Revitalising traditional Inuit tattooing using skin stitching and skin poking techniques

Tattoos remain a vital part of the Inuit culture, in spite of the tradition almost being lost when missionaries came to Inuit communities and began colonising around 100 years ago.

For millennia, Inuit women would get tattoos with needles made of bone or sinew soaked in suet. Each tattoo signified an important accomplishment or coming of age. When missionaries arrived in Canada’s Arctic about 100 years ago, they proclaimed the tattoos evil and banned women from getting them. The markings were on the brink of dying with the last of the elders who had them.

Marjorie Tahbone, an Alaskan artist of Inupiaq heritage, is intent on reawakening this ancient art using the traditional techniques of her native people. She was first among the living women of her family to get her traditional chin tattoo. Because no one was practicing the tattooing art at the time, she had to get her markings from a non-Indigenous artist in Fairbanks.

Significant as the experience was, it ignited in Marjorie a desire to revive the practice for her community. Following this desire, she took up the tools and the old methods and became a full-fledged traditional tattooist working in the Inupiaq tradition.

Marjorie Tahbone uses two techniques – one of them is hand poking, where the needle is dipped into the ink and then punctured in to the skin and the second is skin stitching with needle and thread, where cotton thread is dipped in the skin before the needle is then threaded through the skin.

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyle including sustainable and green living. 

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