Exhibit explores rich identity of Indigenous tattooing 

Leading artists are featured in ‘Body Language’ — on display at Museum of Surrey until Sept. 4
A man in a fur and a wooden, whale-shaped hat stands against a blue sky.
Nahaan is one of the artists featured in the exhibit. Photo submitted by Nahaan

The revitalization and rich history of Indigenous tattooing is the subject of a touring multimedia exhibit that’s currently on display in “Surrey.”

Body Language can be viewed both virtually and in-person at the Museum of Surrey until Sept. 4. It features photographs of Indigenous tattoo artists and their work, historical photographs of Indigenous tattoos and a variety of paintings, sculptures and videos by the artists. 

The ancient practice is about claiming identity and telling the world who you are, says Nahaan, whose designs are featured in the exhibit.

“These designs would signify where we’re from and who our family is, and through that process, our rights, responsibilities, obligations, and privileges,” he says.

“So, it really is to signify who we are and identify who we’re related to, and that is really important to every aspect of our culture.”

Hand poke and skin stitch

Nahaan, who introduces himself in Łingít, is Tlingit and is from the Killer Whale Dorsal Fin House. Nahan’s familial lineage is Iñupiaq from Nome by his mother, Kaigani Haida from his father, and Paiute from Fort Bidwell by his biological father.

Born and raised in “Seattle, Washington,” Nahaan began with crest design in wood carving before turning to tattoos in 2009.

“I’d never really planned on doing tattoos,” he says, describing how he started tattooing

“At the time it was with a machine, but it was still doing formline crest design work. I’ve never done numbers or letters,” says Nahaan.

“It’s always been ancestral work, either from my people or from the client’s people,” says Nahaan. 

He began researching Tlingit formline when he was a kid and says he was influenced by relatives who were carvers. They would send him poster-size sheets of formline drawings, and he would colour them in.

A forearm is pictured from the wrist to the elbow, displaying a form line tattoo.
A tattoo done by Nahaan. Photo submitted by Nahaan

“That influence was always there, the research was always there, and the confidence from my community was always there. When it came to tattooing, my community was like ‘Yeah, go for it, bro!’ and offered up their skin. It was always 110 per cent support,” says Nahaan.

“As for a methodology, I put down the machine in 2018. Since then, I’ve been doing hand poke, skin stitch, hand tap, and scarification.”

Nahaan and Nakkita Trimble, who is Nisga’a and is also part of the exhibit, explain the tattooing methods they use. Hand poke tattooing is when you dip a needle into ink and use it to poke just beneath the skin. Skin stitch is where you soak thread in ink and move the needle and thread in and out of the skin. Scarification is when you cut the skin and then brush the area with ink. 

Five hand-carved wooden sticks the size of pencils with different sizes of metal tips on a white background.
A small tattoo kit. Photo submitted by the Museum of Surrey

Tattooing at potlatches used to be common, Nahaan says. The Potlatch Ban made it illegal for Indigenous people to practice culture and banned ceremonies such as the potlatch between 1885 and 1951.

“I hadn’t heard of anybody tattooing at a potlatch in recent times. Now, that’s around a little bit,” he said, and in 2016 and 2022 he completed tattoos at potlatches.

Oral histories of tattooing

Nakkita shares with us her Nisga’a name, Algaxhl Gwilksk’alt’amtkw, Speaking Through Art, and is Frog Clan from the Nisga’a Nation. She is from the Kincolith in the “Nass Valley, B.C.”

Born and raised in “Prince Rupert,” art has always been a part of Nakkita’s life. As a kid she attended dance classes, her family made regalia, and there was Indigenous art on display in the home where she grew up. And although she once tattooed herself as a kid, tattooing wasn’t an immediate or clear path. 

“I remember tattooing myself when I was around nine or 11 with ink and a needle; of course, the tattoo eventually faded away. I tattooed my grandmother’s initials,” she says.

“I really began to understand how to put formline together after attending the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art. My instructors were Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and Ken McNeil.”

Nakkita began tattooing in 2011, and in 2013 she began researching the tattooing practices of her ancestors, a responsibility that came with the work.

“In my early 20s I was having dreams about tattooing formline on a bear hide,” says Nakkita.

But tattooing had become a dormant practice in her community because of colonization. 

“I was able to talk with the Elders in my community and my grandmother about traditional tattooing and with their permission and support, I recorded our oral history of traditional tattooing.”

“All I had were papers in a binder of my own research,” says Nakkita. But, eventually, she gathered enough information to hold an exhibit on the history of her nation’s tattooing practices at the Nisga’a Museum in 2015. And now, having built up her practice and knowledge, she hopes that she can one day pass it on to her children.

Nahaan also began navigating the art form when very little information was publicly available.

“When I first started doing traditional tattooing, there was nobody around doing crest work, so there was nobody I could talk to about it. No hashtags on Facebook or Instagram,” he says.

Both Nakkita and Nahaan explain that tattoos not only tell the world who you are, but wearing a crest design also shows who your people are, where you come from and what your responsibilities are. 

“It’s about identity. We are building up the parts of ourselves that we always had,” says Nakkita.

An Indigenous woman with dark brunette hair that is straight and flows past her shoulders is staring into the camera with a closed-mouth smile. She is wearing a black shirt and metal earrings dangling from her ears, and a septum piercing.
Algaxhl Gwilksk’alt’amtkw, Nakkita Trimble, is one of the artists featured in the exhibit. Photo submitted by Nakkita Trimble

Curating the exhibit

In its original run, Body Language was featured at the Bill Reid Gallery in 2018-2019 and was guest-curated by Dion Kaszas of the Nlaka’pamux Nation in collaboration with the museum’s curator, Beth Carter. 

“I managed to connect with Dion as he was just finishing his masters that focused on Indigenous tattooing traditions,” says Carter.

At the Museum of Surrey, the exhibit will be smaller and not feature all the pieces in the collection because the Indigenous Hall is a smaller space than the Bill Reid Gallery. 

Carter and Dion secured a grant that allowed them to bring four additional artists on board for the exhibit: Nakkita, Nahaan, Corey Bulpitt of the Haida Nation and Dean Hunt of the Heiltsuk Nation. 

When researching for the exhibit, Carter and Dion found examples of Indigenous tattooing among cultures in Japan, the South Pacific, Asia, and in the Arctic among Inuit. But written and photographic records of tattooing among First Nations in the northwest coast were inconsistent, Carter says.

“The archival information is a lot of missionaries and anthropologists coming through in the 1800s and recording information, and that information is uneven,” says Carter.

So, the artists dove deep into oral histories and other historical resources. 

During early discussion, the artists and curators focused on what tattooing meant to them, which became the basis for the exhibit: Reclamation of identity.

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