• Feature

The Changing Face of the Inuit Tattoo Movement

Mar 14, 2023
by IAQ

In the last 15 years there has been an explosive resurgence in Inuit traditional tattooing, with films like Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos (2011), initiatives like the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project led by Hovak Johnston and workshops training a new generation of Inuit traditional tattooers. 

For this two-part Feature on tattooing practices, IAQ Associate Editor Napatsi Folger sat down with noted scholars Maya Sialuk Jacobsen and Krista Ulujuk Zawadski to hear their thoughts on the complexities of these resurgent practices. Jacobsen, a tattooer and leading scholar of tattooing practices across Inuit Nunaat, and Zawadski, an anthropologist and curator studying, in part, motifs in Inuit tattooing and sewing, share their interpretation of historic and contemporary tunniit (facial tattoos) and kakiniit (body tattoos) practices, as informed by their lived experiences and research. This Feature highlights important topics surrounding the practices, from the differences between histories of Inuit in Greenland and Canada to the impact of colonialism on traditional tattooing.


Inuit Art Quarterly: You are both respected voices in the conversations happening around Arctic Indigenous tattooing today. What sparked your interest in learning about traditional tattooing?

Krista Ulujuk Zawadski: When I was growing up in Igluligaarjuk [Chesterfield Inlet, NU], my interest was always there, but it was always kind of a mystery. During my undergrad, one of the archaeologists I studied with mentioned that a lot of art on tools could correlate with tattoos. I started to do more research into tattoo motifs on tools, beadwork, clothing design and sewing techniques. So it’s been this lifelong process of research to fill that gap, created by colonialism, in our knowledge. I’ve relied a lot on stories, archival research, art, photographs and ethnographies.

Maya Sialuk Jacobsen: About 12 years ago I started slowing down with the Western tattoo work because I had a shoulder injury, and just started reading about [Inuit tattooing]. It made me so curious. Every time I figured something out, I had ten new questions, and I never stopped. Later when I started talking to people in Canada and Alaska, I realized that if we want to use Indigenous research methodologies, we have to be so aware of the coloniality in ourselves and in the people that we are researching, as well as the sources we are using. 

What seems to be the case, not only in the Arctic but across the world, is that about 50 years after the missionaries arrived tattoo practices disappeared. It takes 50 years to remove language and memory to stop that passing down from generation to generation. 

After collecting a vast number of images of facial tattoos, I laid them out on the floor on this imaginary map of Inuit Nunaat and I could see the timeline, the migration, and see where things altered, but I didn’t know why. I understood that it had to be spiritual because the timelines and this stretch of area that they were covering without changing indicated how important they were. I started understanding how the geography of the landscape and the hunting methods of different areas correlated with certain types of patterns. I looked at the makeshift map I had laid out for three days and then I said, “Well, welcome to the rest of your life.”


Mary Edetoak, Charles Camsell Indian Hospital, Edmonton, 1958

IAQ: How did your family and communities respond to your tattoos when you first got them?

KZ: I’ve had a lot of people seeking guidance, especially in my family. My nieces are asking me a lot of questions. That really warms my heart because I’ve helped open up that safe space for my family. Part of the reason it’s not so shocking for my community may be because I have them on “normal” body parts; I don’t have anything on my face or my neck or my chest. But I know people here with tattoos on these “taboo” places, according to the colonial perspective.

MJ: When I got my facial tattoos, I was already fully tattooed and they just blended in with all my Western tattoos. At home in Greenland the tattoos have been connected to the decolonization movement. They have been politicized and people automatically assume that you have certain opinions and ideas if you have tattoos, which is not the case with me.

Typically if a client gets facial tattoos their families are very moved and happy when they get the right tattoos from their homelands. But when they design the tattoos themselves, inspired by the original pattern base, I see a bigger pushback on it. There’s a lot of coloniality in the reception of tattoos as well. These big chin tattoos are not happening; I think it has a lot to do with Western beauty standards. 

KZ: Those are really good points about the colonial aesthetic and how that’s influencing the revival today.

MJ: From a research standpoint, I would say it’s not a revival, it’s a reinvention. It’s going too fast to be a revival because it takes time to take in the spirituality and to change your mind around Western beauty standards and to get used to and relearn the beauty of the Inuk face. We should be honest about that because maybe somebody wants to actually revive it with the purpose of  the original spirituality and everything that is connected to it.

Where are the rules around tattooing and can we adapt them to contemporary life? They’re gone, so everybody is just doing what they feel is right for them without thinking collectively for the group. That’s where I am most frustrated after 12 years of doing this: are we missing a conversation about the social framework around the tattoos? Are we allowed to redraw them? What happens to the pattern base? Are we destroying it by reinventing?


Helen Kalvak in Ulukhaktok, 1977

IAQ: In this new generation of tattooers, there is an ongoing discussion about the meanings of specific designs. What do you think of the way meaning is evolving for young Inuit?

MJ: The spirituality and the hunting aspect [have been removed]. The meaning is all about identity. The same tattoo pattern tattooed on 20 different girls means 20 different things. It was highly group-oriented in its traditional form, as was everything in our lives. In the oral tradition, all the stories about people who decided to go out as individuals show how it was risky to have people only thinking about themselves. A hyper-individualized focus on self clashes with the traditions of tribal tattooing.

KZ: One of the themes that my mother and I often talk about is inuuqatigiitsiarniq or katujjiqatigiitsiarniq, working together for community living, and my mom is quick to point out that so many people today don’t understand the concept of living and working as a community the same way we did 50 years ago. You had to think about the community first, especially in small or isolated places.


Kuptana holding Donald Ayalik, 1937

IAQ: Can you share the meaning of designs, or are there too many varied meanings to be able to give answers like that?

MJ: Historically, [tattoo patterns or amulets] would be more limited to how hunting methods were used. These amuletic patterns are giving the hunter strength and luck to be a successful hunter for the whole community to survive.

Archival materials show that arms and legs and chest tattoos would be pretty similar for each tribe; they would put the amulet together in a certain way and had certain placement on the arms. That part is easier to say that whatever group you are belonging to those are your body tattoos. 

The face tattoos, however, seem to have always had more distinctions. The forehead, for example. There are certain groups where the line goes down on the nose; there are certain groups where it doesn’t and some have the more flat M shape. There are certain rules, but within those rules there are exceptions, too. It seems to me that the facial tattoos all had some kind of specific look for the person, there was a little bit of individuality in the facial design within those frames.

Now tattoos are not connected to hunting in the reinvention of Inuit tattooing. Sometimes when people are saying, “I refuse to share [the meaning] because it’s private, it’s for our people,” I wonder if it’s because they don’t know, because they can’t explain it. And the reason is that it takes a thousand years to realize it and to understand it and to do that research.

KZ: I’ll differentiate or I’ll say, “I’m from this region, I’m from this community and it means this, but it might mean something else somewhere else.” I agree that oftentimes people maybe don’t have that breadth of knowledge. These remnants of our belief systems are still being passed on and lived, but coloniality is still trying to claw itself into our culture.


Kila, Coronation Gulf, 1916

IAQ: What are your thoughts about using traditional methods versus incorporating new technologies like tattoo guns?

MJ: There is only one way at the moment that we can go through [tattoo hygiene and safety training] and that is through Western tattooing practices. Not only do you need training in using the machine, but also the health and safety part of using a machine is much more evolved than for hand poking. If you are not a trained tattooer and you are learning tattooing as you go, you should be hand poking for sure. There’s less risk of hurting the people that you’re tattooing.

Then there’s the other side of this whole spectrum of tools, and that’s the bone needles and the sinew thread. Just don’t, unless you are a trained tattooer and you are in an environment that can [hygienically and safely] carry this. We’ve seen it go wrong. First of all, to create the needles for tattooing takes a lot of skill and knowledge in how to preserve them, how to clean them. You need training to do this. Leave the really traditional tools and materials, because we are different now; there are more people; we’re travelling; there are epidemics, pandemics, tuberculosis and it’s just too dangerous.

KZ: I agree about the bone needles. Another thing that comes to mind is how good is the tattooer at sewing? If you’re somebody who is not very good at sewing and who doesn’t have the best stitches and you’re trying to use a bone needle, that’s something that could go very wrong very quickly.

IAQ: Can you talk about what contributed to the loss of knowledge about traditional tattooing?

KZ: We’re coming from very different places. When you think about places like Nunatsiavut, similar to Greenland, they were colonized so early on that it’s really impacted their culture and language in different ways today, whereas here in Nunavut, my grandparents were living on the land until they were teenagers. It’s still in people’s living memories. My grandmother, she’ll talk about how the tattoos are supposed to be placed, or how far down they have to go to the bridge of your nose.

In other places there are different levels of knowledge. In Nunavut, Christianity and colonialism are the biggest factors for the loss of knowledge. There is also the adoption of Western aesthetics. People who are not much older than me remember their grandmothers having tattoos, but then they couldn’t carry it on. Maybe in the 1940s and ’50s it was priests and nuns that were saying, “No, you can’t do it.” By the 1970s and ’80s, there wasn’t so much external pushback but it had already been taken out of the culture.

MJ: I think the same thing happened to all of us, but at different times. People who convert are always super strong in their faith and it is such a difficult discussion to have. It is hard to bring up how instrumental these new Christians were in pushing away the old parts of our culture, replacing them with shame.

While we could not talk about the tattoos with our Elder women, they would teach us all kinds of other traditional things, so we have a very strong cultural anchor in Greenland. I feel like the more “Greenlandic” you are, for example, if you are living your entire life out in the hunting areas, you don’t need the tattoos. But the more Danish or the more mixed you are, the lack of language, the bigger the town you come from, the more you want the tattoos. It seems to be replacing a lack of other cultural aspects that we are missing.

KZ: We need that social framework when it comes to learning about our culture. I have a lot of conversations at home about sewing and patterns and Inuit concepts of copyright. I have sewing patterns that people have shared with me. There’s almost a lineage for the pattern. Where did you get it? Can I use it? Can I adjust it? Can I share it? You could apply those protocols to other aspects of our culture, including clothing and tattoo design.

MJ: I want people to differentiate between the original pattern base of traditional tattoos and what we could call neo-Inuit work, or neo-traditional work. Every tattoo is valuable. I love all of them. However, it is important that we know what Inuit tattooing is, and what is tradition versus what is new. The sheer amount of new Inuit tattoos has drowned out the original base if you go online. But there are beautiful archives, we have hundreds of pictures and drawings and descriptions of traditional tattoos. I’m really rooting for [people] to use those and find the areas that correlate with their mother line. It has to be the mother line, because those are the women who wore the tattoos.


Maya Sialuk Jacobsen is a tattooer, researcher and cultural disseminator from Qeqertarsuaq in Northwest Greenland. She has been tattooing for 22 years. Her tattoo research includes the material and immaterial cultural heritage of Inuit from Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

Krista Ulujuk Zawadski is a PhD candidate, curator, researcher, anthropologist, beader and sewist from Igluligaarjuk (Chesterfield Inlet), NU, and Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), NU. She holds an MA in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia.


This Feature was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly. 

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