For Angela Hovak Johnston, ink has made traditional tattoos possible and it’s also helped her fill pages in a new book. Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines was launched in Kugluktuk and Yellowknife in December. The 70-page coffee table book contains numerous photos of bodily ink patterns and 26 interviews with women who got Inuit tattoos, some of whom possess knowledge of the history of the practice.
“I thought we need to have it documented because there was nothing of its kind being done,” said Johnston, who compiled facts and stories over eight years. “When I wanted to get a tattoo myself, I made sure I got the information right directly from our elders and community members.”
The first time she saw the book, she was overwhelmed.
“It hit me harder than I thought. I’ve been waiting for it for so long that the tears and the emotions just started flooding,” she said. “I just started bawling my eyes out and wishing I would have been with the women (who got tattoos in Kugluktuk in 2016) at that time when I saw the finished project.”
The traditional markings symbolize significant events in a woman’s life, such as that they’re ready for marriage, how many children they have, the animals caught to help them survive, and perhaps a tribute to someone who helped guide them through life, Johnston explained. Many women choose symbols that their ancestors exhibited, she added.
“You see the transformation when the women are receiving these markings. Right from the stencil you can see the change, before we even start poking or stitching them,” she said. “(Inuit tattooing has) been around as long as people can remember, but it’s been lost in the last hundred years… lost in three or four generations in some families.”
Johnston and her fellow tattoo artists were in Cambridge Bay from Dec. 5-13 to apply ink to more women seeking the cultural markings. There were originally 40 appointments available but the tattoo crew squeezed in 53 women and still had to turn away others.
“It’s such a big demand,” Johnston said, adding that similar experiences occurred in Kugluktuk and Ulukhaktok in the past few years. The ages of participants has ranged from 13 to 74 years.
Cambridge Bay’s Alice Lafrance and her daughters Tammy and Geneviève now bear Inuit tattoos around their wrists.
“I do not know what they mean but they are my great-great-grandmother Hatogina’s tattoo design that she had on her wrist,” said Lafrance. “I have never wanted tattoos in my life, but my mom Bessie Omilgoetok drew the design she remembered. We told her that Hovak was coming and she told us she wanted to be tattooed with the same design. That’s when we all decided we would follow mom’s desire.
My mom ended up being away when Hovak came, but we will hopefully get her tattooed soon.”
Wrists, arms and leg tattoos are common spots for the ink designs. Those who elect to get facial tattoos get a forthright warning from Johnston and her fellow tattoo artists about the potential consequences, and some then change their minds.
“You’ll get stares. You’ll get questions… we get some negative feedback too from people who are not educated about them,” said Johnston, who has a facial tattoo. “It has to be something that you’re really ready for and you’re doing it for the right reasons.”
There was no cost to participants to get the tattoos due to funding that Johnston arranged from numerous organizations, including international ones, several months prior to the event.
Johnston, who was born in Umingmaktok and grew up in Kugluktuk, said Rankin Inlet is likely the next place where she will arrange to offer tattoos.
“It’s been an amazing project. It opens people’s eyes, educates people and unites us,” she said. “There’s lots of (Inuit) people living in the city now that don’t get to connect with their culture. This is kind of a way to connect us all and feel a part of our ancestors and our people.”