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Inuvialuk Artist Kyle Aleekuk Melding Traditions in Toronto Mural

Nov 09, 2022
by IAQ

Toronto pedestrians will be able to see artist Kyle Aleekuk’s tattoo designs on a massive scale from November 2022 to March 2023 at OCAD University’s Onsite Gallery as part of the Up Front mural series, presented in partnership with the Inuit Art Foundation. Up Front, curated by Ryan Rice, will commission four Inuit artists over two years to create these public digital art pieces. Aleekuk’s work will display as a large-scale tattoo flash sheet on the walls of the Richmond Street West gallery.  

Inuit Art Quarterly: What was the process of working with Onsite Gallery? Did you work closely with Ryan Rice or with anybody else from the gallery?

Kyle Aleekuk: I mainly talked back and forth with Ryan. They gave me a very general description of what they felt would look cool on the wall. As for the subjects in the piece itself, that was really my call. It was a cool process. I really appreciate when somebody commissions you and they say, “Just do what you want. Just do your style.”

IAQ: Is the artwork all original? 

KA: The composition is original. I had some pieces floating around for a while that I had worked on that I hadn't used for anything else. Ryan suggested that it would be nice to see a tattoo flash page used as a mural. I went through some of my previously designed illustrations and tried to come up with a theme and images that would work well together. It's a new flash sheet, but it's containing some previously drawn images that I had been wanting to use and this was the perfect opportunity.

I think it turned out great. I'm excited to see it up on the wall and blown up to a large scale. I have never seen my work used in that way before.

IAQ: So is it one image, or is it several of your pieces?

KA: It's several pieces, in the way that tattoo flash sheets are shown in tattoo shops. I've grown into using that format as a style from visiting various shops and getting tattooed and always admiring the artwork on the walls. Usually tattoo flash sheets are a 9 x 12 [inch] sheet that can be six or nine or as many images as the artist wants to cram onto one sheet.

IAQ: So this is the page where you pick which tattoo design you want?

KA: Exactly. It's meant to be like you walk into a shop and there are options you can pick off the wall or out of a tattoo flash book. I’ve always liked that format. I always felt like there's a relation between Inuit printmaking and tattoo design because they both utilize negative space as part of the overall artwork. I’ve always admired that. And they just look cool. I mean, that's the point of tattoos.

IAQ: Do you do your own tattooing at all, or do you just do the designs?

KA: I have done tattoo designs for a long time with the hopes of eventually getting into tattooing. It's a very difficult industry to get into, you kind of have to be invited. So because there are no tattoo schools, apprenticeships are the main way to learn, but most tattooers that I've talked to, they don't want to give apprenticeships for some reason. Since high school, I'd always wanted to do tattoos, just because I love the style. There are many different styles of tattoos, but I fell in love with traditional American tattoo flash, which is a very iconic style. It has bold black lines, bright colours, the use of negative space, so you're using your own skin tone as part of the overall palette.

I had hopes to learn how to tattoo and have tattooed myself, which was encouraged by some tattooers that I heavily admired. They just said, “Well, just teach yourself how to tattoo.” Some of the greatest tattooers that they know were self-taught. And I've had the honour and privilege of tattooing one of my favorite tattooers here in Edmonton, AB, as a way of them trying to bring me into the tattoo world and offer my art as tattoos. I like to think that maybe one day I could just do tattoos as a side thing. But it's just another form of art that goes well with my approach, where it's not sticking with one medium in particular, but trying to experiment and widen my artistic practice in general. So I do painting, I do digital art. I also do—I guess you would call them crafts. I taught myself how to sew. I taught myself how to make an ulu. I consider it all kind of related. I’m pro–self-learning. 


Kyle Aleekuk
 Northern Flash (detail) (2022) Mural at Onsite Gallery in Toronto, ON 
Courtesy Onsite Gallery © THE ARTIST

IAQ: When you do your tattoo flash pages, are they hand-drawn on real paper, or do you do that digitally?

KA: Now I do it mostly digitally, but I started doing paper and painting with watercolours. Sometimes I do multimedia pieces, too. I would incorporate markers in with my paintings or drawings. I transitioned into digital art a few years ago for a few different reasons. I saw one of my favourite tattooers always working on an iPad using a program called Procreate. It seems like a lot of tattooers are gravitating towards this program just because it's so user friendly. I was awarded a grant a few years ago and I used a portion of that to buy an iPad and an Apple Pencil and started messing around with digital art. 

The roots of my art have always been paper and pencil. I have mostly stopped doing that just because there were stacks of paper just building up all over the place and I felt bad wasting it on drafts. It was a way to clean up my space and keep all my art organized. I still every once in a while get the urge to do something like traditional painting.

IAQ: Did you do any formal training with anybody for any of your art, or are you self-taught for all of it?

KA: I would consider myself mostly self-taught. The closest training I've gotten, and it's not even training really, was in high school. I went to art class. It was pretty much free rein in those classes, which was cool. Since then I’ve just been trying to teach myself different techniques. Especially with watercolour, it was a lot of trial and error. Just messing around with it, seeing what works, what doesn't.

IAQ: Have you considered yourself an artist since you were a kid, or did you start later on?

KA: Yes. It's been an on-and-off thing. I always knew that I liked drawing, ever since I was a kid. And even all through school, especially in high school, that was when I really fell in love with tattoo art. One of my friends had bought me a book about traditional American tattoos. So that's what I was really gravitating towards when I was trying to find, not necessarily my style, but to figure out how these artists were making these pieces that I liked so much. I found out that a lot of them use the same techniques and recycle the same imagery that's been used for a long time. Learning about the history of tattoos was a big part of that journey, too.

IAQ: How do you feel about your work being in a public space outside where everyone walking by will see it?

KA: I haven't really thought about it too much. Just because I had to put that out of my mind and draw a little bit. I think every artist’s experience has a little bit of imposter syndrome, where you feel like, “no, they don't want my work. My style isn't that cool.”  I was wondering why they would want to show my piece to the wider Toronto public. I've never been to Toronto. Just the thought of it being on this giant wall—I'm surprised and excited. The more I think about it, the more I feel like it's extremely cool to think about random people walking down the street and if it catches their eye, then maybe they'll wander over and learn a little.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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