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Inupiaq woman joins movement to revitalize traditional tattooing

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 16, 2015

Marjorie Tahbone pushed a needle into and back out of a woman's forearm, allowing the ink-covered end of the cotton thread to soak in the skin for a moment before she pulled it out and began another stitch.

Onlookers crowded around Tahbone ?at the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage this week as she continued to weave the thread through 60-year-old Becky Bendixen's skin. It left behind a permanent thin black line.

"It hurt a tiny bit," said Bendixen, a Unangax woman from King Cove who counted it as her 19th tattoo. Bendixen comes from a tribe that, like many, traditionally marks significant life events with tattoos or piercings. "It's still not like the tattoo gun, but there's definitely some sensation," she said.

Tahbone, a 26-year-old Inupiaq woman from Nome, sat next to Bendixen and wielded the needle with hands dressed in latex gloves. She smiled often while explaining each step — from marinating the needle in alcohol to the shallow depths at which she moved through the skin.

Not everyone today understands the art of traditional Inuit tattoos, Tahbone said. The practice, both aesthetic and symbolic in nature, fell into disuse for decades after contact with non-Natives. However, a growing movement has surfaced in the 21st century to revitalize traditional tattooing and Tahbone has joined it as a new artist who hones a modern edge.

"I consider my generation as a reawakening generation," Tahbone said. "We're ready and we're tired of not doing anything."

Tahbone grew up in Western Alaska in an environment centered around tradition and subsistence, she said. She learned about her ancestors — about the influenza that killed many of them, the boarding schools they had to attend and the punishment her mother received for speaking the Inupiaq language.

"A burning fire was inside of me," Tahbone said, who described herself as a culture bearer and an elder in training. "It was just a desire to learn more."

Soon after Tahbone graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2012, she had three black vertical lines inked onto her chin. The traditional Inuit tattoo represents womanhood and a coming of age. For Tahbone it meant she had the strength to provide for a family and help her community.

"It's a new thing," she said of the chin tattoo. "I feel like a lot of the elders don't really know or understand it because it's been asleep for so long."

Tahbone's grandmother eventually supported the chin tattoo, but it took her some time to come around to the idea. When she grew up, such a tattoo, deeply rooted in culture, would have only led to public shame and mockery. While times have changed, Tahbone said she still gets prying questions about her facial tattoo.

"I had to make sure I was strong and the only reason I was strong was because I had the backing of my family," she said.

Then came the Facebook message this summer from a Filipino tattoo artist in Los Angeles. He had seen pictures of Tahbone's tattoo.

"He said, 'You need to become a tattoo artist so we can revitalize something that's been asleep for so long,'" she said. "And I jumped on that opportunity."

Tahbone flew to California in August and learned how to hand-stitch tattoos and use a needle to punch ink into the skin. She also decided to get her birthing tattoos.

"In our culture, we believe that when a baby exits the womb and into life, they're aware. They know what's going on; they can see," she said. "And we want to ensure that they know that they're entering a beautiful world. A world full of love. A world full of beauty."

Tahbone now wears her family's history on her thighs. She designed the tattoo and the Los Angeles artist and his wife inked it onto her legs over two days.

It begins in simple straight lines that represent the beginning of time. The Y's are for her ancestors. "They are always strong," she said. Moving toward her knee, thick blue lines interject the eclectic design. Those are the dark times when colonization and assimilation tore at her people, she said.

The design then transforms into a pattern dotted with diamonds. It's the same pattern that once marked the trim of her great-grandmother's parkas. Her family comes from a long line of reindeer herders, Tahbone explained.

Her mother came up with the teal fins for killer whales. The broken line represents the tattoo that, as a teenager, her mother started to sew on herself. She had wanted one like her grandmother, but she got negative feedback, so she stopped stitching, Tahbone said.

The purple and maroon patterns closest to Tahbone's knee are her interpretation of the current time. The color modernizes the traditional. "I love to be modern," she said. Once, she had a broken purple line, like the blue one near her mother's design, but she hand-stitched that closed to represent healing (and also so she knew what it felt to have a hand-sewn tattoo).

"These are reminders of what happened," Tahbone said. "I'm constantly reminded of my journeys because I'm a culture bearer. I'm a product of everything Inupiaq."

In many ways, Tahbone's tattoos represent cultural traditions under a modern lens. They incorporate colored ink. An artist did her chin and thigh tattoos with a high-powered gun. She balks at any notion that that makes them any less traditional. Her ancestors constantly adapted and so has she.

"It's traditional in every other aspect," she said. "If my ancestors had tattoo guns, you would have bet your bottom dollar that they would have used them."

It's still relatively uncommon to come across a tattoo artist like Tahbone, trained in hand-poking and stitching tattoos. By Wednesday morning, she had completed six tattoos and plans to do a dozen more in coming weeks. She was receiving requests from all over Alaska and even outside the country.

"Never did I imagine that it would be something so big like this," she said.

Tahbone doesn't take payment for the tattoos, but she does accept trades. She'll trade for kuspuks, fur or mittens. She pointed at one girl in the crowd Tuesday and said, "I like that shirt. We could trade for that shirt."

Tahbone graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a degree in Inupiaq language and Alaska Native studies. She now teaches Inupiaq language in Nome and creates culturally relevant curricula. She plans to get her Ph.D.

"Not because I want to be known as Dr. Marjorie Tahbone -- it's because I want to beat the system -- against all odds," she said. "Then I can pretty much be like, 'Yeah, I got it, you guys could get it too.'"

Tahbone said she wants to be a person everyone can turn to if they have questions about Inupiaq culture. She doesn't want to corner herself into a profession — she will be a professional tattoo artist, a professional teacher and a professional culture bearer.

To the many teenagers and children watching her tattoo Tuesday, she underscored that she never thought she could become a tattoo artist, but it actually wasn't that hard.

"You're fully capable of doing all the things our ancestors did," she said. "It just takes practice -- time and practice."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Marjorie Tahbone is a licensed tattoo artist. Although she is working toward getting a license, she does not currently have one.

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