Traditional tattoos of northwest coast First Nations celebrated at Vancouver gallery


The Bill Reid Gallery collaborated with First Nations tattoo artists from the northwest coast to celebrate the history of cultural tattooing

Photo by Devon Bidal, Senior Staff Writer.

‘Body Language’ is an exhibition at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, B.C. which showcases the tradition and artistry of Indigenous tattooing and piercing on B.C.’s northwest coast. The artists and curators involved worked hard to help visitors delve into the expansive history of this ancient and significant art form, and the show is the first of its kind.

“[It’s] not something that people were really aware of,” says Beth Carter, the non-Indigenous curator of the Bill Reid Gallery. Canadians might be aware of it as an art form of the northwest coast, but most weren’t aware of the tradition behind it, she says.

Since the exhibit opened in June 2018, there have been several live presentations inside the gallery where visitors could see the tattoo artists in action.

“Unfortunately, you couldn’t just drop in for a tattoo,” says Carter. Pre-selected people were brought in to get tattooed by artists using traditional techniques.

The presentations were very meditative, says Carter. She had expected visitors to take a peek and then move on to other parts of the gallery, but they had people who sat and watched for hours. “The artists describe it as ceremony and it very much is,” she says.

The exhibit blends past with present. The artists who do tattoos at the exhibit are diligent when it comes to following modern health and safety guidelines.

“[Vancouver] Coastal Health came in and gave us a certificate so that we could have the tattooing in the gallery,” Carter says. “There’s the very contemporary health and safety aspects and then there’s the emotional, spiritual, internal health aspects.”

According to Carter, they’re hoping to have at least one more live demonstration now that the show has been extended until March 2019.

“We’re about how younger artists and other artists on the northwest coast are rediscovering their own art forms and sharing it with the general public.”

Carter also worked closely with guest curator Dion Kaszas of the Nlaka’pamux nation to put together an exhibit that would showcase the cultural significance and artistry of tattooing on the northwest coast.

‘It was an idea that was brought to us and I thought it was a fantastic opportunity,” says Carter. “Tattoos are so trendy, yet what this exhibition ends up doing is really debunking that… You start realizing how deep and meaningful tattoos are when you hear about how much physically marking identity on your skin can mean for people [when it comes to] building a sense of place and ownership and awareness.”

Kaszas, who is a tattoo historian and artist, also had his work included in the exhibit alongside the tattoo art of Nakkita Trimble (Nisga’a), Nahaan (Tlingit), Corey Bulpitt (Haida), and Dean Hunt (Heiltsuk).

“[A] big thing I’ve noticed people taking away is a recognition and awareness of the individuality of tattoo design in each region,” says Carter. “Somehow the exhibition gets to the point that it’s not a blanket style everywhere, but that each region has its own very specific approach to design, technique, and … the meaning behind the tattoos.”

Kaszas is also involved in a tattoo school called Earthline Tattoo Collective. He and his two colleagues take about six residents every year for an intensive, holistic tattoo training program working in their own traditions.

In previous years, there were only six First Nations tattoo artists working. “If you wanted a tattoo, say ten years ago, from your own tradition, you had to go to a tattoo studio and get a non-native person to give you a tattoo,” says Carter. But now, there are more Indigenous tattoo artists and interest is increasing in receiving traditional tattoos.

“Up until now, it’s more been hands and arms and chests, but we’re starting to see more facial tattoos and I think that that’s something that people are starting to wear [again] with great pride,” she says. “It’s only growing.”

Carter felt that the Bill Reid Gallery was the perfect place for such an exhibit, as the gallery is named after the famous northwest coast artist and they are constantly striving to preserve that legacy.

“We’re about how younger artists and other artists on the northwest coast are rediscovering their own art forms and sharing it with the general public,” she says.

The ‘Body Language’ exhibit has been part of this cultural reawakening, but Carter admits that they definitely don’t take the credit.

“On the most simple level,” she says, “this is a growing revitalization.”

The ‘Body Language’ exhibition will be on display at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver until March 17.