Museum Moment: Reconnecting with Tattoos

When the ‘Iceman’ was discovered in the Alps in 1991, he became the oldest surviving example of tattooing, carbon-dated to 5,200 years ago. The ancient tradition in Japan goes back roughly 7,000 years, based on examples of tattoos found on clay figurines. Across the globe, Egyptians, Romans, Peruvians and Polynesians all had their own tattooing practices. This universal form of personalized decoration was used to honour spiritual beliefs, mark special events and express common connections.

Roshi Ensei lifting a heavy beam, 1827-1830, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

This colour woodblock print is a Japanese depiction of a popular Chinese hero.

Following the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, Indigenous tattooing began to disappear. Tattooing along the Northwest coast was greatly impacted in 1885 when the Canadian Government banned Potlaches. The practice had been an integral part of clan representation at the gatherings. As Christianity spread through North America, church leaders also worked to end the important cultural tradition.

Nivisinaaq, tattooed Aivilik [Nunavut] woman, in gala dress

By Albert Peter Low (Canadian Museum of History, CC BY-SA 4.0,

A ‘flash’ (design sheet) by tattoo artist Norman Keith Collins (aka Sailor Jerry) who became famous in Hawaii in the mid 20th century.

During the mid-20th century, there was a resurgence in tattooing, particularly among servicemen of the Second World War. It wasn’t until the 1990s that tattooing became more widely accepted, but with its popularity came the cultural appropriation of images and symbols that had deep meaning to the original communities who had created them. Many ‘tribal tattoos’ in the 1980s and 90s were taken directly from Polynesian or Maori designs with no understanding of their significance. After complaints from many Polynesian people in 2013, Nike bowed to public pressure, pulling a line of their sportswear which had used Samoan tattoo imagery. In recent years the tattooing trend has become somewhat more personalized, although there is still a disconnect with the history of the art form. 

Chilkat Robe and Hand Tattoo

Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art

When the Musée Héritage Museum found out about the exhibition Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest, we thought it would be a great way to learn about the history and importance of tattooing for the identity of Indigenous cultures of Canada, and to reconnect lovers of personal decoration and expression to the traditions of tattooing. The exhibition features five contemporary tattoo artists who are reclaiming traditional techniques and traditional rights to be tattooed. Guest curator Dion Kaszas (Nlaka’pamux), Nakkita Trimble (Nisga’a), Nahaan (Tlingit), Corey Bulpitt (Haida) and Dean Hunt (Heiltsuk) create art that transcends mere decoration to provide healing, protection and a profound sense of belonging.

Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest, an exhibition from the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, runs from December 1, 2020 to May 2, 2021 at the Musée Héritage Museum.  We are open Tues – Sat from 1pm – 4pm and f

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