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A tattoo artist writes stories on the skin

Indigenous designs, once banned in Canada, are resurgent in the nation’s culture. Even the prime minister has one. What meaning do they hold today?

By Rachel Rummel

Gun in hand, foot to the pedal, I sat at a rigged-up massage table, poised to tattoo. This would be my first time permanently marking anyone’s skin, in a house shared by twentysomethings in a suburb of Vancouver.

But Cade Cran, the friend who had volunteered his calf as canvas, was insistent. A professional tattoo artist, he already sported a few dozen tattoos. The worst one was arguably a smiley face on his finger, acquired when Cade was 16 and reduced to a faded, mangled grin after an attempt to forcibly carve it out. 

Some of Cade’s best artwork, by contrast, was done by his father, Percy. The morgue-style toe tag on his foot, which Percy designed more than 20 years ago, is Cade’s favorite. “I found [the design] in his wallet and asked him to tattoo it on me,” he explained.

Percy is also a tattoo artist — and is also covered in a lifetime of ink. Last year, Cade tattooed “it’s a beautiful day to die” across his father’s upper back. Save for a few negative spaces that form the shape of medicine wheels — a symbol used by many North American Indigenous tribes — Percy’s arms are completely blacked out.

Tattoo designs created by Percy in the 1990s

Tattooing is part of his heritage, Percy explains, but he had to discover that heritage for himself. Born Dené Chipewyan, he grew up in an unofficial “rez town” in Saskatchewan, raised Christian by his First Nations parents. Faced with an identity imposed by the government, he learned that to tattoo was to rebel.

Today, Percy answers the phone in Chipewyan, makes a mean pork neck bone stew, and — after losing his foot to a train while drunk — is 30 years sober. At the peak of his career, he specialized in Indigenous designs, many of which feature animals in angular shapes with red accents.

Once, those images were verboten. But times have changed. Now, Indigenous tattoos occupy an uncomfortable place in Canada, somewhere between appreciation and appropriation.


In Canada, more than 1.6 million people — nearly five percent of Canadians — identify as Indigenous, a designation that includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people. (In the United States, by contrast, Native Americans make up about two percent of the population.) Some Canadian natives employ and teach traditional skin stitching, hand pokes, and machine tattooing as a way to reclaim their culture.

But non-Indigenous Canadians are warming to the symbols, too. On his 40th birthday, in 2011, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tattooed a Haida raven on his shoulder, wrapping it around a globe he had gotten inked in Thailand when he was 23. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Haida tattoo was visible during a 2016 workout at Gleason’s Gym in New York. Photo by Dennis Van Tine/Sipa USA

The raven symbol, originally painted by Haida artist Robert Davidson, was used without explicit permission. At first, Davidson didn’t object. But feelings in the Haida community soured after Trudeau began approving gas pipeline projects along British Columbia’s Northwest coast, a region Haida people hail from. “By selecting that image, he must uphold the responsibilities that come with that image,” Davidson told the magazine Canadian Art in 2016. “He must bring light to the world…. Otherwise, it is cultural appropriation.”

Indigenous artists’ grievances were reinforced by centuries of ruthless confiscation that preceded the cultural shift towards tattoo fetishism. In 1885, through the Indian Act, the Canadian government banned Indigenous tattooing. From the 1840s to as recently as 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken and forced into residential schools intended to eliminate their languages and traditions. Body art was banished, since it recorded what colonizers sought to erase: life events, guardian spirits, and each clan’s history. In essence, tattoos told Indigenous stories, and that made tattoos dangerous.

Initially, Percy didn’t derive his creative inspiration from Indigenous culture; as a teenager, he drew copies of characters from comic books. Before long, he was branding himself and his friends with a sewing needle and ink. In 1983, after practicing hand poking for a few years, he built a homemade apparatus based off an image he saw in Easyriders magazine. 

For three years, Percy made his own tattoo needles by sanding guitar strings.

For the next three years, instead of buying tattoo needles — he didn’t know they existed, and the internet had yet to arrive — Percy made his own needles by sanding guitar strings. In 1986, he bought “a real machine off some guy.” He uses the same one to this day. Early in his professional career, at the behest of a boss who saw First Nations heritage as a marketing ploy, Percy worked as an Indigenous tattoo specialist. But as soon as the opportunity arose to open his own business, he abandoned the style.

Cade grew up watching his dad — the only dad he knew who was fully covered in tattoos — work his magic in parlors. 

“I was the first person in my high school to have tattoos,” Cade said, discussing his father’s willingness to decorate his underage son. “He’s the biggest reason I became a tattoo artist.” 

And while tattooing is part of his lineage — it’s safe to say skilled inscription runs in his blood — Cade hasn’t built his career on a return to ancestral art. Instead, he followed in the footsteps of a renegade.

Perhaps that’s why the tattoo I drew for Cade avoided referencing the sacred or the ancient, instead favoring youthful satire. I had sketched an ice cream cone, on which each scoop depicted a melting creature: rabbit, cat, bear. They looked vaguely like they’d been decapitated and stacked into a frozen novelty. A couple of days later, Cade — who reassured me that he didn’t care if it turned out bad — had reproduced the drawing as a stencil.

Now, like a third grader, I slapped a soggy paper towel over the stencil, agonized for 45 seconds, then wince-and-peeled the paper away. A temporary tattoo emerged. Latex gloves on, I coated the image in Vaseline and donned a headlamp.

My free hand held Cade’s skin taut; my gun-hand sewed. Meandering along slowly gave the vibrating weapon leeway to jitter, so I worked with a speed that felt reckless, looking to the wounded smile on Cade’s finger for solace. I traced, sweated, dipped the needle, grimaced, and tried not to smear the outline. After what felt like many moons had passed, Cade examined his swollen patch of flesh. We high-fived. I exhaled for 30 seconds and flung the headlamp in celebration. 

Shortly thereafter, I returned to the United States. Cade joined an artist collective in downtown Vancouver, where he creates and gives tattoos using fine-detail dot-work. Years later, I asked him how his heritage influences his work. He told me that, mostly, it doesn’t. Then, when I asked why he let me tattoo him, he began: “Tattoos tell our story.”

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Rachel Rummel is a writer based in New York.

 

Illustration by Miguel Porlan

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