West Africa-Kongo Dock tattoo DesignWhile New England is considered to have been part of the progressive North, we are not except from America’s sad and shameful history of slavery, bringing (mostly West) Africans to the Americas as part of an economy based on the triangle trade route (slaves->sugar->rum.) New England colleges also provided a class of educated men who served as owners and administers for the brutal plantation system in the Caribbean and Brazil, the source of sugar for our rum. We have to recognize that our economy benefitted from and took part in that whole economic system. Facing our truths and interconnected history is just one part of our work toward an ideal of a more inclusive society free of racism.

In Sailing History:

Free African-Americans were also an important part of our society for much of that time, and well-represented as sailors in the whaling fleet (about 20% of the workforce between 1800-1860 (Wikipedia)). Some were also working as captains of whaling vessels, and that was one possible, though difficult, route to fortune for black sailors. (from: “Scouring the Seas … Race & The Black Whaling Captains Of American History” by Erich Luening)

West African Traditions of Personal Decoration:

Instead of tattooing, many African cultures used scarification for body adornment, in which an artist made cuts on the skin and added ash or another element to create visible scars. Going through this difficult process was a testament to the bearer’s personal strength and bravery. Designs were for beauty and often contained a statement of identity– denoting family, tribe, character, and rites of passage.

Recently a wide range of people interested in body modification for beauty and personal expression have created a resurgence of scarification among other techniques.

Yombe woman of Democratic Republic of Congo, photographed in the 1940'sAs an homage to the wide range of West African cultures of that time, we have chosen to reproduce a historical design, which was worn by a Yombe woman living in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1940s (picture at right).


Design elements and symbolism

Stephen Hamilton, artist, educator and arts mentor, agreed to be artistic collaborator and consultant on the wealth and complexity that is West African culture and art history, to arrive at an appropriate design celebrating that region. Here is his explanation of this design:

West Africa(Kongo) Dock Tattoo

“The motifs and designs referenced in this piece draw from the iconography of the KiKongo speaking people of West Central Africa, also known as the BaKongo. The Bakongo people represent a plurality of groups sharing a common language and culture. They are the heirs a once powerful civilization, which manifested itself in the kingdoms of Loango, Kakongo and most famously the kingdom of Kongo (Kongo Dya Ntotila or Bundu Dia Kongo).

The intricate patterns used in Kongo art can be found in the sculpture, textiles, and scarification used by the Kongo people for at least the past six hundred years. The central pattern used in this piece borrows directly from the scarification patterns used by women of the Yombe subgroup of the Kongo people. These patterns can also be seen on mother and child sculptures known as “Phemba”, which symbolize not only fertility, but also continuity and the power of female ancestors (The BaKongo are a matrilineal group). Interaction with the ancestors and the cyclical nature of life itself is a fundamental part of Kongo culture and spirituality, one which pervades many facets of Kongo art.

kongo cosmogram element in dock tattoo designA common symbol which is at the heart of Kongo philosophy is the Kongo Cosmogram or Yoowa cross, a rendition of which is depicted on the borders of the piece. The cosmogram depicts an equilateral cross with a circle at each end. The horizontal axis of the cosmogram represents kalunga, the ocean that separates the world of the living and the world of the dead. The arm reaching above the kalunga line represents Ntoto the world of the living and opposing that world is Mpemba (white clay) the world of dead. At the end of each arm is the sun as it rises from the underworld at dawn, reaches the summit of our world at noon, sinks back into the underworld at night and reaches the height of the afterlife at midnight. Just as the sun is reborn at the beginning of each day so is the soul as it follows the sun from life to the afterlife.

Variations of this symbol include both “x”, “+” and lozenge shaped motifs and are common in the religious and funerary iconography of not only people of Kongo descent in Africa, but in the Americas as well. Due to their interaction with the Portuguese many Kongo speaking people were brought to the Americas during the slave trade. Through this tragedy their culture and religion can be found in the folklore, art, music and vernacular dialects of people of African descent throughout the western hemisphere.

The Kongo cosmogram and its variations can be found everywhere, from the bottom plates and vessels left on African American graves in the United States, to sacred objects and spaces used in the Palo Mayombe rituals practiced in Cuba and other areas in the Latin Caribbean. In fact the volume of slaves leaving KiKongo speaking regions of Africa and the immense cultural influences the Kongo Kingdom had on cultures outside of the Kongo speaking area, contributed to a dissemination of the symbol throughout the western atlantic. It appears in the iconography of black cultures in Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad Barbados and other communities throughout the western world. This piece artfully represents one of Africa’s most influential visual and philosophical traditions, one that links many cultures across time and space.”

Stephen Hamilton


Kimbwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiao, Ph.D.: Tying the Spiritual Knot: African Cosmology of the Bantu-Kongo: Althelia Henrietta Press, 1998
Thompson, Robert Farris: Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy: Random House, 1984
Thompson, Robert Farris and Joseph Cornet: Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds: Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981


West Africa (Kongo) Dock Tattoo design in place on the pier at Harbor ArtsOther Resources:

”Arts of Africa” Castilleja website

More on scarification designs in West Africa


Artist’s Note:

While I know there is so much more going on in the modern world of people-doing-art (in this case the thriving modern African and Diaspora art worlds) that deserves attention, what I’m aiming for in this whole Connected by Sea project is to metaphorically craft gestures of respect directed to the people of the time period we’re referencing, in something resembling their own visual language. That a person of that time, if they were to walk on this pier now, might recognize their own cultural influence here and some message of goodwill. -LLM


Installation Crew

Layout: Liz LaManche
Inking: Liz LaManche, Anthony Buda, Dan Alroy, Joe R, Carolyn Flesner, May-Lee Sia
Stenciling Team: Liz LaManche, Dan Alroy, Carolyn Flesner