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Tattoos in The Arctic & Alaska

The inhabitants of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea have a tattoo history dating back over 3,500 years.

Tattooing was an important tool in helping individuals deal with the harsh environment and appeasing their gods. Artic tattooing was an important part of the hunter-gatherer economy of the north.

Archeological evidence in the form of carved human figurines demonstrates that tattooing was practiced as early as 3,500 years ago in the Arctic.

Arctic women's facial tattoosTattooing was practiced by all Eskimos and was most common among women. An early reference was made by Sir Martin Frobisher in 1576. Frobisher's account describes the Eskimos he encountered in the bay that is now named after him:

The women are marked on the face with blewe streekes down the cheeks and round about the eies… Also, some of their women race (scratch or pierce) their faces proportionally, as chinne, cheeks, and forehead, and the wristes of their hands, whereupon they lay a colour; which continueth dark azurine."

As a general rule, expert tattoo artists were respected women elders. Their extensive experience as skin seamstresses (parkas, pants, boots, boat covers, etc.) facilitated the need for the type of precision that was needed to produce tattoos. Tattoo designs were usually made freehand but in some instances a rough outline was first sketched.

Arctic women's facial tattoosA description of the tattooing process among the Central Eskimo living near Daly Bay (Hudson Bay) is:

The wife had her face tattooed with lamp-black and is regarded as a matron in society. The method of tattooing is to pass a needle under the skin, and soon as it is withdrawn its course is followed by a thin piece of pine stick dipped in oil and rubbed in the soot from the bottom of the kettle. The forehead is decorated with a letter V in between the eyes almost to the bridge of the nose, and sloping gracefully t the right and left before reaching the roots of the hair. Each cheek is adorned with an egg-shaped pattern, commencing near the wing of the nose and sloping upward toward the corner of the eye; these lines are also double. The most ornamented par, is the chin, which receives a gridiron pattern; the lines double from the edge of the lower lip, and reaching to the throat towards the corners of the mouth, sloping outward to the angle of the lower jaw.

Kodiak male with facial tattoos
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Around Bering Strait, the tattooing method reveals continuity in application. The St. Lawrence Island Yupiget tattoo artist drew a string of sinew thread through the eye of a steel or bone needle. The thread was continually soaked in a liquid pigment of lampblack, urine and graphite. The needle and sinew were drawn through the skin: as the needle was inserted and pushed just under the epidermis about a thirty-second of an inch.

A typical tattoo required a number of sittings with the tattoo artist and each session would be accompanied by pain, swelling, infection and even death.

Inuit female with arm tattoos
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Inuit (or Eskimos generally) and St. Lawrence Island Yupiget, in particular, regarded living bodies as inhabited by multiple souls, each soul residing in a particular joint. Tattoos have significant importance in funerary events, especially on St. Lawrence Island. Funerary tattoos consisted of small dots at the convergence of various joints: shoulders, elbows, hip, wrist, knee, ankle, neck and waist joints. For applying them, the female tattooist, in cases of both men and women, used a large, skin-sewing needle with whale sinew dipped into a mixture of lubricating seal oil, urine, and lampblack scraped from a cooking pot. Lifting a fold of skin she passed the needle through one side and out the other, leaving two ‘spots' under the epidermis.

First-kill tattoos (kakileq) consisted of small dots at the convergence of various joints: shoulders, elbows, hip, wrist knee, ankle, neck and waist.

Tattoos were considered a conduit for a ‘visiting' spiritual entity to come from ‘beyond' into the contemporary world. Tattoos and other types of adornment acted as magnets attracting a spiritual force - one that was channelled through the ceremonial attire and into the body.

On St. Lawrence Island both men and women tattooed anthromorphic spirit-helpers onto their foreheads and limbs. St. Lawrence men had a number of different circular tattoos around the mouth to prevent them from drowning.

Asiatic Eskimos"stitching the skin" at Indian Point, Chukotka, 1901.
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Circles were also important in Bering Strait culture, especially when speaking about life and death encounters at sea.

Men and women were also tattooed on each upper arm and underneath the lip with circles, half-circles, or with cruciform elements at both corners of the disguise the wearers from disease-bearing spirits.

Women's Facial and Body Tattoos
Arctic women's facial chin stripe tattoosThere seems to have been no widely distributed tattoo design among Eskimo women, although chin stripes (tamlughun) were commonly found than any other. Chin stripes served multiple purposes in social contexts. Most notably, they were tattooed on the chin as part of the ritual of social maturity, a signal to men that a woman had reached puberty. Chin stripes also served to protect women during enemy raids.

Arctic women's facial chin stripe tattoosThe chin stripe was important to Diomede Islands living in Bering Strait. Ideally, thin lines tattooed onto the chin were valuable indicators for choosing a wife. A full set of lines was a statement of the woman's ability to endure great pain but also an attestation to a woman's powers of "animal" attraction. In the St. Lawrence and Chaplino Yupik area of the early 20th century, women painted and tattooed their faces in ritual ceremonies in order to imitate, venerate, honor, and/or attract those animals that "will bring good fortune" to the family.

Slightly sloping parallel lines, usually consisting of three tightly grouped on the face, were also tattooed on women.

Arctic women's hand and thigh tattoosTattoos were placed on girls 6 to 10 years of age. Tattoos also marked the thighs of young St. Lawrence Island women when they reached puberty. In Igloolik, in Canada, the tattooing of women's thighs ensured that the first thing a newborn infant saw would be something of beauty.

Intricate scrollwork found on the cheeks and tattoos on the arms of women say these tattoos beautify their bodies.

In 1741, the German-born Georg Wilhelm Steller became the first European to describe the Native peoples of Alaska, the Unangan or Aleuts on the Shumagin Islands.

Unangan woman of Unalaska Island, October 1778
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For the inhabitants of these windswept islands, labrets, piercing, and tattoos were symbolically tied to the most sacred realms of cultural experience. Body art was created not only to lure, please, and honor the spirits of animals; it also increased the social status, spiritual power, and beauty of the adorned.

Traditionally, the term "Aleut" was used by Russian fur-traders to describe the indigenous peoples they met. Today, the Unangan (who speak the Aleut language), Alutiiq (Kodiak Islanders), and the Chugach of Prince William Sound see themselves as distinct from one another culturally and linguistically and designate themselves accordingly. With the invasion of the Russians in the 18th century, each group was gradually enslaved and organized into a force to labor for the Russian fur-based empire.

Arctic women's facial tattoosWhether fuelled by the Russian distaste of the "hideous" customs of tattooing and piercing or the Christian missionary's efforts to eradicate aspects of dress, grooming, and ritual they found "deplorable" and "savage," body piercing, labrets and tattoos were rarely seen after 1820.

Interestingly, some men of the Aleutian archipelago were "brought up entirely in the manner of girls, and instructed in all the arts women use to please man: their beards are carefully plucked out as soon as they begin to appear, and their chins are tattooed like those of the women." Whether mothers and fathers dreaded the loss of their sons in war or while hunting at sea, several accounts describe transgendered individuals. On Kodiak Island in 1790, Sarychev saw "among the arriving Kodiaks there was a 40 year-old, ugly fellow, clad in woman's garb; his face was tattooed and there were beads in his nose. This man played the role of a wife for a young islander and did all the woman's work." Davydov stated that these people were known as akhutshcik "and are mostly magicians" or shamans.

When an Aleut woman experienced her first menses she received her first tattoo and among some Inuit groups men received their first tattoos and labrets after having killed their first animal.

King Island women displaying iqalleq, arm tattoos, ca. 1900.
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Bodily modification was a visual cue by which individuals could evaluate one another, especially if placed on the face. In a study of 186 societies that practiced polygamy, like the traditional Aleut, Low found that men who scarified themselves were likely to acquire more than one wife. Ludvico and Kurland concluded in a 1995 study that tattooing had the same effect, "because such women are assumed to be more willing to endure pain to please their lover and to cope successfully with the pain of childbirth."

Aleut adornment consisting of nose rings, labrets, and tattoos were natural symbols simultaneously linking nature, society, and culture into one aspect.

Tattoo Museum Bibliography, Resources and Links

North America Tattoo Map See all North American Tattoo Culture Articles here

See these Lars Krutak articles Tattoos of the early hunter-gatherers of the Arctic, PIERCING AND PENETRATION: BODY ARTS OF THE UNANGAN, ALUTIIQ, AND CHUGACH OF ALASKA and The Last Tattoos of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska for more information about tattoos, tattooing and piercing in the Arctic.

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