Keeping Tradition Alive: The Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project

Keeping Tradition Alive: The Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project

How a group of remarkable Inuit women are healing their culture through tattoos.

The culturally restorative power of tattooing is truly amazing. In some cases the art form can even transcend the brutal effects of colonialism, steadily drawing a needle and thread through skin to trace a hereditary line that was nearly erased. Take the work being done by The Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project, for instance, a group that uses traditional Inuit tattooing as a means of reviving their culture.

This organization describes itself as “a project highlighting the journey of Inuit Tattoos” on its Facebook page,  which is filled with wonderful videos and photos of the tattoo work that they perform in the Inuit community.

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Angela Hovak Johnston is the founder of the project. She is from the Kitikmeot region and received her facial tattoos around eight years ago. Having facial tattoos makes Johnston feel closer to her heritage and inspired her to do the work she does now. Many of the women that she and her colleagues have tattooed since the project’s onset say the very same thing.

It is no surprise that these tattoos bring a sense of cultural connectivity to these women. Over the last three generations, the practice of traditional Inuit tattooing virtually vanished because of colonialism.  

When missionaries arrived in the Northern Territories over 100 years ago, they brought along diseases that wiped out staggering portions of Inuit communities. Alongside rampant sickness, there came institutions of assimilation, like boarding schools, where indigenous individuals were punished for practicing their cultural traditions.

The Inuit Tattooing Revitalization Project is committed to resisting the lingering effects of colonialism and the resulting cultural erasure by bringing back the practice of tattooing to their communities. With this mission at heart, Johnston and her team travel to northern towns and tattoo Inuit women. In just the first month of their operation, the community saw a substantial increase (over 30 individuals) in women who have these culturally significant markings on their bodies.

In communities as small as those that populate this region of the Arctic, this is a dramatic increase, and it radically impacts the cultural rhetoric of the spaces in which these women live. This is important work, because the art form would only continue to degrade over time and would likely disappear without the curatorial work of individuals like Johnston and her team.

The tattoos themselves are rife with cultural connotations, each dot or line meaning something specific to that person and their ancestry. These, in short, are simultaneously personal and communal tattoos that act as a means of expressing not only individuality but also a connection to the history of their people. They are, quite literally, representations of family lineages and community ties inscribed directly onto the women’s skin.

The symbolic tradition behind these tattoos is not the only thing that is being kept alive by the project. The original methods for executing these tattoos are also being revitalized, as Johnston and others like Marjorie Tahbone — an Inupiaq tattoo artist who, in addition to being an expert in indigenous iconography, specializes in hand-poking and skin-stitching — continue to keep these practices alive by hybridizing them with modern tattoo equipment and techniques.

All in all, these women are remarkable, to say the least. They are resuscitating something incredibly important to their culture that not even a century of systematic oppression could destroy. They are more than tattoo artists. They are stewards of their community and its history. You can check out the progress of the project on their Facebook page. 

Keep up the great work, ladies. 

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