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Richard Perry

Holly Mititquq Nordlum’s face tattoo might not be what you think.

It is a series of lines, designed and inked by Greenlandic Inuk artist Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, on her chin. Two central lines, leading from the center of her bottom lip to her chin, are solid and flanked on both sides by pairs of dotted lines.

It is Nordlum’s first chin tattoo and the design is based on a similar tattoo that her great-grandmother had. The design is a traditional Inuit marking that Nordlum is now working to revive among her tribe. It has relevance, history and deep meaning, she said.

“Our ancestors are a part of us, and they guide us,” said Nordlum, Inuit. “There is a connection to something bigger. I am made up of energy created by the people that came before me. That’s why I make the decisions I make, and I do what I do. When I am making art, I am always looking at where I am, and being an Iñupiaq person on Dena’ina land, and how I balance that.”

Inuit tattooing, while nearly lost, is emerging as a reinvigorated cultural practice, thanks to work by artists like Nordlum.

The practice of Inuit tattooing helps to inform cultural understanding and provide more opportunities to reclaim a tradition. During colonization and amid the establishment of harmful boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries, Indigenous people were once banned from practicing their cultural traditions, tattooing being one of them. More recent generations are looking for more opportunities to learn and share with fellow Inuit people the importance of this practice.

Nordlum said the artform is guided by the culture and history as well as contemporary practices.

“Inuit cultures, along with my ancestors, guide my work,” Nordlum said. “But I am most inspired by our lives today and the way we live in two worlds—one old and the modern urban life.”

Nordlum earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in graphic design and photography at the University of Alaska Anchorage and continues her education through a commitment to learning from Elders and fellow artists.

Peggi Perry’s hands tattooed by Holly Mititquq Nordlum. Photo courtesy of Richard Perry Photography

Though she works in several mediums, Nordlum is well known as a traditional tattoo artist. In 2015 she connected with and began learning from Jacobsen, a Greenlandic Inuk based in Copenhagen who works in traditional Inuit tattooing and trained as a Western tattoo artist. Jacobsen specializes in historical research and traditional tools. Nordlum works with traditional healers and medical doctor Allison Kelliher, to learn about Indigenous healing techniques, and she worked with Jake Scrivner, a professional Alaska tattoo artist, to train in health and safety procedures.

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Artist Holly Mititquq Nordlum gives a tattoo using the Inuit traditional technique of needle-poking by hand. Photo courtesy of Michael Conti Photography

With funding support from the Anchorage Museum and Alaska Native Heritage Center, Nordlum created a program on Inuit tattoo traditions and techniques named Tupik Mi to provide instruction to a small group of Inuit artists including from Jacobsen, Scrivner and Dr. Kelliher. The event was held in 2015.

Nordlum said she hopes that participants would carry forward and rekindle Alaska Native tattoo traditions that were nearly lost: the program trained them to provide traditional markings and to find apprentices for making the work self-sustaining.

Public events included lectures and a tattoo demonstration to educate visitors about the Inuit traditional technique of needle-poking by hand. Project documentation online includes Tupik Mi: Inuit Traditional Markings on Facebook, two short films by Michael Conti and a public presentation at the Anchorage Museum.

Over years of work, Nordlum has experienced how Inuit tattooing is a way to heal from generations of colonization by supporting cultural reclamation and Indigenous pride.

Nordlum pays close attention to the processes and communications generated from tattooing Indigenous women. She describes working with Alaska Native women during inking as building relationship, gaining better understanding of where the person is at the moment, as an important part of the process overall.

“We are in this wonderful time when Native peoples are talking about the past,” Nordlum said. “People recently are openly talking about their past experiences—honestly and not sugar coating it. Talking about the trauma and recapturing our Native ways like tattooing and storytelling is an effective way to heal.”

Self-care is important to Nordlum, making sure that who she works with is in the right space. “I bring the people I tattoo into my home and invite them as a part of my family,” she said. “We are reconnecting. We work together on where they are at in their lives, and this is very special.”

Photo of artist Sarah Whalen-Lunn. Photo courtesy of Michael Conti Photography

When giving people Inuit tattoos, Nordlum helps them understand the symbolism, cultural meanings and family connections within the line art. “When I am tattooing someone, I let them know that when it comes to sharing the stories and meaning behind the Inuit tattoos, it is up to them to teach their kids and grandkids about the stories and tattoos, to impart the knowledge about our traditions that had been nearly lost.”

And her work connects families. “I’ve had grandmothers with their kids come in for tattoos,” she says. “Now, I’ve seen even grandkids come in. There is something so powerful in that—to see healing now span generations.”

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