Indigenous Tattoo Artists on the Ethics Behind Their Ink
“One of my favourite things to tattoo is beadwork that their mum or one of their family members have done.”
Tattoo artists Amberly John (left) and Audie Murray (right). Photos courtesy of the authore
Tattoo culture has famously used symbols inspired by Indigenous cultures from around the world, without much of a thought to its origin. It’s only in recent years that we’ve finally seen Justin Trudeau’s Haida-inspired bicep piece questioned for its cultural appropriation.
One tattoo collective based in Kelowna aims to change that by mentoring the next generation of Indigenous tattoo artists. The Earthline Tattoo Collective recently wrapped up a two week intensive program aimed at reclaiming the art of Indigenous tattooing in Canada. Students come from nations across the country to learn traditional skin stitching, hand pokes, and machine tattooing, and discuss how to bring tattooing back to their home nations in a culturally appropriate way.
I spoke with some of Earthline’s graduates about their experiences at the school, their practice, and how their tattoos can help heal their communities.
Amberley John - kʌniyewʌna (Bear Clan), 27
Onyote’aka (Oneida of the Thames)
Windsor, Ontario/Kelowna, BC based
VICE: Why did you want to do the Earthline program instead of an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop?
Amberley: One of the biggest reasons that I really wanted to go through this tattooing program was because I view tattooing as a medicine. In Oneida, I sit in the Bear Clan and we have oral histories about how the Bear Clan became responsible for medicines. I’ve always viewed art, and this tattooing, as a form of medicine. I thought if I could learn how to do this, it would be a really significant way to give back to the community. It’s like a specialized school where I don’t have to explain my identity and explain that I’m trying to figure out ethics from a cultural and spiritual side of things.
Do you think you’ve figured out your ethics? Or is that a continuing learning experience for you?
I would say continuing, definitely. Especially as there’s more and more tattoo artists, there’s going to be a lot more discussion. For example, I know there are a couple of tattoo artists right now that are from the same nation as I am, and they’re wanting to get together and discuss as a nation what kind of practices and protocols we embody in our own practices.
What’s your favourite method of tattooing?
I’ve actually never used a tattoo gun. I was recently gifted a tattoo machine, so I might put it to use. I would say hand poke for sure. I think that a lot of people are hesitant to receive the skin stitch, so I haven’t had the opportunity to say that’s my favourite yet. I don’t get a lot of chances to do the skin stitch.
I didn’t even know that was a method of tattooing.
My dad asked me to give him one for Father’s Day. I was trying to describe the process to him and he was like “oh, so like a jail tattoo?” I was like no, no no no, this is prior to that kind of institution even being present. It was funny.
Can you talk about your creative process?
I draw them out, but a lot of them are inspired by symbols that have been a part of peoples’ nations and material cultures since time immemorial. So a lot of times I think the design process has been a lot of collaboration and speaking with the individual and finding their source of inspiration and trying to meet in the middle. I don’t culturally appropriate. [Symbolism] is a language, and if I’m not fluent in it I want to make sure I’m having respect for that. I have had individual reach out to family members from that nation to do the drawing and I’ll apply it. Another method I’ve done is where we find symbols that we share nation to nation.
Danika Naccarella, 21
Nuxulk First Nation
Vancouver/Bella Coola, BC
VICE: What sparked your initial interest in tattooing?
Danika: I just love getting tattooed myself. Ever since I was 16 I’ve had tattoos and I just really like designing. An opportunity came up through a friend who introduced me to the program and figured I’d be good at it, and I just took a swing at it.
You say they taught you about cultural appropriation of tattoos. What do you mean by that?
A lot of things are culturally sensitive in the sense that certain people can’t wear certain things or have them in certain places or wear certain crests. So say a Northwest Coast person would need permission from an Inuit artist to wear their stuff.
What’s your favourite way to tattoo someone?
I guess it really comes down to each individual tattoo but I think that the hand poke is my favourite tattoo. I really feel like my artwork would transfer very nicely into a machine art tattoo as well.
How would you describe your tattoos and art?
I’m a Northwest Coast artist, so I specialize in Northwest Coast formline. Form lines are basically made up of elements like the Ovoid and the U shape, and they’re a very bold figure skeleton with a lot of finer lines, secondary colours and tertiary colours. The tattoo machine I feel would be able to cover a lot more space in a shorter amount of time, whereas the hand poke is very tedious and very time consuming in a sense because it’s one dot at a time. A machine is a thousand pokes per minute. You can fill it in a lot better.
Do you have a favourite tattoo that you’ve done?
I think it’s the one I did on myself, so my very first tattoo. In the program, our first tattoo was on ourselves and I chose to do a salmon egg or a salmon trout head which is found in almost all of our Northwest Coast art. It just represents the beginning of a salmon’s life and I think the salmon egg on myself was the beginning of a new journey and how it has opened up a lot of doors for me personally. And it’s always a reminder that I got to inflict a lot of pain on myself and what to do and what not to do. I always liked drawing salmon or trout heads and it’s very humbling to always have it where I can see it.
Jerry Evans, 57
Miawpukek First Nation/Mi’gmaq First Nation
St. John’s, Newfoundland
VICE: How did you get into tattooing?
Jerry: It’s something that interested me for many years but I was always hesitant to put any marks on my body without having it done right. Even though I lived in the city and there were a lot of tattoo shops around, that just didn’t appeal to me. I couldn’t get any Indigenous marks because I didn’t know any Indigenous tattoo artists in our area. I was cautious, careful, and I just waited.
What was your biggest takeaway from the school?
The awareness that this tattooing revival it’s not just here, it’s global. The Indigenous people all over the world are reclaiming their power and strength and pride through tattooing. It might be just one way, but it’s an incredible way.
Why is tattooing important to you?
For me, the tattoos themselves are a permanent regalia. These are things that I wear on my body every day, 24/7 for the rest of my life. When I work with a client now, I speak to them. I talk to them about why they get a tattoo, what they want to get, why do they want to get it. Culture heals and this is just one aspect of it that can help heal our people.
What do you see as the future of Indigenous tattooing?
I don’t think I’m going to see too many facial tattoos in my neck of the woods. But for the future, we ‘ve got a lot of rebuilding to do and I’m so honoured to be a part of that and I just hope that there are others from my community here and my nation that will take the torch and maybe participate and learn those skills.
Audie Murray, 25
Regina, Saskatchewan (currently Vancouver based)
VICE: You’re a visual artist. How did you go from artist to tattoo artist?
Audie: It was something that I really wanted to get into, but I just didn’t know how to go about it. So many people talk about working with a tattoo artist for so many years in order to learn how to tattoo, but that didn’t really resonate with me and that created this barrier that I didn’t even really want to try and go through. So when I saw this Earthline tattoo residency call out on Facebook, I was really happy to be able to learn in that sort of environment with other indigenous tattoo artists. It just really aligned well with my art practice at the time.
You said you didn’t want to do an apprenticeship with a regular tattoo artist because there were too many barriers. What do you mean by that?
I really was considering doing an apprenticeship but I didn’t know of a tattoo artist that I would want to apprentice with. Also, going to art school it’s this very institutional way of learning and most of the time when I’ve been learning throughout my life I feel like I’m one of the only Indigenous people and it’s a really strange position to be in, so I didn’t want to really emulate that in my tattoo practice. Not to say that I only want to do Indigenous specific tattoos or anything like that, but in the tattoo world there’s just a lot of different ways of working and learning that don’t really resonate with me that much, so I guess I didn’t really pursue it because of that.
What did you take away from learning with other Indigenous artists?
Being able to hold conversations around the importance of Indigenous tattoo revival and what it looks like in current times and what it could look like in the future.
Why is it important for you to be part of that revival?
It’s just work that feels really good. It just resonates with me. I feel like I should be doing this. With the process of tattooing, I find it to be a medicinal thing. It has so many healing properties, so to be able to be a person in the community that can help other Indigenous folk go through that step of healing or take that step towards accepting their cultural identity, that’s so important to me. I feel so honoured that I can hold that space for people.
How do you design your tattoos?
I usually work in collaboration with whoever I’m tattooing. One of my favourite things to tattoo is beadwork that their mum or one of their family members have done. I sit down and create a design off of that beadwork, and then you put it into their skin.
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