Updated: Feb 12
The existence of Indigenous tattooing practices is common knowledge for most - the Maori of New Zealand being one of the best known examples - but many Vancouverites may be surprised to learn that the art has deep roots among the First Nations people of British Columbia as well.
On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, Vancouver’s newly renovated Bill Reid Gallery presents Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest, a brand new exhibition which attempts to raise awareness and document the re-emergence of this long forgotten tradition.
Tattooing had been widely used among First Nations peoples for thousands of years to commemorate rites of passage, to convey social rank, as signs of respect to guardian spirits, and to heal and provide protection. The Potlatch Ban of 1885 put an abrupt and severe end to this, and the shock waves of that and accompanying anti-Indigenous barbarities have embedded themselves indelibly in the lives and societies of the affected peoples. Body Language is, therefore, situated squarely within the context of Canada’s history of cultural genocide.
Five young artists are featured in the exhibition: Nakkita Trimble (of the Nisga’a nation), Nahaan (Tlingit), Corey Bulpitt (Haida), Dean Hunt (Heiltsuk), and Dion Kaszas (Nlaka’pamux). Through their work, the show explores two main styles of Indigenous tattooing: Handpoke style, which involves manually using a sharp instrument (as opposed to a machine) to deposit ink under the skin; and Skin Stitch style, in which a needle and thread is used to embed short lines of ink subcutaneously. Rounding out the display are various pieces illustrating the relationship between tattooing and other disciplines such as weaving, basketry, traditional clothing, rock art, and jewelry.
Abundantly evident is the fact that the artists have each gone through a substantial period of education and self-reflection about the personal and wider relevance of their practice. They have made a concerted effort to reconnect with their own tribal elders and to carefully navigate the particular customs and protocols surrounding tattooing in their cultures. Having thus internalized the significance of the tradition, they are each emerging as skilled practitioners and curators in their own right.
Nakkita Trimble’s introduction to this unusual calling came from an unexpected source: a recurring dream. In it, she would find herself making ink from a black, ash-like substance. “I later learned that it was volcanic rock, crushed into a powder, and I was tattooing a portrait of my grandmother on this bear hide - and it was happening to me over and over again”. The dream would become the inspiration that would eventually lead Nakkita to a tattoo apprenticeship, to New Zealand to learn about the oral history of the Maori, and finally to laying the groundwork for her own practice with the blessing of the Matriarchs and Chiefs of the Nisga’a Nation.
While various ethnographers have attempted to record and preserve the history of cultural practices such as tattooing among First Nations, the knowledge is uneven and difficult to track down. “That’s somebody else’s interpretation of our culture, so the only way to get the real information is by talking to the elders in your community”, says Nakkita. However, it can be a painful process. “There’s many elders out there who do know that history, who are afraid to share it, because they still fear the church. Christian influence is still very heavy in our community”.
Ultimately, the purpose of an exhibition like Body Language is to create awareness - not just among the broader Canadian society - but also among a new generation of First Nations youth who are arriving at a deeper understanding of their own identities. “I hope that this exhibition creates acceptance among the wider audience”, says Nakkita. “Having something like this gallery for the public to see is creating awareness outside of our communities”. She, like the four other artists, is hopeful about reviving these disappearing histories.
Visitors at the opening of Body Language had the unique pleasure of watching the artists practice their art in the flesh (apologies for the pun). The exhibition is curated by Beth Carter with Dionne Kaszas serving as guest curator, and will run until January 13th, 2019.