Marjorie Tahbone is a 26 years old Inupiaq woman from Nome, Alaska. Not everyone knows much about traditional Inuit tattoos, because the practice fell into disuse for decades. That’s why she started a growing movement to revitalize traditional tattooing.
I had the pleasure to meet Marjorie in person, during last Florence Tattoo Convention and then we talked about what she is doing.
Once again, tattoo art is tradition and so much more. It has the power to bring back what her ancestors practised, giving new life to the original symbols on someone else’s skin and soul.
To me, this is pure magic, and it makes me happy to know she is doing it with the most genuine passion.
Her desire to learn more is quite clear and here she explains what’s behind her work…
When did you decide to approach to the traditional Inuit tattoo art?
I was asked by another tattoo artist who was helping to revive his traditional tattoos to learn. Elle Festin works in LA to revive the Filipino tattoo. This was in 2015, but I had already received my traditional chin tattoo in 2012.
What is the position of the woman in your culture compared to the one of your ancestors? Did tattoo art enhance their role in the society?
The woman were the ones to do that tattooing, they were the ones who were considered skilled enough with a needle (from their years of being seamstresses) to be able to tattoo the skin properly. The woman and men had a balances society and each had specific roles to ensure that we were happy, healthy, and thriving.
The role of tattooing was part of that balance and to enhance our lifestyle.
What do you love the most about tradition? What does it mean to you?
Tradition is key to our health and wellbeing. Our traditions have sustained us for thousands of years, and the ceremonies and festivals that were in place were meant to maintain balance and harmony. Colonialization took that from us, and I am working hard to help bring our traditions back.
Can you tell me more about the history of tattooing in the arctic? How does it feel to reawake this ancient art?
The missionaries strong discouraged tattoos in the late 1800’s in Alaska, and has slowly disappeared since then. My mother remembers seeing her grandmother with wrist tattoos, so it was not long ago that we practiced tattooing. I feel like I am just one stitch in this journey to reawake and revitalize our ancient art of tattooing. There are many people who are involved in helping this move forward, I would not be able to do this on my own.
What do you like and dislike of the modern tattoo society?
I wouldn’t say I “dislike” modern tattoo society, because there are so many different styles and techniques, as well as different traditions and ceremonies. I really like that our tattoos are able to grow all across the Circumpolar North, across all Inuit countries. Tattoos are no longer considered taboo or evil in popular society.
What is the inner identity of Inuit community?
How could one describe the inner identity of Inuit community? Inuit span across four countries, and within them lies different lifestyles and languages. I am not someone who can explain ALL of Inuit. But in my own community I can say that we connect with the land and sea.
Our identity is our environment, and how we live in it and treat it is based on our traditions and culture.
I see every tradition attributes power to symbolism. What is the meaning behind your chin tattoo, and how was it done?
All chin tattoos are different for each person who gets them. Mine was a coming of age ceremony, where I felt like a whole woman and capable of taking care of myself. I got it done in a traditional way, by that I mean with my parents and grandparents permission and support. I had the ink put into my skin with a machine by a non-inuit man. But that does not devalue the tattoo or the ceremony. I learned how to tattoo so people have at least the opportunity to get it done using the ancient techniques.
I would love to know more about the Inuit tattoo techniques. I saw a video where you use a thread under the skin, I never saw something like that before!
There are several way to tattoo from long ago, but I use two styles. One is skin-stitching where I use a needle and thread to get the ink in the skin, its hard to imagine how this is done, you really have to see it to fully understand. And the other is hand poking or stick and poke. That is where you manually poke the ink in the skin.
I know you are doing so much to bring back these ancient practics. What are your goals for the next years? Maybe sharing more about your culture and Inuit language?
I want to continue to learn and share about tattooing. My Masters thesis in on traditional Inuit tattooing, so I want to be able to share and teach for as long as I can.
Who are your role models?
Everyone, I see and observe everyone, my community, family, and friends are all my role models. I draw inspiration and motivation from them.
Do you have any suggestions on books or other people who talk about this topic?
There seems to be more information about tattooing coming out, but not enough about Inuit tattoos, I know there are several books coming out in the future that will talk about them from the perspective of Inuit. Hovak Johnston is another tattooist who is coming out with a book this next spring 2018.