Tattoos That Cross the Invisible Line

Face tattoos have a vibrant life - Berber women in Algeria tattooed their faces for beauty, and the Wodaabe tribe in Niger had magical facial scars that protected them from harm. However, face tattoos were reserved as a form of punishment by the ancient Chinese and Japanese.

Women with face tattoos sitting
Photo by Andrei Caliman on Unsplash

The Maoris divided the human face into four symmetrical regions: the left and right foreheads and the upper and lower halves of the face. They carved paternal and maternal affiliations, societal statuses, and occupations with a chisel and mallet. The head is regarded as the most important part of the body. Facial tattoos were held in high regard.

However, in modern contexts, some tattoos, especially facial ones, can inadvertently "cross the invisible line," prompting a desire for change. This phenomenon has notably fueled the demand for laser tattoo removal in Brisbane, providing a technological recourse for those seeking to undo the indelible narratives etched on their skin.

A thousand years later, the instinct to mark persists, though the practice of facial tattoos is rare and fraught with negativity.

More people are becoming aware of Indigenous cultures' traditional tattoo practices. Quannah Chasinghorse, a Hän Gwich'in and Oglala Lakota supermodel, has traditional facial tattoos — called Yidtoo, which is a single line running down the chin — as a cultural marker. She's also been instrumental in popularizing Indigenous face tattoos. She recently starred in Zara's "Skin Love" Campaign, which challenged and redefined the concept of beauty. Holly Mititquq Nordlum, an Iupiaq tattoo artist, is pleased that this tradition is being revived.

Alaska and Canada are home to various Indigenous cultures, including those with facial tattoos, a widespread practice that was widespread and unchanged for millennia before being outlawed. Here, we're delving into the tradition's illustrious history — and where it stands today.

Indigenous Cultures' Facial Tattoo History

Tattoos have been worn by Alaskan Indigenous, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people for centuries. No one knows how far back traditional tattooing dates are because it predates written history. However, tattoo traditions in Native North America date back at least 3,600 years, according to Lars Krutak's book. On Devon Island, Nunavut, in 1986, an ivory mask depicting a covered in tattoos woman with numerous lineal facial tattoos was discovered. Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist, studied tattoos from prehistoric to modern times and found that the tattooing was identical.

Thousands of Indigenous, Métis, Inuit and First Nations children from Alaska and Canada were taken from their homes and then placed in boarding schools from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Not only were they separated from their families and tribal communities, but schools and missionaries frequently attempted to convert them to Christianity in order to assimilate them to a Western way of life. As a result, they were forbidden from speaking their native languages, wearing traditional clothing, and engaging in customs such as tattooing, which had nearly vanished by the early twentieth century.

Design, Meaning, And Cultural Importance

Traditional tattooing practices in the north vary greatly in name and style from one First Nation, Métis, Inuit, and Indigenous group to the next, as well as being regionally specific. Nonetheless, there are a few recurring themes. Dots, straight lines, geometric triangular lines, and shapes can be used to create designs representing a rite of passage or significant event. Tattoos on the chin, the corners of the eyes, or the forehead are some other common facial markings. Three lines, from the lip to the chin, are among the most common facial tattoos.

Each pattern has symbolic meaning for the individual and is used for various purposes, most notably to celebrate and commemorate significant life events. Tattoos can represent life events, such as marriage and having children, or rites of passage, such as entering womanhood. Each tattoo is closely linked to the people's cultural identity; these markers could often tell you what clan and family they belonged to. Before they were prohibited, you could have a look at a woman's face and tell what region she was from, her accomplishments, and her place in the community.

Traditional Tattoo Techniques And Equipment

For centuries, women would get tattoos with suet-soaked bone or sinew needles and thread-like material made from caribou sinew. Then, it was soaked in seal oil and soot before being poked with a needle and sewn into the skin. Although ink can be used today, many people still prefer the traditional methods of hand-poking or hand-stitching.

Nordlum's tattoos and designs, for example, use both hand-poking and hand-stitching techniques without the use of machines. Skin-stitching is a process that uses a needle and a pin tool to poke ink into the skin, whereas Inuit tattoos use a needle and thread dipped in ink, with the needle leaving ink under the skin to leave a permanent design.

The Road to Cultural Reclaiming

Many women are working to preserve tattoo techniques and reconnect with what has been nearly completely erased. The Revitalization Project was founded by women like Hovak Johnson, an Inuit tattoo artist. She raised funds to travel to communities across Canada and tattoo Inuit women using the traditional poke method, usually in exchange for a small gift such as homemade earrings or a meal. She later wrote a book called Reawakening Our Ancestors' Lines about her journeys to re-establish this tradition.

Indigenous women tattoo artists are increasingly using these traditions to express their pride and culture, remember their ancestors and history, and heal from colonization.

Traditional tattoos are coming back in Alaskan and Canadian Indigenous communities thanks to the efforts of these artists. With their efforts, this nearly extinct tradition is being resurrected.