Body Language tracks reawakening of Indigenous tattoo culture at Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art

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      Dion Kaszas started getting tattoos at 17, as he puts it, “in the western tradition, just with the machine—pick something off the wall and go for it”.

      Then, in 2006, while he sat in a shop waiting to get his latest ink, he spotted a pamphlet about the tattooing and body painting of the “Thompson River Indians”.

      “My head almost popped off that we had this tattooing tradition,” says Kaszas, whose mixed heritage includes the Nlaka’pamux—an Interior B.C. Salish community in the Thompson River region. “I didn’t realize that my ancestors had a tattooing tradition. I knew the Maori had and the folks in Borneo and Tonga and Fiji did, but I didn’t know about it here.”

      That moment would plant the seed, not only for Kaszas’s own reawakening to his culture, but for a revival of Indigenous tattooing here. Kaszas, who’s also a painter, went on to apprentice as a tattoo artist and eventually helped establish the Earthline Tattoo Collec­tive, dedicated to promoting Indigenous tattoo practices in Canada.

      Kaszas went on to get his master’s in Indigenous studies at UBC Okanagan, focusing his research on Indigenous tattooing. And now he’s come to Vancouver to guest-curate the new exhibit Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest. The show marks the reopening of the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art after a six-month renovation.

      Body Language brings together the work of Kaszas with that of Nisga’a artist Nakkita Trimble, Tlingit artist Nahaan, Haida artist Corey Bulpitt, and Heiltsuk artist Dean Hunt. Each will display tattoo work alongside clothing, basketry, rock art, and other works that reflect similar motifs from their regions.

      Tattooing and piercing were used widely among the First Nations of the Northwest, with motifs signifying everything from status to important life events and guardian spirits. They were integral marks of identity that were banned, alongside potlatches, in an 1885 amendment to the Indian Act.

      For Kaszas, whose own academic research took him on hikes deep into the wilderness to find his people’s pictographs, it’s important to show the traditional tattoos alongside the wider cultural practices.

      “I’m trying to dispel the myth that tattooing is disassociated from the rest of our culture,” he tells the Straight. “For academic reasons, people have wanted to become experts in different things—an expert on basketry, or an expert on rock art. But by doing that, it’s a strategy that people don’t see the full view of what we are as Indigenous people.”

      Kaszas has insisted on a diverse Indigenous curatorial steering committee for Body Language, giving it final say on what could be shared in the show, and what could not.

      “The exhibit is less my own vision than the vision of the community,” he explains. “There’s a history of appropriation of Indigenous voice in terms of experts and I didn’t want to continue that—even though I’m an Indigenous person.”

      Tattoo artist Dion Kaszas uses the skin-stitch technique.
      Tia Taurere-Clearsky

      Kaszas brings a similar amount of rigour to his own practice, returning to the hand tools and techniques of his ancestors—albeit with new stainless-steel hygiene. He does hand poking—piercing the skin with a needle to create imagery dot by dot—and skin stitching, in which a needle with thread creates small trails or lines of ink under the skin.

      Although he supports Indigenous people getting their identifying tattoos any way they can, he often finds his ancient technique a more meaningful process than machine tattooing. “With the machine, you’re connected to electricity,” he explains. “The hand tools are a more intimate experience; there’s no buzzing of the machine, it’s a slower process, but also I would say it’s different because the tattoo machine is connected to a monetary system that’s postcontact.” Often, he says, he will use the older barter or trade system for his hand-poke or skin-stitch tattoos.

      Kaszas sees the symbols as a way for Indigenous youths to reclaim their heritage, taking inspiration from the Maori tenet that there is power in identity and knowing who you are. “For me, recovering the process of Nlaka’pamux tattooing was remembering—not only who I am, but that I’m connected to the community and to geography,” Kaszas says.

      Tattooing of the Northwest Coast is more than just artwork.
      Aaron Leonen

      Because of their cultural significance, there are strong issues around the appropriation of Indigenous tattoos. Kaszas hopes the Body Language show will raise the awareness of those who might consider an Indigenous design as a casual tattoo.

      “When we look at tattooing of the Northwest Coast, one thing they emphasize is these designs are not just artwork,” he clarifies. “Of course those marks are beautiful, but you don’t know that person or who sanctioned those powerful marks. My concern is those people who are making money off designers and are not Indigenous and don’t have a significant or reciprocal relationship with our community.

      “And I would say it has to be looked at in the history of cultural genocide,” he adds, “as a continuation of the theft of land and the theft of children, a form of violence that takes away our culture.”

      It’s clear that Body Language is tied not just into the history of the Northwest Coast, but to what is happening today with reconciliation and the broader reawakening to Indigenous rights. For Kaszas and his practice, it’s very much about what happens tomorrow, too.

      "One of the reasons I tattoo is so future generations don't have to go through the struggles I went through," he says. "They will have a living tradition.

      “We are actually losing young people very quickly,” he continues. “They’re deciding that struggle with a fractured identity isn’t worth it.…These tattoos connect them to this place and to their culture—but also bring responsibility with that connection.”

      Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest is at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art from Friday (June 8) to January 19, 2019.