Tattoos as a statement of sovereignty

(Photo courtesy of Sulu'ape (chief) Keone Nunes)

Joaqlin Estus

National Tattoo Day: ‘You have to earn the right to get tattooed’

Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

It’s National Tattoo Day, a time to recognize tattooing history, culture, the artists who etch ink permanently into the skin, and the people who get etched upon.

The word tattoo is based on the Tahitian word “tatua,” or in Hawaiian “kakau.”

But Sulu'ape (chief) Keone Nunes, Hawaiian, said until the state of Hawaii in 2010 declared traditional Hawaiian tattooing an art form, he was an unlicensed practitioner of something he “shouldn't have to ask permission to do.” For him, tattooing has been a statement of sovereignty and independence ever since his start at it in 1990. 

Archeologists say tattoos have been around for at least 5,000 years. Ancient patterns were used to communicate tribe, rank, and life events. Geometric patterns had various meanings. Some designs were to improve hunting success or shamanic protection against sickness.

Just 60 to 70 years ago in the United States, tattoos were popular among sailors, bikers, and convicts — and few others.

Over the past twenty years, tattoos have become more widely accepted, popular — even trendy and cool. Now an estimated one third of the U.S. population has at least one tattoo.

The most popular designs are names, animals, and tribal designs. It’s appropriate to listen, learn about, and connect with other cultures, "but at the same time, there's a lot of appropriation," Nunes said. 

"How is it okay to walk around with patterns that belong to my family or designs from other people’s cultures?” The taking or copying of elements of their cultures, especially sacred objects, give rise to bitter complaints from Polynesian, Black, Native American and other peoples.

Popular tattoos range from flowers, hearts and stars, to tigers, eagles, and skulls. In a burst of camaraderie, a group might get tattoos of their college mascot or fraternity insignia. Some get facial, arm, leg, and full torso tattoos.

Tattoos have become a form of self expression, a sign of individuality.

For Nunes, a tattoo is something that’s earned. It signifies a commitment on the part of the person getting the tattoo.

He got his start spending time with elders, who along with storytelling, taught him the meaning of traditional Hawaiian tattoo designs and how to use tools from bygone days to put ink under the top few layers of skin. 

A photo of the custom design work of master traditional Hawaiian tattoo artist Sulu'ape (chief) Keone Nunes, Hawaiian .(Photo courtesy of Keone Nunes, Hawaiian)
A photo of the custom design work of master traditional Hawaiian tattoo artist Sulu'ape (chief) Keone Nunes, Hawaiian .(Photo courtesy of Keone Nunes, Hawaiian)

Nunes initially thought the designs and techniques he had learned were widely known throughout the Hawaiian islands. He later realized the elders were teaching him the art form so he could perpetuate it.

“That's kinda how I started. It wasn't anything that I really planned to do, but it just kind of happened.”

An elder gave him a pattern for Nunes to use on himself. It took him eight years to find someone with the knowledge and understanding, as well as skills in using traditional techniques, to apply it.

No one else was tattooing in the spiritual manner of Hawaiian tradition then.

“I really had a strong understanding that we needed to make a change in the way that people view tattooing.” He said Polynesians see tattoos as positive, not anything negative. “It was real important for me to try and change people's minds and ... have us take control of the narrative instead of from a very Western perspective,” Nunes said.

“The Hawaiian narrative is that you have to earn the right to get tattooed,” Nunes said. He talks with people seeking one of his tattoos and creates a design based on the person's family history and spiritual journey. Customers don't see it until it has become part of their body.

“You have responsibilities to your family and to the community once you get the work done. And, you have more or less taken on the responsibility of carrying on those things that are important, not only to yourself as an individual, but to your family and your community.”

He said traditional Hawaiian tattooing fosters healing and spiritual growth for the person getting the tattoo.

“...there are certain designs that with prayer as you put it [the design] on [the skin], will help them move on from some experiences that might've been negative in the past into something more positive."

Getting tattooed also connects people with their ancestors, Nunes said. “Once you lay on the mat, you feel what your ancestors felt, you go through what your ancestors go through. And it's very, very powerful.” He applies the ink with wood and bone tools, just as it was done in ancient times.

“So that sound of the sticks hitting each other as I'm tapping is the resounding whispers from centuries ago. And I think it deserves to be heard for many, many more centuries.”

For Ayyu Qassataq, Inupiaq, one of her tattoos marks a profound turning point in her life. She’s originally from the village of Unalakleet in Northwestern Alaska.

In 2017, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

As she prepared for what she knew were going to be difficult and painful treatments, she said, “I was really thinking about the strength of our cultural practices and thinking about ways that I could uplift those practices to strengthen me for the difficult times that lay ahead.

“The day before I started my first chemo treatment, it came to me that I wanted to tattoo myself with a traditional tavluġun, a women's ceremonial [chin] tattoo, when I had reached full health and wellness on the other side of all of the treatment.”

Ayyu Qassataq tattooed her chin with a traditional design, saying Inupiat cultural practices had given her the strength to get through difficult and painful cancer treatments. (Photo courtesy of Ayyu Qassataq)
Ayyu Qassataq tattooed her chin with a traditional design, saying Inupiat cultural practices had given her the strength to get through difficult and painful cancer treatments. (Photo courtesy of Ayyu Qassataq)

She said tavluġun once were common. In her family, the last known relative who had one was her grandfather’s grandmother.

“When I was going through treatment, I would ponder on how I wanted it to look because this is a practice that has been asleep, that was put to sleep by missionaries predominantly around the turn of the 20th century,” said Qassataq.

She initially thought she would have two lines running from below her lower lip down to her chin. The space between the lines would be a reminder that every individual only temporarily occupies the time between ancestors and future generations.

“I chose that because I was feeling a keen sense of my own mortality and how short life is and how precious,” Qassataq said.

She said “even when I made the decision and thought about it afterward, it made me cry because it just felt so fleeting and painful, but also very, very bittersweet.”

It wasn’t until months after she had completed chemo, surgery, and radiation that she was well enough to inscribe a tattoo on her face.

She brought together her children, mother (who traveled to Anchorage from Washington), sisters and nieces for the ceremony. As her mother cooked reindeer stew and fried bread for “Indian tacos,” Qassataq drove and picked up her four children. 

She told them about her plan to put two parallel lines on her chin.

Qassataq said her young daughter angrily told her she had to have three lines, one representing herself. “You’re not invisible,” the girl told her. 

Everyone is born into the time when their gifts will be needed said Qassataq. “And that comes with a tremendous responsibility to acknowledge, understand and grow our gifts because they belong to our community,” Qassataq said. “And with that teaching that she gave me, I said, ‘okay, right. You're absolutely right.’”

Qassataq tattooed the three lines on her chin herself. When she wiped away ink blotches and saw the lines, her entire life flashed through her mind. She felt an incredible sense of connection to the ancient past and to the future. Her family surrounded her in a group hug until she had stopped crying. Her mother and daughter sang healing songs.

“It really was one of the most profound experiences I've ever had in my life,” Qassataq said. “And it changed the entire rest of my life ... I felt visible for the very first time in my life. I felt beautiful. And since that day, it has helped me to stand up straighter and breathe deeper. And it has been a source of strength that continues to help me every day.”

Understanding the healing properties of tattoos is a concept Dion Kaszas, Métis and Nlaka’pamux (Interior Salish), of Canada, wants to pass on to Indigenous students.

The website for the Earthline Tattoo Collective said Dion’s passion for tattooing extends beyond artistry to a Masters degree in Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. He researched Indigenous tattooing, and studied the revival of Indigenous tattooing practices.

He began using traditional techniques in 2012 then became the co-founder of the collective.

It held one-month intensive residency courses (which are on hiatus now). Classes covered everything from blood borne pathogens to tattoo design and application, including traditional hand poke and skin stitch techniques. It covered ethics and cultural responsibility.

Another goal was for students to develop the skills to research protocol and ceremony, and to learn from elders how to help their people on their ceremonial and spiritual journeys.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today and a longtime Alaska journalist.”

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