Decolonizing and reclaiming culture through syilx hand poke tattooing

For syilx hand poke tattoo practitioner Sheldon Pierre Louis, markings are a sign of reclamation and activism.

sqilx’w tattoo artists are reclaiming the practice of hand poke tattooing, and say it’s a component of cultural reclamation that has been missing until recently.

A small group of artists trained remotely in the cultural practice during the pandemic, some of whom attended the “Awakening Our DNA Tattoo Gathering” on June 18 and 19 in Nlaka’pamux homelands.

For Sheldon Pierre Louis, a syilx visual artist who’s part of the newly trained cohort, the event was his first opportunity to put his new tattooing skills to work.

“We likened what we’re doing as one of the pieces to bring our people back,” Louis said.

“We’re bringing back language, we’re bringing back ceremony, we’re bringing back culture. What we’ve seen and what we discussed was that (our) tattooing practice was a missing piece.” 

Louis, who’s also a councillor with the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB), said the practice is a “form of activism” and a practice in decolonization.

“It’s just one more piece that’s going to help decolonize and bring us back … as close as we can to who we traditionally are.”

“Coming back in and putting those marks back on our body, (it’s) just showing again that we’re still here and this is who we are.”

Louis, who has been creating art since he was six-years-old, became intrigued with how to do traditional markings sometime around 2015 after his cousin introduced him to Dion Kaszas, a traditional tattoo practitioner from the Nlaka’pamux Nation.

Kaszas is a founding member of the Earthline Tattoo Collective, a group of Indigenous visual artists and cultural tattoo practitioners. At the time, he was working on his Master of Arts thesis at the University of British Columbia Okanagan exploring the revival of Indigenous tattooing in “Canada.” 

Right away, Louis was eager to learn from Kaszas and peppered him with questions about what was used for traditional inks and needles.

“He shared with me that we’d use bone and probably some larger thorns,” said Louis.

Louis also recalls that Kaszas said traditional practitioners would sometimes burn devil’s club and then mix the soot with a binder to create a natural ink.

Soon after, Danielle Saddleman – the cousin who introduced the pair –  showed Louis a tattoo on her leg, which Kaszas had done.

“It really reminded me so much of a pictograph, just the rawness and the roughness of her tattoo,” recalls Louis. “I was like, ‘Wow, I want one of those. How do I get one?’”

Louis reached out to Kaszas, who then asked Louis if he’d like to learn traditional tattooing. But learning the practice would take four weeks, a time commitment Louis couldn’t make due to his work with OKIB’s chief and council.

Then, a few years later in 2019, Kaszas got back in touch with Louis, and said he wanted to apply for a grant through the First Peoples’ Cultural Council to mentor Indigenous traditional tattoo practitioners in “British Columbia’s” interior region. He asked if Louis was interested in participating, and Louis said yes.  

In early 2020, the council approved a grant of $12,000. But the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit in March of that year, made it a challenge to offer the program. Kaszas was living in “Nova Scotia” and had been planning to travel to interior “B.C.” to teach the program. There he would mentor Louis, and two other artists: Robin Humphrey of the Nlaka’pamux Nation and Jacqueline Merritt of the Tsilhqot’in Nation.

So, the group had to get creative. Kaszas taught the program virtually in August 2020 with the help of Zoom and camera adaptors that enabled high-resolution video calls. In one instance, Kaszas set up a zoom lens so that the mentees could watch up close as he tattooed his wife.

“He zoomed right in on him doing the hand poke so we could visually see the technique. So we learned like that.”

Sheldon Pierre Louis’s learning setup during the two-week training program. Photo provided by Sheldon Pierre Louis.

The group was provided with the same materials that you would find in a mainstream tattoo parlour: single-use, prepackaged metal needles. But instead of loading the needles into a tattoo gun, the artists were to wrap one end with gauze and tape, enabling them to hold the needles in their hand. 

As for the tattooing process itself, Louis said that the needle goes in on a diagonal angle, where you hear a flick noise as it punctures the skin before exiting.

“What you’re doing is you’re creating that opening for the ink,” he said.

Learning and training remotely over a two-week span, Louis said, was “definitely different,” especially because he prefers hands-on training.

Guest teachers also shared their expertise. This included Nahaan, a Tlingit tattoo artist, Lane Wilcken, a Filipino “mambabatok” tattoo practitioner and Nakkita Trimble, a Nisga’a Tlingit traditional northwest coast artist.

“They shared their experiences. What they went through, how transformative it was,” said Louis. “How it helped to revive and restrengthen different parts of their cultures that were stolen and shamed out of the people.”

The mentees were also required to tattoo themselves as Kaszas watched over Zoom. Louis tattooed a pictograph-style image of fir boughs right above his left knee. 

“I wanted it to stay within as much traditional as possible, so I really emulated pictograph styles,” he said. 

“Because the pictographs that are out there that exist, you really shouldn’t be duplicating them exactly. We’re always, as artists, encouraged to create your own pictograph imagery. And that’s what I did with mine.”

Traditional syilx hand poke tattoo designs created by Sheldon Pierre Louis. Photo provided by Sheldon Pierre Louis.

Fir boughs are used in a variety of ways in ceremonies, and Louis said he chose them for his tattoo as a reminder that in life, we’re always in ceremony. 

Traditional markings of fir boughs done by Sheldon Pierre Louis, right above his left knee. Photo provided by Sheldon Pierre Louis.

“Even if we’re not physically practicing it, it’s ceremony,” he said.

Traditional syilx hand poke tattoos done by Sheldon Pierre Louis for his partner, Csetkwe Fortier. On their left arm is a marking of a bear paw to represent their oldest son, and on their right arm is a marking of a cougar paw to represent their youngest son. Photo provided by Sheldon Pierre Louis.

After tattooing himself, Louis was then required to tattoo five other people over Zoom as Kaszas watched. Louis tattooed, Csetkwe Fortier, his partner, Margaret Manuel, his sister-in-law, Tiyanetkw Manuel, his niece, Howie Louis, his cousin, and Shane Miller, his friend.

A traditional marking done by Sheldon Pierre Louis for Tiyanetkw Manuel, his niece. Photo provided by Sheldon Pierre Louis.

“Dion watched every tattoo over Zoom,” said Louis. “At the end, he was like, you guys are done. You guys are interior, traditional, hand poke tattoo practitioners.”

Since completing his training, more than 60 syilx people have reached out to Louis and requested he tattoo a traditional marking on them.

“It’s amazing to know that there are that many people to start with that are wanting to reconnect through those markings. Wanting to decolonize, wanting to take back what’s ours. And wanting to be out in the open with it, especially with face tattoos,” he said.

Traditional marking done by Sheldon Pierre Louis of the tmixʷ (Four Food Chiefs) for, Chantelle Eustache, his cousin. Starting from the index finger is skmxist, spitlem, siya? and n’tyxtix. Photo provided by Sheldon Pierre Louis.

“Some are probably going to want them where they’re not too visible. But some are wanting to be visible and be like, ‘Here I am, this is me. We’re still here.’”

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