• Feature

The Next Generation of Inuit Tattooers on Revitalizing the Practice

Mar 14, 2023
by IAQ

Content note: This article contains a brief mention of residential schools. Support is available 24 hours a day for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and for those who may be triggered by content dealing with residential schools. The national crisis line for residential school survivors is 1-866-925-4419. Survivors and their families can also contact the Hope for Wellness Help Line toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.

For this two-part Feature on tattooing practices, the IAQ spoke to three emerging Inuit tattooers and cultural advocates: Aedan Corey, Malayah Enooyah Maloney and Aghalingiak (Zoe Ohokannoak). In this interview with IAQ Associate Editor Napatsi Folger, they weigh in on the development of their own tattoo practices, experiences with revitalization in their communities and how the loss of traditional knowledge concretely affects them.

Inuit Art Quarterly: How did you become interested in kakiniit and tunniit?

Malayah Enooyah Maloney: I can't say that kakiniit and tunniit were talked about growing up, but I knew they were around. We have prints and sculptures in my parents’ house with face tattoos but it wasn't until the last decade that I started to see people with them. I only saw it in art forms, like photographs, carvings and prints. 

Aedan Corey: For me, the awareness of kakiniit and tunniit began early. We had Inuinnaqtun classes in our school where they asked us to draw designs for different tattoos. After I got my tattoos I noticed an emotional shift happen where I felt so much more complete and I knew that this was something I wanted to continue. 

Aghalingiak (Zoe Ohokannoak): I’ve always been very interested in tattoos, tattoo history and design from early on.

Growing up, signs of tattooing practices were there; however, the main viewpoint was that it was something in the past and that it wouldn't happen again, which is really unfortunate to grow up believing. Feeling numb toward one's own culture is strange.


Untitled (Nâlungiaq’s tattoos) (c. 1923) Graphite

IAQ: Do you have any thoughts on what contributed to the loss of knowledge about kakiniit and tunniit? 

MM: I'd say the loss of our language has really impacted the way you connect to culture because we don't know the stories. We don't know how to ask the questions. There's such a huge language barrier that I feel like an outsider among my own people.

AC: Residential school survivors who were taught that their culture was evil don't necessarily have the same level of comfort talking about tattooing practices as people who haven't had those experiences. Those of us who have members of our family who have been to residential school, we still carry that trauma.

AO: You can very much sense it from survivors who are also scared to address it. As a person who has residential school survivors in my own family, I am afraid to ask anything of what has happened and it's so hard to break those barriers.

AC: Tattooing had been banned historically— it wasn't just a suggestion that you should stop— it was forced. They would say, “You're gonna stop or you're gonna go to hell, or we're gonna do these horrible things to you.” So there's this disconnect for a lot of people. There's this collective trauma that we face that really impacts our ability to share and to pass on knowledge to each other through the generations. How do we have these discussions? What pain will come of that for a lot of people? And are we ready to handle that with the little resources that we have right now?


Françoise Oklaga
Untitled (Human-animal transformations) (1979) Coloured pencil 63.5 x 83.8 cm

IAQ: When you got your tattoos, how did your family and communities respond to them?

MM: Last summer I asked my mom, “Don't you want to get traditional tattoos?” She said, “No, why would I get those?” and I was immediately saddened. I thought, if my mom doesn't want them, does that mean I can't? But then through a lot of self-exploration and reaching out to friends and family, I realized that response is due to ongoing colonization. It took some time for me to decide to get kakiniit. Now I don't feel the need for other people's acceptance or permission because I know I’m Inuk no matter where I live. 

AC: My family was pretty supportive of anything but the face. But I think after I got my tunniit, they recognized that it had a lot of meaning both culturally and emotionally. Since that point, they've been much more accepting.

I started receiving my tattoos at a time when it was already more common, so I wasn't at the forefront of the movement. 

AO: Around the time the revitalization project was happening, I had a conversation with my boss about traditional tattoos and he said, “Don't get the V on the forehead; it's ugly, it's very tacky.” That definitely would not fly with me today.


Ningiukulu Teevee
Untitled (2022) Acrylic, coloured pencil, pastel and ink 39.5 x 189 cm

IAQ: How did you go about researching tattooing? Did you ask other Inuit about it? If so, how did people respond to your questions?

MM: Because of my own sense of identity, I think that gets in the way of being able to ask even more questions, because I'm scared of any negative feedback. It is also really hard to find reliable sources. When I visit home, I go straight to the library or the museums because they have way more information than I'll find down south. 

AC: I gifted frozen char to one of the Elders and asked her for some more information about traditional tattoos. That's how I decided the meanings for mine. A lot of that information was hidden from us for generations. 

AO: I did much research through artwork that was done before colonization. The toughest was asking my Atata, or my grandfather, if there was anyone in our family that had traditional tattoos. I was very nervous because I generally don't ask them about our culture. 


Aghalingiak (Zoe Ohokannoak)
Kanok Piniaka, Series #4 (2022) Oil 165.1 x 76.2 cm

IAQ: How do tunniit and kakiniit relate to intellectual and cultural property for you?

MM: Tattoos are original and designs are passed generationally, but they also have gendered meanings. Before you consider getting them, you should be able to identify which markings you're getting. They're very telling of what stage of your life you're in. They tell stories. But I also think there's room for personalization. 

AC: I’ve also heard that if you receive the same tattoos as someone else, you will not be able to differentiate between each other in the afterlife. There is some degree of responsibility to make sure that you're not hurting anyone by taking someone else's design.


Cora DeVos
Untitled (2017) Digital photograph


Salomonie Pootoogook
Tattooed Face (1970) Steatite 15.2 x 12.7 x 14 cm

IAQ: Are you able to share the meanings behind the designs of your tattoos?

AO: No one marking belongs to a specific meaning. The meaning behind it will not be the same to another person within a community. It can be individualistic to one's own family, community, region or their role in the community.

MM: To give an example, my newest tattoos are my Sedna lines. Sedna is our ocean spirit. Many people have their fingers tattooed, but I designed it in a way that matches with my life story. So the meaning I've attached to them is that I have dotted lines across all of them as the first row, which basically represents uncertainty of myself in my adolescence and early adulthood. Then the next line is solid, because it represents my growing consciousness of my identity. Altogether my tattoos signify a connection to my culture. But the hands in general have a certain meaning, which is a connection to water and food and Sedna.

AC: Thigh tattoos are birthing tattoos for most people. I've heard different things about the forehead and chin tattoos. Those can be a little bit more personalized. The chest tattoos are modern—they're also called mother-bearing tattoos to be seen when you're wearing your amauti. 

As a Two-Spirit person, I have what are traditionally seen as women's tattoos, but I also have what is seen traditionally as a man's tattoo.

The Ys that I have on my wrists symbolize hunting tools. The wiggly line represents water. But when I explain them, I try to be very general. I don't go into what they mean for me specifically, what history I have with each of these symbols. I never really go into deeper meanings with people who are not Inuit. I don't want anyone to take something I say and think, This is what it means for all Inuit, or for non-Inuit to think, I'm gonna get this done for myself


Mark Bennett
Study of a Deconstructed Kakiniit (2020) Screen print 112 x 76 cm

Malayah Enooyah Maloney is a multidisciplinary artist and writer originally from Iqaluit, NU, and currently based on the unceded territories of Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm), Squamish (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw) and Tsleil-Waututh (səlilwətaɬ) Nations. Her practice includes hand-poke tattooing, sewing and beading inspired by her mixed heritage and urban surroundings. 

Aedan Corey is an Inuit tattoo artist and writer from Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), NU, currently living on the unceded Algonquin territory known as Ottawa, ON. Their practice includes hand-poke tattooing, digital art and poetry, and explores themes of queerness, family and mental health. 

Aghalingiak (Zoe Ohokannoak) is from Iqaluktuuttiaq, NU. They are a student at NSCAD University in Halifax, NS. Their recent show Kanok Piniaka / The Process of Embodied Practices at Treaty Space Gallery in 2022 showcased kakiniit processes in a series of four paintings. With the mentorship of Jocelyn Piirainen, they curated Kakiniit/Hivonighijotaaa: Inuit Embodied Practices and Meanings at the WAG-Qaumajuq which ran from April–July 2022, featuring works by Inuit artists showcasing Inuit with tattoos and markings.


A portion of this Feature was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

Read Our Print Tattoo Feature Here!

This series was made possible with the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts.


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