Inupiaq artist Holly Nordlum is one of the seven Indigenous tattoo artists whose work is on display at sacred skin. (Full Circle / Contributed)

Sacred skin: Exhibition showcases stories and significance behind Indigenous tattooing

SFU and Full Circle are hosting the sacred skin exhibition, a showcase that highlights the work of seven Indigenous tattoo artists from across the continent.

By Curtis Seufert | June 23, 2022 |5:00 am

Until June 30, SFU’s Goldcorp centre is hosting the sacred skin exhibition, a showcase that highlights the work of seven Indigenous tattoo artists from across North America, putting their work on display, and allowing visitors a glimpse into their craft, and the knowledge they draw upon.

Amina Creighton-Kelly, who is of Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), South Asian, British and French Canadian descent, is the curator of the exhibition.

Going into the curation process without much expertise in Indigenous tattooing, Creighton-Kelly said she wanted to create an exhibition that showcased the diversity of style and technique of artists from different Nations and backgrounds. But while doing, she said there was also a lot of unity to be found in the artists’ aims.

“Something that intrigued me was how [style] changes over territories, and I found that a lot of people’s practise was tied specifically to their lands and to their communities,” Creighton-Kelly told the Beacon in an interview.

“Each one spoke about the ties to their land, and learning from elders, which is often how language, stories and oral teachings get passed down, and then we pass those teaching on to connect generations.”

sacred skin
Tattoos from sacred skin artists Dion Kaszas, Mahaan and Audie Murray. (Full Circle / Contributed)

Gig-K’aajuu G’aaya is one of the artists whose work is being showcased in sacred skin. He’s been tattooing for nearly 10 years, in addition to having a background in jewellery-making for about a decade before that.

G’aaya, who is from the Skedans clan of the Haida Nation, and has Haida and Ukrainian ancestry, said that tattooing has been a significant practise in being able to connect with his heritage and culture.

“Tattoo, for me, really connected me a lot with where I come from and the culture I come from. It’s opened my eyes to a lot of new things with art that I didn’t see before. The connection, protocol and history of tattooing from an Indigenous standpoint is very unique, very powerful,” said G’aaya.

But for G’aaya, the cultural connection that tattooing provides is paired with deep personal meaning as well. Early into his tattooing career, G’aaya took a break from the practise after his young daughter passed away from cancer. Upon his return, G’aaya decided to open up his own shop on Haida Gwaii, and has dedicated the tattoo shop and his practise as a whole to his love for his children.

“For the last seven years I’ve had a shop called Haida Inkk: two Ks, for my daughter Kaia and my son Kyron,” said G’aaya. “The shop is for her and her memory, and the life of my son that I provide for today. And they’re still the inspiration for everything that I do.”

An act of decolonization

G’aaya is one of many Indigenous tattoo artists that have taken up the form as part of a recent resurgence of the practise in North America in the last few years. He thinks that resurgence comes partly as a response to a growing public conscience on Indigenous issues in North America.

“I think as time progresses in the rest of the world, North America sees what’s been happening with Indigenous people since contact. And the more that’s exposed, the more people are feeling that they’re more proud to wear the art,” said G’aaya.

Creighton-Kelly agrees and thinks that as conversations on decolonizing gain traction, there’s a growing desire to embrace one’s Indigenous heritage, regardless of Western-centric norms and standards.

“I see it as an act of decolonizing because it was banned in Canada because we weren’t allowed to practise it,” said Creighton-Kelly. “It’s taking back power, and it’s an emblem of Indigenous perseverance and preservation of our culture. And it’s very visual and in your face, and I like that.”

G’aaya welcomes the Indigenous tattoo resurgence that’s been taking shape in North America recently. He noted that Indigenous people in other parts of the world, such as the Maori in New Zealand, have historically had more success in maintaining a consistent, broadly-practised tradition of tattooing.

sacred skin
Tattoos by Haida artist Gig-K’aajuu G’aaya. (Haida Inkk / Contributed)

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, G’aaya was invited to a convention and workshop in New Zealand led by Maori artists, where he learned more about the connection that artists there build with those being tattooed.

“They have what’s called a kōrero, where they have a conversation regarding the tattoo they’re inspired to get. And they describe who they are, where they’re from, their family, and the artist wants to get to know the person to an extent where they feel inspired to draw that original piece, freehand, on their body,” he said.

For G’aaya, being able to build a connection and have conversations with other well-practised Indigenous tattoo artists, even halfway across the world, was an invaluable learning opportunity.

G’aaya said that it helped him solidify some of his own feelings towards the practise, especially in terms of the relationship between the artist, and the person receiving the tattoo.

“It’s something I’ve always been interested in doing, talking with people because it really helps me on my journey of healing with my daughter, the more people I talk to about art,” he said. “When I went to New Zealand, it kind of solidified. …I saw the purpose that was instinctively inside of me, but I didn’t know how to explain it or what it was.”

Almost a lost art

Creighton-Kelly said the diversity of practises that comprise Indigenous tattooing were almost completely lost, and that it’s no easy feat picking up a practise that was once banned in Canada. But she’s glad to see that the community of Indigenous artists, from North America and beyond, is continuing to grow.

And for artists like G’aaya, building relations, whether with the people he’s tattooing, Maori artists from across the Pacific, or fellow artists at this exhibition, those connections are all invaluable for keeping the practise strong.

“Mentors like [sacred skin artists] Dion Kaszas, Mahaan and Nakkita Trimble are just an arms reach away for me to ask anything that I need to know,” said G’aaya.

“It’s so comforting knowing that there’s that knowledge out there, even if they’re from a different Nation.”

Curtis Seufert

Curtis is a summer editorial intern with Burnaby Beacon.

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