Naturally, preparing to get a tattoo comes with a lot of questions. Especially for those receiving their first tattoo, it can feel overwhelming, intimidating, and riddled with unknowns. When it comes to preparing to get a traditional Indigenous tattoo, there are also some unique considerations that come into play that are important to be conscious and respectful of. Our founders, some of the most prolific Indigenous tattooers in the world, have come together to pool their knowledge and provide you with insight into starting the process of receiving traditional skin marking!
The most important thing to remember when starting this process is to approach it with a respectful, humble, and open mindset. Indigenous tattoos have rich cultural significance, and are a crucial way of protecting, perpetuating, and revitalizing ancestral knowledge. As our founders have said “We seek direction on a uniquely Indigenous path, striving to be a source of nourishment for our people, and to honor those that have come before us. To take back what has been stolen and misappropriated. Coming from many Indigenous cultures and directions, we unite within a common goal to maintain and strengthen the integrity of our practice.” It is important to understand this history when approaching an Indigenous tattoo practitioner, and to have reverence for how and why they do the work they do.
Having an open mindset often also leads to having a lot of questions! As much as we would love for there to be one consistent answer to each question a client might have, the reality is that the answer to most questions you have is probably “it depends”. There is so much nuance when it comes to Indigenous tattooing because of its deep significance, that it is almost impossible to provide one consistent answer without considering the details of a client’s cultural and ethnic background, their intention with their tattoo, the background and work of the practitioner, and so much more. The best way to have your personal questions answered is to approach an individual tattoo practitioner that you are interested in working with, and discuss those questions in relation to their own specific work.
Another incredibly important consideration when approaching the process of receiving an Indigenous tattoo, is the concept of cultural appropriation. By definition, cultural appropriation means “The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” This concept plays a major role in the world of tattooing, as many tattooing styles and subjects that are hugely popular are actually forms of cultural appropriation that go completely unrecognized. Tattoos depicting things such as Native American women with headdresses, phrases in languages such as Mandarin or Arabic, and, most relevant in this case, “tribal” patterns. These so-called “tribal” tattoos are a sensationalized form of Indigenous tattooing, with those receiving them having no idea about what they mean or where they come from, and often no personal connection to these origins either. As stated in an article by Saved Tattoo, “...those tattoos have specific meanings which regard heritage, ancestry, ancestral lineage, religious belief, social status in the tribe, and so much more. So, unless you are a part of the culture, there isn’t really anything that makes you connected to any of the aforementioned tribal tattoo symbolism.” Now, it is important to understand that there are ways in which a person can practice “cultural appreciation”, but the line between the two is very thin. As our founders have described, “The issue lies in getting an Indigenous tattoo from a non-Indigenous tattoo practitioner, especially if you are not Indigenous yourself”. Ultimately, every Indigenous tattoo practitioner has different thoughts and a different perspective on this, and the best way to gain insight into their perspective is to approach them specifically.
We are also providing you with links to some insightful articles on the topics we discussed above, that give a more in-depth look into the history and significance of Indigenous tattooing in order to help you in making informed and educated decisions. Find these links at the bottom of the page!
Thank you for taking the time to engage with this material and learn more about the history and meaning behind Indigenous tattoos, and never hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or to our practitioners with any questions you might have. We wish you well in your tattoo journey!
Te Rangitu Netana (North Island Ngapuhi/Ngati Wai/Te Arawa)