Skin Deep

Ancestral Ink tattoo symposium celebrates Indigenous tattoo culture

"It was a literal vision," artist Ian Kuai'i (Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian and Mescalero Apache) tells SFR. "A flash in my head."

That flash was an event dedicated to Indigenous tattoo tradition. Ancestral Ink was conceived. The upcoming symposium at the Santa Fe Art Institute space on the Midtown Campus is a day-long ode to Indigenous tattoo culture spanning the globe—from its ancient beginnings up to today—and the many artists working with a traditional reverence and practicum. On Sunday August 18, during Indian Market, tattooers from various tribal affiliations and countries, as well as numerous writers, activists and educators, come together to talk all things tattoo and demonstrate the work and artistry. With an assist from SFAI, the event is free.

"I feel like they've been completely overlooked," Kuali'i notes of Indigenous tattoo traditions, "but there's this huge revival happening, and not just in the American [Indigenous] tradition, but across the planet, throughout the South Pacific and even within Europe, Canada. A beacon needs to be shined on that."

But Kuali'i, who recently showed solo at Hecho a Mano gallery, knew he couldn't do it alone. Enter artist and Broken Boxes Podcast founder/host Ginger Dunnill, a well-known creator in her own right and a celebrated connector of people and artists.

"I have known Ian since we were kids, but I found him again through my podcast; a contemporary Hawaiian artist to interview!" Dunnill says. "We started to become friends, and he introduced me to his mom, who is a badass, and she started calling me for ideas and resources; my art is being the bridge-builder."

Kuali'i's mother, Carolyn Melenani Kuali'i (Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian and Mescalero Apache), is the president and executive director of Kua'aina Associates Inc., a nonprofit based in Berkeley, California, that is focused on maintaining and celebrating Indigenous tradition through arts, culture and Earth politics.

"What's happening is that we're seeing a renewal and revival of traditional tattoo, especially among a younger generation," Carolyn says, "but with the young Indigenous people, there are many who want to understand their traditional protocols, and what tattooing is from their culture, so it was important for us to have this symposium to be able to bring stories and clarity and understanding to those who want to move forward."

With an idea firmly in place, the Kuali'is and Dunnill set about bringing the tattooers and panelists to Santa Fe. Logistically and practically, however, that was easier said than done. Tattoo is a living, breathing organism, and of the many cultural areas faced with both loss of knowledge and appropriation, the art form is a minefield. In order to properly present the widest swath of information possible while properly celebrating and displaying various Indegenous stories and methods, Ancestral Ink's guests run a wide gamut.

Take Sulu'ape Keone Nunes (Native Hawaiian), a Kahuna Ka Uhi, or master tattooer, working in kakau, the Polynesian art of tattoo. Nunes and Carolyn's relationship goes way back, and at Ancestral Ink, he'll demonstrate his skills—with traditional techniques and equipment, such as the tapping method, which involves the needles slowly and painstakingly being tapped against the skin by hand as opposed to the electric machine. Nunes' apprentice Cory Kamehanaokal Holt Taum (Native Hawaiian) joins for a younger perspective.

New Zealand's Te Rangitu Netana (Ngapuhi, Ngtai Wai and Te Arawa) is also scheduled to appear, and his nearly three decades of study in the traditional chisel method of Moko/Maori tattooing should shed fascinating light on the island nation's tattoo history.

Find also Marjorie Kunaq Tahbone (Inupiaq), a proponent and practitioner of kakiñit, or traditional Inuit tattoo, who, in 2009, while receiving her first tavalgun, or chin tattoo, discovered there were no longer traditional kakiñit tattooers. She's since made it her life's mission to revive the art.

Canadian tattooer Dion Kaszas (Thompson Indian) rounds out the artist lineup. With a mission to help revive ancestral practices such as hand poke and skin stitching, Kaszas is co-founder of the Earthline Tattoo Collective, a group dedicated to keeping tradition alive and the folks behind the Earthline Tattoo School and the Earthline Training Residency.

Ancestral Ink promises to be accessibly academic as well, with panel appearances from retired professor Loren Me'-Lash-Ne Bommelyn (Tolowa) and his wife Lena Bommelyn, a member of and Medicine Woman for the Karuk Tribe; writer, activist and self-described "decolonizationist" L Frank Manriquez (Tongva-Acjachemen); herbalist Sage Lapena (Nomtipom Wintu); and painter/sculptor Tiffany Adams (Chemehuevi and Nisenan). Each brings a vital perspective to both the artistry and cultural impact of Indigenous tattoo, and each will shed light on the cultural relevance of the art.

"We understand we'll have Natives from all over because Indian Market is happening," Ian says. "We want to provide a platform for the questions people are afraid to ask, but that need to be asked."

Carolyn agrees.

"I'm excited because there are so many of us who are going to be together for that short weekend," she says, "I think it's going to be a very, powerful gathering of the minds."

Ancestral Ink 10 am-4 pm Sunday August 18 Free (registration required at Santa Fe Art Institute, 1600 St. Michaels Drive, 424-5050

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