their art forms, or do you do that on request?

Emmanuel Uchenna Item: For that tattoo, the client wanted some tribal-related design on her foot, but speaking with her, I realised her roots were in Croatia. So I encouraged her to research because I know the Balkans have unique art designs. Eventually, we came up with the design you see on my page. When I work with people from other backgrounds, I like to look into their cultures to find something unique for them.

How does your work connect you with your roots?

Emmanuel Uchenna Item: Growing up in Vienna, I had little to no touch with my Nigerian heritage. Becoming an adult, I discovered that I was only feeding the Austrian part of my life – living in Austria and speaking German. At some point, I felt like some part of me was missing, and there could be more. Then, I started making regular visits to Nigeria to find out that my gut was leading me right this whole time – I was missing out on a lot! The food, the language, the culture. It felt terrific to indulge finally.

Incorporating a part of my cultural heritage into my work means that I am aware and reminded of where I come from every waking and working day. It makes me so proud and confident, though sometimes sad over all the time I lost for not connecting early. Now, when I meet and chat with biracial people with a link to Africa, I get to share many experiences with them. Also, when I get the opportunity to tattoo African-inspired designs on these people, it feels like my gift to them – giving them something they didn’t know they lacked. Sometimes, they even speak up and tell me that having the tattoo feels good, and just like me, they can feel that Africanness in them.

What power do you feel in such a connection?

Emmanuel Uchenna Item: I think it’s compelling to know where you come from, especially in my case. When you live in Berlin and look different from most people, it’s good to know. I know my heritage is not only Nigeria but also Austria; because of this, whatever I experience in life can only ruffle my feathers and never break me. I know who I am and what I have, and I am immensely proud of that.