Body Language: Reclaiming a lost tradition


“Our tattoos are a permanent reminder that we belong to something bigger than ourselves.”

Photo of Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest exhibit at the Legacy Art Gallery. Photo by Jalen Codrington.

“Our identity is our power.” The proverb resonated powerfully with Dion Kazsas after reading an article concerning the resurgence of Māori culture in Aotearoa (New Zealand). The phrase helped to inform his own understanding of ancestral mark making, and to empower his project of cultural revival. 

Kazsas is an internationally-acclaimed cultural tattoo practitioner and co-founder of Earthline Tattoo School. He is of Hungarian, Métis, and Nlaka’pamux heritage, and has been working in the revival of Indigenous tattooing since 2012. 

Recently, Kazsas co-curated Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest, featured at the Legacy Art Gallery since Jan. 13, 2022. The exhibit, first appearing at the Bill Reid Art Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in 2018, presents photographs and works from five Indigenous artists: Kazsas, Nakkita Trimble (Nisga’a), Nahaan (Tlingit), Corey Bulpitt (Haida), and Dean Hunt (Heiltsuk). 

In 1885, the Canadian government imposed its infamous Potlatch Ban. With this forced separation of people from their rites and rituals, the tattooing and body adornment practices of Northwest Indigenous Nations were nearly lost. 

Body Language seeks to reclaim these practices, in order to provide a sense of protection, belonging, and empowerment to Indigenous people. 

“When you have a tattoo mark that identifies you with your community, sometimes you can look down and you can see that ‘hey, this mark and this design connects me to my ancestors, connects me to my community, and connects me to my territory,’” said Kazsas. 

“Ink marks paths through skin like rivers across the land,” reads the gallery write-up. A photograph shows Kaszas carefully weaving thread beneath someone’s skin to lay trails of ink. Skin stitching was traditionally practiced with deer bone and sinews. Today, the practice is performed with stainless steel needles and polyester thread. 

Also featured is a section on the Indigenous practice of hand-poking, appropriated in modern vocabulary as “stick-and-poke.” Displays of traditional ink of red ochre and devil’s club root made into charcoal can be examined in detail. Hand-poking is often less painful on the skin than a tattoo machine, and can take less time to heal. 

Kazsas says that tattooing is a human impulse, and has existed on every continent except Antarctica. He estimates that about 60 per cent of his own body is covered by ink. 

The visual motifs and designs featured run across all media — skin tattoos, spruce-root baskets, rock art, pictographs, and painted clothing.

“It’s the same thing today, a Nike swoosh means the same thing whether it’s on a pair of shoes, on a TV commercial, in a magazine,” said Kazsas. 

“When we look at our ancestral art-making practices, our visual language is informed by our land, our geography, and our territory.”

Near the end of the exhibit is a box of severed tattooed hands, the topmost speckled with smallpox and clutching a cross. 

When asked about the motivation behind his projects, Kaszas pointed to the high rates of suicide, depression, and substance abuse among Indigenous peoples, caused not only by the usurpation of land, but by the colonial effort at eredicating identity. 

“[Reclamation practices] are starting to reverse those processes of colonization that started to disrupt and destroy our identities, and our connections to our lands and our communities.” 

Kazsas spoke of Tongva-Ajachmem two-spirit Elder L. Frank Manriquez. Manriquez said that receiving the traditional “111” facial tattoo was like “reaching a hand across time to hold hands with their ancestors.”

For those who feel disconnected from or unsure of their roots, Kaszas said modern generations have a responsibility to create a new culture.

He quoted Papua New Guinean skin marker, Julia Mage’au Grey, who said, “We are the new old.”

“When we start to do things that bring pride back to our people, and help us to see that we have a bright future ahead, we can start to envision ourselves in that future,” said Kazsas. 

Body Language runs until April 9, at 630 Yates St. downtown, and is free to the public.