Tattoos and Expression
Alaska is home to diverse cultures and tattooing traditions. Inuit tattoo has been practiced in Alaska for millennia by Iñupiat and Yup’ik women. Colonization suppressed traditional tattooing, but a new generation of Indigenous women are revitalizing and restoring the practice. At the same time, tattoo traditions from Polynesia, Japan, and places throughout the US have made their way to Alaska and can be seen in the inventive styles of local tattoo artists working at shops throughout the state.
Traditional Inuit tattoos are signifiers of cultural belonging and are not intended for use or appropriation by those outside the culture. Inuit tattoos throughout the Circumpolar North region historically were made by women, for women. Receiving tattoos was a ceremonial rite of passage that marked important events in a woman’s life, such as the transition from girlhood to womanhood, or the birth of child. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Christian missionaries arrived in Alaska and forbade many important cultural practices, including Indigenous languages, dances, and tattoo. Generations of people experienced deep trauma resulting from the loss of culture and way of life under colonization. The revitalization of traditional tattooing practices is a powerful movement of Indigeneity and decolonization and an expression of cultural identity and sisterhood.
“I think we do a lot of talking now about tattooing and what it was traditionally…not in the last 200 years, but in the beginning. What that looked like. And trying to honor that.” Holly Mititquq Nordlum