Urhobo Historical Society
In the face of a growing army of men and women around the world who have readily taken to inscribing tattoos of the serpent on their bodies, His Royal Majesty Nengi Josef Ilagha, Mingi XII, Amanyanabo of Nembe, warns that to do so is to be branded with the proverbial mark of the beast and, by extension, to come under the influence of the devil.
Tattoos Are Forever
By His Majesty Nengi
Mingi XII, Amanyanabo of Nembe
Bayelsa State, Nigeria
ICHARD SPECK. YORK and Latham. Smith and Hickock. These are only three celebrated names amongst several hundreds of men convicted of homicide. The common denominator for most of these men, a good eighty percent of them at least, is that they love their tattoos the way women love their make-up.
These men will tell you that there is nothing odd about tattoos, and even if they were to take a second shot at life, they’d settle for the tip of the needle and the fanciful images it can draft into their bodies. They will tell you how much they love to engrave their private totems, at whatever cost, and watch the inky ripple of a fire-breathing dragon, a serpent, or a skeleton framed by bones, just beneath the skin.
There comes a time, however, when the hoodlum with a tattoo wishes he never had one. I know of a man called The Turk, for instance, a character in one of Alex La Guma’s short stories, who had cause to regret the dragon he had proudly won on his chest for years. As is common with much of La Guma’s apartheid fiction, the story tells of the incarceration of several prisoners in a minor South African dungeon, complete with its first-class criminals, its sweltering heat and its lopsided system of prison jurisdiction.
In spite of the killing heat and long months of incarceration, The Turk was never seen without a shirt on his back. Before long, it was discovered that one of his myriad crimes was that he had sunk a knife into the heart of a fellow man who had, just before he died, whispered to the brethren who hurried to his aid, that the man who had stabbed him wore a dragon-shaped tattoo on his chest. The tattoo had become like a dark identity card.
Tattoos may not have had their origins in the slave trade, but they were certainly popular body décor at that time. For many Africans, it was the passport to hell. With a little fine-tuning, it was different for Richard Speck, York and Latham, Smith and Hickock, and of course The Turk. They saw glory in their tattoos, for all the entire world may care. For them, tattoos are the ticket to extortion, production rackets, loan-sharking, gambling, drug dealing, murder, prostitution and other syndicated crimes. It was only a matter of defining the particular area of specialization. It was like swearing to the omerta, the Italian mafia’s code of silence, or imbibing the tenets of its equivalent in the American Cosa Nostra, the triads of China or the yakuza of Japan. You invariably sign a pact with death. For, according to an old saying, “the only way to leave the mafia is in a coffin.” Indeed, very few people escape with their lives, to say nothing of their souls.
One of the lucky few is a man called Tasuo Kataoka. This fellow is not your everyday Al Capone, that infamous gangster of the US Prohibition Era. But Kataoke, a one-time Japanese mobster was pretty well known for his exploits among the yakuza. He lived private fear to the hilt, and his favourite saying was this: “if you die, you are the loser.” And so, Kataoka preferred to kill.
At 18, he was at the head of a band of primary school delinquents who lived their lives along the model of violence, the only model they could see in the backstreets of the city. At 20, Kataoka began to serve time in the Nara Juvenile Prison and soon graduated into Kyoto Prison, a haven for hard criminals. When, however, Yasuo Kataoka returned to prison for the fourth time at age 32, the three-year term became a complete ordeal. For once, this man who killed and extorted others to feed his family was not allowed access to his daughters who were only too ready to visit their father in prison. And that marked the turning point for Yasuo Kataoka.
The man has since come out of prison and has become (surprise, surprise!) a minister of God. As he confesses quite readily, he could not bear the thought of his wife and children living forever in paradise while he succumbed to eternal death and the raging fires of hell. So, I hope you now understand Yasuo Kataoka’s mental make-up. He feared death, and often it was this fear that propelled him to hit at others before they had a chance to hit at him.
Some year’s back, Kataoka was finally able to break all his yakuza ties. The only relic which remains behind the prim façade of this ministerial servant, is (you guessed right) the intricate and extensive tattoo on his chest, arms and back. To Kataoka, it has become like an emblem to be borne forever. You can’t help but sympathize when the man says: “I long for the day when my tattoos will be blotted out.” It is a noble wish and I join Kataoka in his prayers. Tattoos are, in a way, like blood. They remain eternal stains on the mind of, let’s say, Lady Macbeth. And “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand…”
It is bad enough for a man to be blighted by tattoos forever. It is far worse for an entire nation to be tattooed. In so many ways, Nigeria is like Richard Speck, York and Latham, Smith and Hickock, The Turk. Nigeria appears to love the tattoos on its national psyche the way a gourmet loves his food. At birth, this was a nation with a skin as smooth as any baby’s. But then, the monstrous dragons crept into the body polity, and worse, the mind politic, like things that will never be exorcised.
Like Yasuo Kataoka, Nigeria may well be labouring under a burning desire, a pining for the day when it will be free of its tattooed evils. You know the whole story so far. Organized crime is still on the increase, drawing inspiration from the infamous exploits of the Aninis and the Shina Rambos. Drug dealing is yet to abate, in spite of government’s spirited efforts to fight a growing cartel. Everywhere you turn, 419 barons are perfecting their scamming strategies.
Elections continue to be rigged under the grim watchful eyes of the law, borrowing from a legacy which dates back to the First Republic. The streets these days are peopled with prostitutes and unemployed youths who gladly turn brigands. The assassin is very often to be seen at work as well. He goes for the kill in the house of old men and women alike. He goes around exploding bombs in the face of innocent citizens for something as ordinary as a script they had published.
And just when you thought everybody would sit back and develop the local governments that are daily coming closer home, the common folk become so enlightened they resort to killing one another. Enthroned in high places, there is a god called corruption, and on the city highways the police continue to receive their daily bread from the hands of hapless bus drivers. Verily, verily, injustice rages on in the corridors of power, against the better judgment of those who should know.
Yasuo Kataoka is bothered because he has tattoos on his arms, chest and back. He should be glad really. Nigeria has tattoos all over, from the hair on its head to the calloused toes of the nation. The cynics say there is no foreseeable promise that one inch of this blight will be blotted out, even as we enter the Jesus Millennium. Are you one of those cynics? Think again.