Inuit tattoos always fascinated me. I don’t know exactly why, I find them beautiful and maybe the mystery around them helps the fascination too.
Early on this blog I tried to gather information, but didn’t found much. Recently I stumbled upon a radio interview with Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. She is an Inuit film-maker and she is making a documentary about the tradition of Inuit tattoos. This documentary is called Tunniit, Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos. I don’t know when it will be released. But you can find more about on her website:
Here are her words that I could transcript, but if you have the possibility, please hear her voice here:
(Between 12:19 to 17:39)
The reasons for the women’s traditional tattoos varied from community to community but I think the common thread is a rite of passage to womanhood. It was a very painful process traditionally, it’s not painless now but it was definitely more painful then because the tattoos were stitched into the skin with the bone needle with caribou (...) dipped in soot and that would stay behind under the stitch when he pooled the thread out. And so I think the process was one of... to show you how to reach maturity and that you had learned the skills you need to be a mother and wife and to raise a family and to survive in this world. So it marks when you’ve kind of reached that age but it also it, causes you, it’s an event that makes you think about these things
The moment the needle went to my skin it was like this release of all the stress and tension and work I have put into this over the years and I just couldn’t believe it was finally happening. When he tattooed my forehead and handed me the mirror and I looked at it... I cried in relief. It wasn’t even an ecstatic joy, I was just like “hugh finally”. It felt I no longer have to live a lie, you know, it felt my face being bared and blank was a lie because that’s not how I felt I looked. And now my image matched my soul.
The most terrifying thing for me was showing my parents afterward. M y dad was just about, he just left the house and was about to go down to the shore and he looked at my face he said “Oh jeez”. It was so dark you know... Almost as if he thought you know maybe I sort of get them, maybe the sort of be there (...) maybe he was hoping that maybe they’d be just a whisper of a tattoo you know he so badly didn’t want me to have them. But he (...) he said he loved me and then he told me to go in and consult my mother. So I went in, and my mom asked me to stop rolling the camera and then I knew it was not going to be good. The exchange was very tense and she lashed out. She couldn’t believe I’ve actually done it. She said they’re beautiful but she doesn’t agree. She still didn’t like them and that it’s not my custom. That’s my great great grand parents’ custom. And it doesn’t belong anymore... She was so frustrated with what I’ve done.
People believed that when you’re tattooed that the markings don’t just go in your body, they also go in your soul and go in to your afterlife. And I felt that if there is some kind of afterlife, if there is some kind of process of rebirth that there was they couple of generations of women that have tattoos on their souls but missing on their bodies... In doing this it felt ... It felt I was speaking on behalf of all the women that desperately want these tattoos and couldn’t get them, weren’t allowed to get them. And now hopefully it was going to be a little bit more ok.
Aleatha mom’s eventually did accept her daughter’s tattoos and now she jokes that maybe she’ll got one one day too.
1. Tatouage complet du corps chez les Netsilimmiut (péninsule Boothia, Pôle magnétique). Il s’agit de la mère du chasseur Equalla lui-même. Les Y renversés sur le haut de la cuisse sont des représentations de la baleine (corps et nagoires). Thom Baie. Péninsule Boothia. Canada. 1961.
In Jean Malaurie, Les Derniers rois de Thulé, Terre Humaine Poche, 1989
2. Author: Low, A. P. (Albert Peter), 1861-1942.Date: 1903-1904. Canadian Museum of Civilization. www.civilization.ca
See more images and photos about Inuit tattoos here: