Body language: reclaiming a lost tradition

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

Photo of Body language: Northwest cultural tattoo awakening exhibition at the Legacy Art Gallery. Photo by Jalen Codrington.

“Our identity is our power.” The proverb resonated strongly with Dion Kazsas after reading an article about the resurgence of Maori culture in Aotearoa (New Zealand). The expression helped inform his own understanding of ancestral brand-making and bolster his project of cultural renewal.

Kazsas is an internationally renowned cultural tattoo artist and co-founder of Earthline Tattoo School. He is of Hungarian, Mestizo and Nlaka’pamux descent and has been working on the revival of Indigenous tattooing since 2012.

Recently, Kazsas co-hosted Body language: Northwest cultural tattoo awakening, on view at the Legacy Art Gallery since January 13, 2022. The exhibition, first presented at the Bill Reid Art Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in 2018, features photographs and works by five Indigenous artists: Kazsas, Nakkita Trimble (Nisga’a), Nahan (Tlingit), Corey Bullpitt (Haida) and Dean Hunt (Heiltsuk).

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

Body language seeks to recover these practices, in order to give a sense of protection, belonging and empowerment to indigenous peoples.

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

“The ink marks paths through the skin like rivers across the country,” reads the gallery post. A photograph shows Kaszas carefully weaving thread under someone’s skin to draw traces of ink. Skin stitching was traditionally done with deer bones and tendons. Today, the practice is performed with stainless steel needles and polyester thread.

A section on the Aboriginal practice of hand-poking, appropriated in modern vocabulary as “stick-and-poke”, is also presented. Traditional ink displays of red ocher and devil’s club root made into charcoal can be examined in detail. Hand pricking is often less painful to the skin than a tattoo machine and may take less time to heal.

Kazsas says the tattoo is a human impulse and has existed on every continent except Antarctica. He estimates that around 60% of his own body is covered in ink.

The visual patterns and designs shown apply to all media – skin tattoos, spruce root baskets, rock art, pictographs and painted clothing.

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

“As we look at our ancestral artistic 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 holding a cross.

Asked about the motivation behind his plans, Kaszas pointed to the high rates of suicide, depression and drug addiction among indigenous peoples, caused not only by the usurpation of land, but by the colonial effort to eradicate identity.

“[Reclamation practices] are beginning to reverse those processes of colonization that have begun to disrupt and destroy our identities and our connections to our lands and communities.

Kazsas spoke about L. Frank Manriquez, two-spirited brother Tongva-Ajachmem. Manriquez said receiving the traditional “111” face tattoo was like “reaching through time to hold the hand of their ancestors.”

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

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

“When we start doing things that make our people proud and help us see that we have a bright future ahead of us, we can start to imagine ourselves in that future,” Kazsas said.

Body language runs through April 9 at 630 Yates Street downtown and is free to the public.

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