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The Revival of Traditional Inuit Tattoos

Iima Arngaq


Via Mary Arngaq

Little girls gather around, markers in hand, decorating their foreheads with tattoos and contemplating their work with pride. As more girls join them, they take turns drawing tattoos on each other’s skins and argue about the best ones until the old markers are emptied of their ink. 

As a result of colonization, we have lost our ability to practice our culture. However, the Inuit youth’s curiosity about our identity and wanting to practice it has begun its revival, starting with the practice of our traditional Inuit tattoos. 

Tattoos are very significant in Inuit culture, as the markings indicate who a person is — what they love, their achievements, their talents, and their destination in the spirit world. Today, as the practice has resurfaced, the Inuit tap into its meanings by creating their own designs. Mary Arngaq, an Inuk director at Pingualuit Park, explains, as she showcases the beautiful markings on her arm: “On my right arm, I have lines of my family: Luke, myself, my son, my daughter and my grandchildren,” and, gesturing to more tattoos: “Another line is about my dreams, another line is of my talent for music and another line is about my passion for ice fishing.” 

The tattoos are also significant because of the ritualistic process by which the tattoos were given. Evie Mark, an Inuk professor at John Abbott and Montmorency College, explains: “When the young woman was getting her tattoo, she was isolated with the seamstress — who is either an elder or somebody really good at sewing — and they would be isolated for about two months, which is two periods, because the young girl who started her period would get her first markings, her womanhood markings. And so, because it is a painful procedure, she really needed to have privacy with the woman.” 

However, the hardships involved in the process of the acquisition of traditional tattoos were especially unsanitary and painful. In the past, only certain materials were available to fabricate tattooing tools, and so “they used very thick bone needles, sinew, from either a Caribou or whale’s sinew, and [...] sot from the qulliq or ink from blueberry juice, to ink themselves,” Evie explains passionately. As a result of no alternative tools, Evie states that “it was painful, brutal to get traditional tattooing. Imagine using a very thick bone to stitch your skin.” In addition to the pain, tools were rarely sterile, leading to some incidents in which people died from tattoo-related infections. 

Fortunately, as sanitized tattooing equipment has become widely available, the fear of partaking in the practice has greatly diminished and our traditional tattoos have grown in popularity among the new generation of Inuit. Ellie, an Inuk student at Concordia, has had numerous people come up to her in praise of her tattoos, and thought out loud that “ a lot of people are doing it now, runnasilirsaulirivunga (now I’m more able to do it)”. 

With the rise in popularity of the practice also rises negative opinions regarding it, mostly coming from those who have not yet broken out of the colonizer mindset. Ellie has overheard an Inuktitut teacher say: “I find Inuit people who look [more] white look better with traditional tattoos compared to those who look Inuk.” To this colonial mindset, Ellie retorts: “Whatever, internalized colonialism much?” Evie recounts negative comments towards her tattoos by other Inuit with colonized mindsets. “‘They’re disgusting’ or ‘they’re the mark of the devil,’ ‘you’re trying too hard to be Inuk.’ I think those are just very ignorant comments,” explains Evie. “We must better educate our people and help decolonize the minds of our own people.” 

Nevertheless, the culture of traditional Inuit tattoos continues to thrive and grow day by day. Though the fear of forgetfulness and colonial mindsets persists, there is hope that “it [might become] a norm in Inuit culture again. It’s not the end of the world if we don’t get them, but it may be the end of our culture,” says Ellie, expressing her worries. As challenges rise, there is no choice but to stick to our culture. Staying courageous is the key to conquering fear; and, according to her: “I think that there will always be judgment and discomfort. It hurt so much to lose our culture, there was so much pain when we lost these cultural practices, and I think there will also be pain to revitalize them,” Ellie concludes.


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