Toby Sicks of Inkdigenous Tattoo inks a native eagle in Toronto on Thursday February 1, 2018. Believing a centuries-old Indigenous tradition had been all but erased, Interior Salish tattoo artist Dion Kaszas decided to use his body to resurrect the ways of his ancestors, with a needle and ink. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Indigenous tattoo revival renews cultural appropriation concerns

Believing a centuries-old Indigenous tradition had been all but erased, Interior Salish tattoo artist Dion Kaszas decided to use his body to resurrect the ways of his ancestors, with a needle and ink.

Dot by dot, Kaszas hand-poked pictographs into his thigh and stitched designs into his skin with an ink-soaked thread. He said he had to practise the Indigenous techniques on himself because there was no one left to teach them. But he says that’s now changing.

“In a lot of ways, we are invisible as Indigenous people, so when we embody our tattooing, we actually become visible as Indigenous,” said Kaszas. “You know that those (tattoos) come from something deeper.”

Kaszas is one of several tattoo artists across the country leading what many are calling a revival of Indigenous tattooing. Some are breathing new life into long-dormant tattooing techniques, while others have put modern twists on designs that have been handed down for generations.

But the reclamation of Indigenous tattooing has also renewed questions about cultural appropriation by non-Indigenous people, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose ink of a globe inside a raven is based on the design of a Haida artist who said it was used without his permission.

“I think the prime minister wearing my design actually helped to bring to the forefront the importance of the art, and also the importance of consulting with the artist, because there is a person behind that image,” said Robert Davidson.

A spokesperson for the prime minister declined to comment on Trudeau’s shoulder tattoo, instead pointing to a tweet he wrote in 2012. Trudeau said he got a globe tattoo when he was 23 years old, and added the “Robert Davidson raven” for his 40th birthday.

Davidson, one of the most prominent Haida artists in Canada, said he felt numb when he found out that Trudeau had adapted the raven design from one of his paintings without consulting him.

It was a familiar disappointment, he said, just the latest unauthorized reproduction of his work.

“(Trudeau is) not recognizing that we are people, and we have feelings, and the art is important to us,” he said. “The art is a reflection of culture … it tells that it comes from an incredibly sophisticated society that has been muted.”

The Earthline Tattoo Collective is a group of Indigenous artists of different heritages hoping to revive traditional tattooing designs and methods like hand poking and skin stitching.

Kaszas, a member of the collective, said Indigenous tattoos can be deeply intertwined with the spiritual practices and natural elements of a particular culture. Some clan tattoos are so sacred, he said, they are off-limits to Indigenous people of other heritages.

For non-Indigenous people, Kaszas said he will sometimes “gift” a tattoo derived from his own culture, but he draws the line at non-Indigenous artists inking traditional Indigenous designs.

“Appropriation of Indigenous designs by non-Indigenous artists is another form of genocide,” he said. “You’re actually taking someone’s identity and placing it upon your body.”

The tattoo machine hums over Indigenous rap music at the Inkdigenous tattoo studio in the east end of downtown Toronto. Toby Sicks etches lavender petals onto a 17-year-old girl’s bicep, while her mother gets a tattoo of her own — six bear paws wrapped around her wrist, each clan symbol representing one of her children or grandchildren.

For owner Sicks, Inkdigenous is a space for spiritual healing, a venue to feature other Indigenous artists and a platform for activism. He offers tattoos that honour missing and murdered Indigenous women, and said he donates a portion of the proceeds to support the cause.

“(Tattooing) gives us an opportunity to be successful in our passion while we’re explaining about our culture and traditions, or while we’re showing people how beautiful the art is, with the stories that are connected with our past,” he said.

Gregory Williams of Haida Inkk in Queen Charlotte, B.C., said he is more open than some other Indigenous tattoo artists about sharing Haida designs with people of different backgrounds, because he sees tattooing as part of a worldwide artistic exchange.

“If we didn’t share this culture with non-Haida people, it just wouldn’t be fair,” he said.

But there is no excuse for taking another artist’s design without going through the proper channels, he added.

Davidson said the Haida felt a glimmer of hope when Trudeau was elected, that he would improve the lives of Indigenous Peoples and protect the land that is sacred to them. Now, he said he feels his people were dropped like a “dirty dishrag.”

If he could talk to Trudeau about his tattoo, he said he would tell the prime minister to “wear it with honour, and be honourable in the promises he made.”

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