A number of people in the territory added art to their bodies this summer, contributing to a movement to restore and revive traditional tattooing.
In July, artist Anne Spice spent three weeks as a 2021 Shakaat Artist-in-Residence at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, where she shared her traditional tattoo practice and spent time with family.
Spice is an inland Tlingit citizen of Kwanlin Dün First Nation who now teaches as a professor in Toronto, although her mother’s family is from the Yukon. She’s also one of the many artists around the world bringing back the symbols and meaning of Indigenous tattooing.
“Right now we’re sort of witnessing a revival of the art form. There’s a lot of interest around what it means to mark yourself in this way. People are doing a lot of research around their own tattooing traditions,” she said.
The modern tattoo process involves a tattoo machine, which includes ink vials connected to a needle-pointed tip. The needle oscillates in the machine, repeatedly driving ink into the skin to create a permanent image on the surface.
But tattooing has a long history in many cultures around the world. More traditional forms of tattooing vary and include hand-poked tattoos and skin stitching. Scarification, which includes making cuts in the skin and sometimes using agents to colour the wound, is also an ancient way to mark bodies.
Spice started tattooing four years ago, with a small hand-poked fireweed tattoo on a friend.
“Hand poke is a return to our traditional style of tattooing as Tlingit people, and a lot of other native people have tattooing and traditions as well. It’s a form of body modification and an art form,” Spice said.
During a hand poke or stick-and-poke tattoo, the artist deposits ink in the skin manually, by using a single needle, grip and ink.
It’s a slower process, she explained, but it also provides a more intimate opportunity to get to know a person as she marks their skin. Steel needles used today weren’t always available to the Tlingit, but sharp bone needles are a likely substitute.
Information on early tattooing and other traditional cultural practises isn’t always easy to find, particularly due to colonization.
Potlatches were one place where tattooing took place for Tlingit and Haida people, but the gatherings were made illegal in the 1900s.
Like many traditional practises, tattooing itself was often discouraged or outright banned by colonial enforcers.
“A lot of our tattoo traditions were lost for generations,” explained Spice.
“When I decided that I wanted the chin tattoo because I found enough information to be confident in saying ‘We did do this.’ I would ask people from around here, and they’d be like, ‘I’d never heard of that.’ It just wasn’t something that was in people’s memories, I guess. It’s been generations since this has been a real practice.”
But in her research, Spice found that face tattoos were a traditional practice. So were chest pieces with clan crests for chiefs and crests of different clans on women’s hands.
Some knowledge and traditions may be lost forever. But others have just begun.
Spice and others are building on the past with new styles and rituals based on knowledge and artistic practises we do have access to.
“Sometimes you don’t get the answers. For me initially, I really wanted documented examples of all these tattoos. And they’re just not there,” she said.
That means being careful with symbols that have specific meanings, and cultural ownership of symbols and clan membership.
It also means Spice has put time and care into creating designs, many drawn from historical records of art that still exist: patterns on blankets and baskets being one source of inspiration that fits well within the tattoo art form.
In the Tlingit tradition, different weaving patterns have different meanings. Symbols represent forms as simple as arrow feathers, waves or as complex as a fish weir, processed beaver pelt or spirits.
Other times people come to Spice with their own vision for a tattoo that incorporates a family design or has origins in beadwork. Working out of the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, Spice has been fully booked for tattoo appointments and has also had relatives stopping by to say hello and see the process happen.
“Our ancestors absolutely did tattoo. Did they tattoo exactly the way I’m doing it? No, they didn’t. But I hope that they would recognize that the spirit is similar,” she said.
“Part of the revival is trying to figure out how to carry it forward in the right spirit and how to make sure that we have the right intentions as we’re going into it. If you’re going to bring it back, you kind of have to bring it back in, in our own way.”
Contact Haley Ritchie at email@example.com