Traditional Tattoo Designs Appropriated

Three experts on Aboriginal tattoos and body art took part in a panel discussion during the Planet IndigenUs festival at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. Trish Collision (Haida), Riki Manual (Maori), and Makerita Urale (Samoan) spoke about the cultural meaning of tattooing, traditional and contemporary tattooing practices, and whether culturally specific designs should be protected and their use restricted. The panel was moderated by artist and filmmaker Kent Monkman (Cree).

“The rituals involved in Samoan tattooing, as well as the patterns used, help us memorize cultural concepts,” says Urale. “The traditional male tattoo, which extends from the waist to the knees, embodies the concept of serving the people. It’s also a rite of passage and a symbol of bravery, because it’s very bloody and sometimes takes an entire year to complete.”

In Haida culture, tattoos represent animal totems, lineage, and identity. “A Haida crest represents who that person is,” Collision says. “Since we’re matrilineal, it tells the stories of where our mothers come from, where our families are from.”

Manual, an artist and carver from Christchurch, New Zealand (Aotearoa), says when tattoos are applied to a Maori person, “We have to consider that person’s lineage. Some patterns are only used for women, and some patterns only for men.”

Manual saw traditional Maori body art – which is called ta-moko in the Maori language – when he was a child. By the late 1960s, the practice had died out, resurfacing during the cultural resurgence of the past two decades.

“Ta-moko is pretty trendy now,” Manual says, “especially for non-Maoris. We used to do ta-moko as a form of trade with foreign sailors. But I wonder sometimes whether it’s appropriate.”

Collision wonders the same thing. She once found her great-great-uncle’s designs in a tattoo parlour in Seattle, Washington. “I find it offensive when I see Haida art used for tattoos,” she says. “It’s ripping off someone’s lineage, someone else’s art. Those designs are only supposed to exist within my family.

“I appreciate that tattooing is popular. It’s a compliment; people obviously appreciate Haida aesthetics. But it’s difficult to see my grandmother’s design on someone who doesn’t know what it means.”

Urale doesn’t mind seeing non-Aboriginal people wearing Aboriginal body art. But she draws a line between those who wear it for personal reasons and those who use it to make money.

“I think it takes on a different meaning when non-Aboriginal people wear Aboriginal designs,” she says. “If they appreciate the art, that’s a good enough reason. But when it’s used for commercial purposes, that’s a different thing. Then it’s misappropriation.”

Manual, who has been a ta-moko artist since 1979, says it’s interesting to work on non-Maoris, because he can mix and match the patterns. But Maori elders haven’t always been pleased by the changes younger artists have made to the art.

“There are prayers that should be said at the beginning and at the end,” Manual says. “We try to abide by the traditional practices.”

Manual uses traditional ta-moko tools and ink. He ties a piece of albatross bone to a piece of wood from the Kauri tree and taps it with an albatross-bone hammer to insert the ink one millimetre beneath the skin. The ink is made by boiling gum from the Kauri tree, and gets its distinctive green-black colour from the soot of the fire.

Collision is currently developing a Haida tattoo kit that uses the same tapping technology. She’s basing the design on a Haida kit that was found in the Smithsonian Institute collection a few years ago.

Collision believes that Haida art should be protected by intellectual property rights or some form of copyright. Then individual artists could choose whether or not to allow their art to be used, and for what purposes.

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