Though the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project has only been active for just over four years, their accomplishments are impressive: dozens of women have been tattooed, a book has been published and perhaps most importantly an almost lost art form has been resurrected. Cora DeVos has been there to capture the process from its earliest stages. DeVos, a professional photographer based in Vermilion, AB, who goes by Little Inuk Photography, was asked by project founder Angela Hovak Johnston to document this important and unique process. DeVos has travelled the Canadian Arctic with Johnston to capture the important stories told along the way.
In the following interview, conducted by former Inuit Art Quarterly Senior Editor John Geoghegan, DeVos shares insights into the development of the project and what the resurgence of this art form has meant, both for her and for the women who have been tattooed.
John Geoghegan: Can you tell me about yourself and how you became involved with the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project?
Cora DeVos: [Angela] Hovak Johnston and I have been best friends since we were in high school together in Cambridge Bay [Iqaluktuuttiaq, NU]. I didn’t know that tattooing was part of our culture until Hovak came to me and told me that she was thinking of getting them on her cheeks. I was pretty excited to see what they were going to look like, and I did a little bit more research about them. I started falling in love with them myself. Growing up, Hovak and I used to sit in her room and take pictures of each other. She was the first subject I ever photographed, and she has always been my favourite. When she dreamt up the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project, she gave me a call. She wanted to have as many Inuit as possible as part of the project and that’s when I joined.
Trisha Ogina (2017) Digital photograph
JG: What was the first community that you visited with the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project to photograph some of the participants?
CD: We visited Kugluktuk, NU, for the first one. I think 12 women were signed up, but the team ended up tattooing 26 that time.
JG: What is it like being part of those sessions?
CD: It is amazing to be there and to document each woman’s journey and tell their stories through the photos. When I look back through the photos, I see the reactions that the women have when they see their new facial tattoos [tunniit], and I can see their souls light up. It is like a piece of them that has been missing is coming back together. It has been wonderful to be able to document their whole journey. After they are done getting their tattoos, we also set up a photo session, so that we can show the world how beautiful they look with their tattoos.
Hovak Johnston, Yellowknife (2014) Digital photograph
JG: Are there any stories that you are willing or able to share?
CD: The stories are very personal to every woman. So I can share my own. I was raised in the South, so I have always felt a disconnect to my culture. I always longed for it, but it wasn’t accessible to me. I have gone from not knowing about Inuit tattoos at all to having them. They have helped me feel confident and proud of my culture. My wrist tattoos represent my daughters, my husband and myself and the ups and downs in life. My finger tattoos—the Y’s—represent the people I encounter on a daily basis, and the lines represent, for me, the journey and path of life. They are a constant reminder that everyone you meet is coming into your life for a reason.
My mother and sisters also have tattoos now. My mom is a residential school survivor. She had been against the tattoos in the beginning actually, and I think that has to do with the residential school experience and being taught to be ashamed of our culture. The most recent project we did was in Cambridge Bay, which is where my mom is from. While we were there, my mom was very vocal that she didn’t like it and that people shouldn’t be doing it. As the week went on though, and she heard and saw the impact it was having on the community, she changed her mind. I got home one night, and she was sitting on the couch crying and said, “I need to get it done.” She and I sat down and sketched out what she wanted her tattoos to represent. We came up with a beautiful symbol that represents her life and she now wears them with pride. It was amazing to watch!
JG: Thank you for sharing that powerful story. What are some of the other communities that you have visited for the project?
CD: I have been to all three of the communities that the project has visited: Kugluktuk and Ulukhaktok in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, in 2017, and Cambridge Bay in 2018.
The Artist’s Mother, Adeline Kavanna (2017) Digital photograph
JG: Do you have any idea of how many photos you have taken over the course of the project thus far?
CD: Thousands and thousands. We end up doing 12 to 16 hour days when we are in the communities. Each community project results in a lot of stories told through the photos.
JG: Are there any plans in the future to visit additional communities?
CD: Hovak is currently working on proposals to get us to the Eastern Arctic. She has letters out looking for funding and support right now. We are keeping our fingers crossed that we will visit the East soon.
JG: Can you tell me about the publication Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines?
CD: I took the majority of the photographs in the book. It means the world to me. Just being able to get it out to the world, especially to Inuit in the North. It will also allow people in the South to see the beauty and pride we have in our culture. We are reclaiming what was once taken from us. It means so much to be a part of it and to be able to document these women’s journeys. Some of their stories are longer, some shorter but they all have their own special meanings. I think the pride the women feel once they have their markings translates through the photos.
JG: Have you been approached to do any exhibitions or displays of the photos you’ve taken for the project?
CD: Locally, I have been asked to do an exhibition, but I would love to be able to travel with them and show the world the beauty that we have created. I would definitely be open to it.
Hovak Johnston Applying Stencil to Skye Corey, Cambridge Bay (2017) Digital photograph
JG: I think you being there for the duration of the project, particularly while the women are being tattooed, lends a beautiful sense of familiarity with the subject when the formal portraits are taken.
CD: Thank you. I document from the time that the tattoo artist is drawing out their markings, to when the stencil is put on, right to the very end. The photography becomes part of the whole story.
JG: I imagine that many wonderful relationships and friendships have occurred along the way.
CD: It is amazing. I can tell you a little story of when I was getting my finger tattoos. When I was getting them done, I was telling Hovak about some of the people the Y’s represent and how every time I travel to the North, I stumble on a newspaper clipping of one of my childhood best friends and I square dancing. Since the time that article was written, he has passed away by suicide. While I was getting my tattoos done, I was talking to Hovak about this, and there was another woman getting her tattoos done at the same time. It turned out that she heard me say his name a few times and she [turned to me and said], “that’s my brother.” I had no idea that she was related to him. That’s just one of the examples of how this project has brought people together that might not ever have crossed paths.
JG: I think that the project also represents a lot of healing, and stories like this are really a testament to that.
CD: There are women that go from uncontrollably crying to all of a sudden laughing with joy. They are letting out all of their emotions, letting go of hurt while they are getting their tattoos done. As soon as they get their markings, they have a whole different sense of themselves. It is amazing to be witness to.
This Feature was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.