Aaron Hemens / Local Journalists Initiative – 07/23/2022 / 10:00 a.m | History: 376785
Photo: Sheldon Pierre Louis
Sqilx’w tattooists are reclaiming the practice of hand-stitch tattooing, saying it’s a component of cultural reclamation that has been missing until recently.
A small group of artists have been training remotely in cultural practice during the pandemic, some of whom attended the Awakening Our DNA Tattoo Gathering on June 18-19 in the Nlaka’pamux homelands.
For Sheldon Pierre Louis, a Syilx visual artist who is part of the newly trained cohort, the event was his first opportunity to practice his new tattooing skills.
“We likened what we’re doing to one of the parts of bringing our people back,” Louis said.
“We’re bringing back the language, we’re bringing back the ceremony, we’re bringing back the culture. What we saw and discussed was that (our) tattoo practice was a missing piece.”
Louis, who is also a council member for the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB), said the practice is a “form of activism” and a practice of decolonization.
“It’s just another piece that will help us decolonize and bring us back … as close as possible to who we traditionally are.”
“Coming back and putting those marks back on our bodies just shows (it) again that we’re still here and that’s who we are.”
Louis, who has been creating art since he was six, became fascinated with how to make traditional marks sometime around 2015 after his cousin introduced him to Dion Kaszas, a traditional tattoo artist from the Nlaka’pamux Nation.
Kaszas is a founding member of the Earthline Tattoo Collective, a group of indigenous visual artists and cultural tattooists. At the time, he was working on his master’s thesis at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan, studying the revival of Indigenous tattooing in “Canada”.
Immediately, Louis was eager to learn from Kaszas and peppered him with questions about what traditional ink and needles were used.
“He informed me that we would use bones and probably larger spikes,” Louis said.
Louis also recalls Kaszas saying traditional practitioners sometimes burn devil’s clubs and then mix the soot with a binder to create a natural ink.
Soon after, Danielle Saddleman — the cousin who introduced the couple — showed Louis a tattoo on her leg that Kaszas had done.
“It really reminded me a lot of a pictograph, just the rawness and roughness of her tattoo,” Louis recalls. “I was like, ‘Wow, I want one of these. How do I get one?’”
Louis approached Kaszas, who then asked Louis if he would like to learn traditional tattooing. But learning the practice would take four weeks, a time commitment Louis was unable to make due to his work with the OKIB boss and council.
Then a few years later, in 2019, Kaszas got back in touch with Louis and said he wanted to apply through the First Peoples’ Cultural Council for a grant to mentor Indigenous traditional tattoo artists in the interior region of “British Columbia.” . He asked if Louis would be interested in attending, and Louis said yes.
In early 2020, the council approved a $12,000 grant. But the COVID-19 pandemic that broke out in March this year made it a challenge to offer the program. Kaszas lived in Nova Scotia and had planned to travel to interior BC to teach the program. There he mentored Louis and two other artists: Robin Humphrey of the Nlaka’pamux Nation and Jacqueline Merritt of the Tsilhqot’in Nation.
So the group had to get creative. Kaszas taught the program virtually in August 2020 using zoom and camera adapters that enabled high definition video calls. In one instance, Kaszas set up a zoom lens so the mentees could see him tattooing his wife up close.
“He zoomed right in on him as he did the hand poke so we could see the technique visually. So that’s how we learned.”
The group was outfitted with the same materials you would find in a mainstream tattoo parlor: pre-packaged, single-use metal needles. But instead of loading the needles into a tattoo gun, they wanted artists to wrap one end in gauze and tape so they could hold the needles in their hands.
As for the tattooing process itself, Louis said the needle enters at a diagonal angle, where you hear a thumping sound as it pierces the skin before exiting.
“What you’re doing is creating that opening for the ink,” he said.
Learning and training remotely over a two-week period, Louis said, is “definitely different,” particularly because he prefers hands-on training.
Guest lecturers also shared their expertise. These included Nahaan, a Tlingit tattoo artist, Lane Wilcken, a Filipino “Mambabatok” tattoo artist, and Nakkita Trimble, a traditional Northwest Coast Nisga’a Tlingit artist.
“They shared their experiences. What they went through, how transformative it was,” Louis said. “How it has helped revitalize and re-empower different parts of their cultures that have been stolen and shamed from the people.”
The mentees also had to tattoo themselves while Kaszas watched over Zoom. Louis tattooed a pictograph-like image of pine branches just above his left knee.
“I wanted it to stay as traditional as possible, so I really emulated pictograph styles,” he said.
“Because the pictograms that are out there exist, you really shouldn’t duplicate them exactly. As artists, we are always encouraged to create your own pictograms. And that’s what I did with mine.”
– Indigi News