Tattoo artist and illustrator Aedan Corey, 23, is one of a growing number of young Inuit who are finding cultural connection and self-expression through traditional Inuit tattooing. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

The art of the Inuit tattoo

Inuit tattoos ‘instrumental’ to self-identity, says Cambridge Bay artist

By Madalyn Howitt

Growing up in Cambridge Bay, Inuk artist Aedan Corey wanted to be a writer and illustrator as early as age 11. 

“When you come from a small town, I think it becomes almost second nature to want to pursue something that helps you express yourself,” Corey said.

But these days, the 23-year-old is not only putting pen to paper, but has taken to needle and ink.

Corey, whose pronouns are they/them, is one of a growing number of young Inuit learning about traditional Inuit tattooing.

The practice was banned for decades due to colonization, but is being rekindled through programs like the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project, which travels to Inuit communities to teach the art and history of tattooing.

When the project visited Cambridge Bay, Corey received their first tattoo and was immediately hooked. 

“From then on, it was very much like this awakening. I think a lot of kids in our community have feelings of shame there and not necessarily realizing how important the relationship to our culture is,” Corey said.

Inuit tattoos were traditionally done through either a skin-stitching method, where a needle is used to thread ink under the skin; or a hand-poked technique, where a needle dipped in ink is poked at an angle into the skin, depositing the ink to create lines and patterns.

When Corey moved to Ottawa four years ago, they got their first facial tattoo on their chin from tattooist Zorga Qaunaq.

Corey called the experience “life changing.”

“When I got my first facial tattoo, it was very much like a very public and very open statement that I am enough. This is who I am. I am proud to be this person,” they said. 

So when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, Corey took advantage of lockdown to practise tattooing on themselves with the proper supplies. 

So far Corey has tattooed their own fingers, wrists, arms, forehead, cheeks and temples, and they’ve tattooed about 20 other people in Ottawa and Cambridge Bay. 

The effects of intergenerational trauma and colonization on Indigenous communities makes it very important for Indigenous people to be able to express themselves in different ways, Corey said. 

They see reclaiming Inuit tattooing as one way to help communities heal and reconnect with their traditions, while still letting individuals express themselves. 

Artist and tattooist Aedan Corey, from Cambridge Bay, shows off their traditional Inuit tattoos, many of which they did themselves. Their tattoos represent family and personal milestones, like their forehead tattoo which they got after coming out as non-binary and two-spirit. (Photos by Madalyn Howitt)

“In today’s revitalization process, a lot of our [tattoo] meanings are kind of brought forth from ourselves, because a lot of the knowledge surrounding that can be inaccessible to some, especially if you don’t speak Inuktitut and if you are away from your communities. It can be difficult to find traditional meaning from symbols,” Corey said.  

“So that’s something that I tried to share with other Inuit when I’m tattooing them … it’s OK to find your own meaning within whatever symbols you choose.”

Corey said their own tattoos represent their family and personal accomplishments, like graduating high school and coming out as non-binary and two-spirit. 

“A big tattoo that I did on myself was my forehead tattoo. That was really symbolic for me,” Corey said. 

“I had just kind of gotten out of a bad relationship and was feeling very much in this transitory phase … kind of considering this gender journey that I was going on.

“I think this tattoo was really instrumental in being able to further accept myself.”

Corey said it’s ideal if Inuit are tattooed by other Inuit who share a common understanding of the cultural significance. But, they added, it’s OK for Inuit to get traditional tattoos from non-Inuit tattoo artists if accessibility is an issue.  

“I don’t want it to stop anyone from getting their tattoos. If that’s all you have [available], that’s totally fine as long as you make sure that it’s being done by someone who is respectful of the fact that these are Inuit tattoos specifically,” they said, noting they believe Inuit tattoos on non-Inuit people is a form of cultural appropriation. 

In addition to becoming a tattoo artist, Corey is also one of the newest members of the Nordic Lab, a workspace and creative hub for artists from circumpolar nations housed at Ottawa’s SAW Gallery. 

With support from the Inuit Futures program, which helps Inuit students undertake research in the arts, Corey is working under the mentorship of Nordic Lab director Taqralik Partridge.

Some of their upcoming projects include writing a book of poetry, an exhibition at the Pique art festival June 11 in Ottawa and learning traditional screen printing and block printing at the Nordic Lab.

They also recently led two online panel discussions about Inuit tattoo revitalization and hope to host an Inuit tattooing event later this year. 

“There’s a lot of people who either want to learn or are learning at the moment … honestly, it’s a little bit difficult to count,” Corey said. 

Share This Story

(13) Comments:

  1. Posted by Kenn Harper on

    Tattooing was never banned. It may have been discouraged by individual missionaries but it was never banned.

    • Posted by Pork Pie on

      This is one of those resilient myths that loves to resurface with the topic of Inuit tattoos. I don’t know the source of the claim but intuitively it has always seemed suspect to me.

      Of course, the idea that it was “forbidden for a century,” as Alethea Arnaquq-Baril tells us, makes for more than a good story, it adds an almost mystical pride the triumph of good over evil. While these rhetorical devices are effective in the construction of narrative, this is not about narrative alone, oppression is, as seen here, a powerful bonding agent for group identity.

  2. Posted by Christopher Lasch on

    “Our growing dependence on technologies no one seems to understand or control has given rise to feelings of powerlessness and victimization. We find it more and more difficult to achieve a sense of continuity, permanence, or connection with the world around us. Relationships with others are notably fragile; goods are made to be used up and discarded; reality is experienced as an unstable environment of flickering images. Everything conspires to encourage escapist solutions to the psychological problems of dependence, separation, and individuation, and to discourage the moral realism that makes it possible for human beings to come to terms with existential constraints on their power and freedom.”

    ― Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations

    • Posted by Coffee on

      What does this have to do with the revitalization of traditional tattooing?

      • Posted by Echo and Narcissus on

        It’s not about tattooing specifically, but the exercise of a kind of narcissism that cultural historians have been observing for decades now.

        But not just narcissism, it’s possible sources. Interestingly Lasch wrote this in the late 1970s, these features have become amplified with social media.

        • Posted by Coffee on

          What does narcissism have to do with Inuit tattoos?

  3. Posted by Coffee on

    I can’t imagine reading an article about a young successful Inuk and cultural revitalization and thinking ‘I should invalidate their gender identity’. Come on, stop being hateful and move along.

    • Posted by Paradigm Shift on

      There’s really nothing “hateful” about this comment. My deeper interest is in the manipulation of language and perception, which is happening not only in your comment but in this article.

      The points made here are valid and worth discussion. You are welcome to address them, by the way.

  4. Posted by Jamesie on

    It’s silly to think so-called cultural appropriation is a transgression. It just gives the highfalutin among us something to gripe about. It isn’t an insult to a people to adopt aspects of their culture. To think so is ridiculous.

  5. Posted by Lost on

    Our youth are so lost now. We are now knee deep in a cultural identity crisis, creating space for identities such as the one above. I’m sorry but that’s what I see when I see youth, no wonder our suicide rates are so high. We are lost in our own culture.

    I personally don’t understand where the term “banned Inuit tattoos” came from. It was never banned, I’d like to see a piece of paper where it states it was banned.

    These markings are permanent and ugly in my opinion. Because my opinion is not of yours, doesn’t mean it’s wrong, I know I will be attacked for my opinion

    • Posted by Be kind on

      It’s comments such as this one that causes disparities among our young people. The underlining messaging, so harmful.

  6. Posted by Paradigm Shift on

    I see Nunatsiaq deleted my original comment. What happened Corey, did you cave to the cry of “harms” or whatever other […] tactics are used to silence perfectly valid opinions on an issue like this?

    • Posted by coffee on

      Issue like what? And I doubt the subject of the article is the one moderating these comments…


Comments are closed.