Who Did Your Ink?: Dion Kaszas looks to revive traditional methods of hand-poke and skin-stitch tattooing

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      Who Did Your Ink? is the Straight’s weekly feature, where we ask badass Vancouverites about the talented artists, indelible stories, and, at times, questionable antics behind their most treasured tattoos.

      What's your name?  Dion Kaszas.

      What do you do?  On any given day, I can be found working at Vertigo Tattoos and Body Piercing as a professional tattoo artist, lecturing as part of my graduate degree, applying paint to canvas in my artist's studio, or traveling to a community event to share my skills as a cultural tattoo practitioner.

      As a tattoo artist, I specialize in neo-tribal, blackwork, dotwork, ornamental, and black and grey. As a graduate student working towards my Master of Arts in interdisciplinary graduate studies with a specialization in Indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, I am looking closely at the revival of Indigenous tattooing locally and globally.

      As a practicing Indigenous artist, I work in many mediums as a painter, including oil, watercolour, and acrylics. I also work in new media producing short documentaries, recording my work as a cultural tattoo practitioner and producing short video montage artworks that explore topics that range from spirituality to masculinity.

      As a cultural tattoo practitioner, I am an expert at the traditional methods of hand-poke and skin-stitch tattooing. These are methods which my ancestors, the Nlaka’pamux, used in the application of our cultural tattoos.

      As part of my responsibilities as an Nlaka’pamux person of mixed ancestry, I have had to answer the question, which the creator gives to all of us, “What will you do for the people to be?” My answer to this question is the Earth Line Tattoo Training Residency, which was created in collaboration with the Earth Line Tattoo Collective and funded and supported by the faculty of Creative Studies at UBC Okanagan, the Aboriginal Office of the Canada Council of the Arts, and the Equity and Enhancement Fund at the University of British Columbia.

      This tattoo school taught four Indigenous fine artists, first and foremost, the principles associated with blood-borne pathogens, cross-contamination, and their application to the practice of a cultural tattoo practitioner. Secondly, the residency participants each researched and explored their ancestral tattooing traditions as a background for each individual's cultural tattooing practices.

      Each participant left the residency with the ability and skills to safely apply skin-stitch and hand-poke tattoos, and each one of them will become an important actor in the revival of Indigenous tattooing in Canada. The four participants were Amy Malbeuf, Jordan BennettJeneen Frei Njootli, and Dean Hunt.

      I was honoured to work with these four amazing Indigenous artists as the facilitator and instructor of the Earth Line Tattoo Training Residency and was further honoured by the presence of two Indigenous tattoo artists and cultural tattoo practitioners who participated as guest mentors. Nahaan is a Tlingit tattoo artist, carver, language teacher, and spoken word poet who joined the residency in its final week to share his knowledge and journey.

      The second guest mentor who arrived in the residency's final week was Nakkita Trimble. She is a Nisga’a tattoo artist who specialises in formline tattooing. This whole residency was filmed as part of a documentary film being done on my life and work by the talented Kiano Zamani of Uniters Media.

      Who did your ink?  The first three tattoos I wish to discuss were done by Carla Gosgnach, my mentor and the person who instilled in me the importance of the health aspects of tattooing and who also taught me how to tattoo using the tattoo machine. The first of these three tattoos is a back piece Carla did for me as a cover-up of an old tattoo of the word Jesus surrounded by some black tribal work—it is of a huge blue Asian dragon.

      This dragon tattoo first and foremost speaks to my journey from the time in my life where I was a Christian and worked as a pastor in Northern British Columbia. The second tattoo done for me by Carla is a soft black and grey portrait of Charles Darwin, which tells the second part of my spiritual journey. This tattoo represents a period in my spiritual development where I was exploring atheism, deism, and scientism.

      The final tattoo done by Carla is a piece that covers my lower-right forearm and hand, which consists of designs and motifs from my Nlaka’pamux heritage and seeks to share the final phase of my spiritual journey back home to my mother's peoples. I chose Carla to do these tattoos for me because of her ability to execute them, especially the cover-up on my back.

       I have two pieces that cover the back of my calves, which I received while in New Zealand last November as an invited guest artist at the Indigenous Ink festival held in Auckland. The event is promoted by my friend and colleague Terry Klavenes, a Tongan tattoo artist working out of Karanga Ink in Auckland.

      The tattoo which covers my right calf was done for me by the talented Pip Hartley, the owner and operator of Karanga Ink on K Road in Auckland, New Zealalnd. I chose Pip to do this piece for me because of her expert knowledge and training in Maori tattooing. The second piece was done for me by Lawrence Ah Ching, who is a traditional Samoan tattoo artist who hand-tapped a beautiful Samoan pattern on my left calf. I asked him to do this tattoo for me because of his knowledge and skill in using the hand-tap tools.

      During the final days of the Earth Line Tattoo Training Residency, I received two tattoos from two of the participants. The first piece was a skin-stitched pictograph design from my nation done by Jeneen Frei Njootli, a Gwitchin performance artist. The second was a hand-poke piece done by Jordan Bennett, a Mi’kmaq visual artist. It is his interpretation of a grizzly bear-paw pictograph, which we discovered during a hiking trip into the Stein River Valley as part of the residency.

      These two tattoos are on either side of a piece which documents my journey into the revival of Nlaka’pamux tattooing, as it is the place I first practiced hand-poke and skin- stitch tattooing methods for the first time on my own leg.    

      The final piece that I wish to share is a piece that is in progress on my chest and done at the Earth Line Tattoo Training Residency by the guest mentor Nahaan. It is a beautiful Tlingit formline raven on my chest. In March of this year, I tattooed a formline design on Nahaan’s neck and the raven he is doing on my chest is a trade for that piece I did on his neck.

      I asked Nahaan to do a piece for me as a gift from him and his culture, and he told me the reason he gifted me this raven design is because, like raven through my revival work and through the Earth Line Tattoo Training Residency, I am bringing light to the world.

      What's next on your ink list?  I'd like to finish my master's degree and complete the filming of the documentary being done on me by Uniters Media. There are also plans for a second Earth Line Tattoo Training Residency, so stay tuned for more information on that early next year.

      I will be tattooing at the Calgary Tattoo Arts Festival in October and traveling to New Zealand for Indigenous Ink in November. I have been invited to participate in the Traditional Tattoo and World Culture Festival in Mallorca, Spain, next year.

      As for my next tattoos, who knows? Hopefully, finish the piece Nahaan started for me.