Greenlandic Tattoo CultureHelga Mjöll Oddsdóttir
Since Greenland became an autonomous country within the Danish Kingdom in 1979 after being a Danish colony since the early eighteenth century, many changes have been made in order to restore Greenlandic culture. In 2014, the Greenlandic government (called Naalakkersuisut in the native language) founded a commission that focuses on revealing and reconciling the effects of colonization that are still lingering in Greenland today. Through a rapid period of colonization and urbanization many Greenlanders lost their sense of identity when they were forced to conform to Danish culture. They were stripped of their culture and traditions, left with no sense of belonging to a place that was once their home.
In order to heal themselves from the past traumas inflicted upon their people, Greenlanders have brought back a tradition from their ancestors, tattoos.
Before colonization, tattoos were extremely important to Inuit culture and had a variety of different meanings and interpretations. While it was common for both men and women to have tattoos, tattoos were a rite of passage for the Inuit women.
In Inuit religion it is believed that a woman’s period would cause bad luck for their hunts. Tattoos were used as a cleansing ritual when girls got their first menstrual cycle. A line was drawn from the lower lip continuing down to the chin. It marked the transition from being a girl to becoming a woman. These tattoos symbolized that women were ready to support a family and integrate more into their culture.
Other tattoos that women got over time symbolized life changes that they went through. Women would get tattoos when they would master a new skill or endure childbirth. Not only did these tattoos mark momentous occasions in their lives, they also served as symbols of strength due to the pain that comes along with tattooing.
Men’s tattoos were related to hunting, either giving them good luck for a future hunt or showcasing a successful hunt.
Other tattoos seen on both men and women represent stories from Inuit culture. The Legend of Sedna was very commonly tattooed onto Inuit people. Sedna is the Goddess of the sea who ran away with a masked man who ended up being from the seabird colony. Sedna’s father helped her escape the colony until the sea birds attacked their kayak. She was thrown overboard by her father, but clung to the kayak. Her father chopped on her fingers that were hanging onto the kayak and as her fingers fell they took the form of different ocean animals. To represent the Legend of Sedna Inuit people would get lines tattooed on their hands and arms representing where Sedna’s fingers were cut off.
These pieces of art were most commonly placed on faces, legs, arms, and back of the hands. Many times you will see lines, stripes, letters, and shapes sketched into the body. The letter Y symbolizes a tool for seal hunting and the letter V on the forehead of a woman means she has begun her womanhood. Back then, these tattoos were done by using sinew or bone as the needle to pierce the skin and suet as the ink.
When the colonization of Greenland intensified, tattoos did not fit in with the religious beliefs that colonizers were imposing. They believed that they were evil and should not be on anyone’s body. As a result, Inuit tattoo culture began to fade.
Now, Greenlanders use modern tattoo methods to revive the tradition and embrace their culture that colonists attempted to erase. A tattoo artist from Greenland, Maya Sialuk, focuses her talents on traditional Inuit tattoo design. She created the tattoo and research project Inuit Tattoo Traditions in order to better understand their significance in her culture. Along with her own research, she has trained four other women in the art of Inuit tattooing and continues to spread her knowledge of the culture to the rest of the world. Not only does she create traditional Inuit tattoo designs, she also is an activist fighting for freedom to have facial tattoos to show Greenlandic heritage in Denmark, where facial tattoos are illegal. Sialuk spreads awareness that tattoos are an integral part of Inuit tradition and that they should be worn with pride not only in Greenland, but in other parts of the world as well.
As Inuit tattoos regain popularity in Greenland, people are able to show how proud they are to be from Inuit origin. However, this rise in popularity makes the tradition open to cultural appropriation. There are many instances where people who have no connection to Inuit culture are getting these tattoos without understanding the cultural significance behind them. This ignorance completely undermines what Inuit people are trying to do by getting tattoos and is extremely disrespectful to their culture.
With more knowledge and respect for Inuit culture from the rest of the world, Greenlanders can continue to heal and reclaim their once rejected traditions, like the practice of getting Inuit tattoos.