Inuit tattoo art

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)

Growing up in Cambridge Bay, Inuit artist Aedan Corey wanted to be a writer and illustrator from the age of 11.

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

But these days, the 23-year-old is not just putting pen to paper, but getting down to needle and ink.

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

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

When the project traveled to Cambridge Bay, Corey got his first tattoo and was immediately hooked.

“From then on, it felt a lot like this revival. I think a lot of kids in our community feel shame and don’t necessarily realize how important the connection to our culture is,” Corey said.

Inuit tattoos were traditionally done either by a method of skin stitching, where a needle is used to thread ink under the skin; or a hand technique, where a needle dipped in ink is driven 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 face tattoos on their chins by tattoo artist Zorga Qaunaq.

Corey called the experience “life changing.”

“When I got my first face tattoo, it was like a very public, very open statement that I’m enough. That’s who I am. I’m proud to be that person,” they said.

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

So far Corey has tattooed his fingers, wrists, arms, forehead, cheeks and temples, and they have tattooed about 20 other people in Ottawa and Cambridge Bay.

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

They see the recovery of Inuit tattooing as a way to help communities heal and reconnect with their traditions, while letting individuals express themselves.

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

“In today’s revitalization process, many of our [tattoo] the meanings are kind of brought in from ourselves, as much of the knowledge around it may be inaccessible to some, especially if you don’t speak Inuktitut and are far from your communities. It can be difficult to find traditional meaning from symbols,” Corey said.

“So that’s something I’ve tried to share with other Inuit when I tattoo them…it’s good to find your own meaning in the symbols you choose.”

Corey said their own tattoos represent family and personal accomplishments, such as graduating from high school and becoming non-binary and two-spirited.

“A big tattoo I did on myself was my forehead tattoo. It was really symbolic to me,” Corey said.

“I had just gotten out of a bad relationship and felt really good about this transitional phase…kind of considering this gender journey that I was on.

“I think that tattoo really helped me accept myself more.”

Corey said the ideal would be for Inuit to be tattooed by other Inuit who share a common understanding of cultural meaning. But, they added, there is nothing wrong with Inuit getting tattoos from non-Inuit tattoo artists if accessibility is an issue.

“I don’t want this to stop anyone from getting tattoos. If that’s all you got [available]it’s fine as long as you make sure it’s done by someone who respects that it’s specifically Inuit tattoos,” they said, noting that they believe the tattoos ​​Inuit on non-Inuit was a form of cultural appropriation.

Apart from becoming a tattoo artist, Corey is also one of the newest members of the Nordic Laba workspace and creative hub for artists from circumpolar countries housed at the SAW Gallery in Ottawa.

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

Some of their upcoming projects include writing a book of poetry, exhibiting at the Pique Art Festival on June 11 in Ottawa, and learning traditional screen printing and block printing at Nordic Lab.

They also recently led two online roundtables on Inuit tattoo revitalization and hope to host an Inuit tattoo event later this year.

“There are a lot of people who want to learn or are learning right now…honestly, it’s a little hard to count,” Corey said.

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