International Women’s Day 2019 – Inuit Tattoo Artists

In honour of International Women’s Day 2019, JFK members are highlighting the contributions of a number of Indigenous women.

For women living in North America’s circumpolar region, the practice of tattooing existed for thousands of years prior to colonization. Tattoos were traditionally inscribed “on women’s skin by women’s hands,” to mark significant events in women’s lives. However, as with many other integral cultural practices, the tradition was violently interrupted by the arrival of colonialism, Christian missionaries and residential schools. Now, Inuit and other Indigenous women across North America’s circumpolar region are taking steps to revitalize the tradition of tattooing. In Canada, for example, Inuk tattoo artist Angela Hovak Johnston has and continues to travel around communities to tattoo Inuit women. She has also published a book about her work. Hundreds of women of all ages have received tattoos from Hovak Johnson and other female Indigenous tattoo artists.

In 2011, Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril released a documentary Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos, which explores the history and tradition behind Inuit face tattoos. In Arnaquq-Baril’s words, “Tunniit is … about my journey to learn about traditional Inuit women’s face tattoos before getting tattooed myself. However, I think (I hope) it also speaks to a universal desire to feel part of a community.  A sense of identity is a necessary foundation for life that is often taken for granted by those who have never had their identity challenged or attacked.”

On International Women’s Day 2019, we recognize all of these women, working together to reclaim and revitalize traditional tattooing. We admire their resilience and power in the face of attempted colonial genocide, and their work in and across communities.