Skindigenous explores one of the oldest art form and its relationship to Indigenous culture; tattooing. For millennia, humans have been marking their bodies with images and symbols giving visible form to what they hold sacred. Today, Indigenous artists around the world continue to practice this ancient art using their own techniques and traditions. For these artists, tattooing is an essential part of their cultural identity, as well as a vehicle for connecting with nature, the ancestors, and the spiritual world.

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Episodes Season 1

  • 1. Philippines

    From a remote mountain village in the Northern Philippines, Wang Od Oggay carries on the tattooing tradition of her ancestors, offering those who come to her the sacred markings that were once reserved for the women and warriors of the Kalinga people. Although the Kalinga no longer practice the headhunting for which they were once known, Whang Od’s art stands as a tangible reminder of the way things were and a potent force through which the past survives in a new guise. Now approaching one hundred years of age, Whang Od has been training her great-niece and others in the art of tattoo, in hopes that it will live on for generations to come.

  • 2. Alberta

    Métis artist Amy Malbeuf’s insatiable appetite for new creative outlets has led her to work in many artistic fields, including traditional Indigenous tattooing. Indigenous teachings and traditions are, for Amy, a foundation from which she can follow her boundless inspiration and innovation. When it comes to tattooing, however, Amy feels the need to practice the traditional methods developed by her ancestors, specifically the skin stitch technique of using a needle and thread to weave designs into the skin. Whereas Amy sees her work in the visual arts as deeply personal, she considers her work as a tattoo artist a “service to others,” and a direct contribution to the preservation of lived Indigenous culture in the contemporary world.

  • 3. Indonesia

    The Mentawai people inhabit a group of islands west of Sumatra, in Indonesia. For centuries, they have practiced a form of shamanism in which the art of tattoo plays an integral role. Tattoo designs pack immense spiritual power in the Mentawai belief system, connecting the body and soul with the spirits that reside in the plants and animals of the rain forest. By drawing on the power of their tattoos and in order collaborate with the spirits, the Mentawai shamans can heal, protect and instruct their people. It is in part thanks to the tattooed shamans that this Indigenous culture has been able to withstand the onslaught of colonization over the decades. In this episode, a shaman named Aman Jepri gives an apprentice the markings that will complete his initiation into Mentawai shamanism.

  • 4. British Columbia

    Dion Kaszas is an artist and scholar of mixed heritage who feels a strong connection to his Interior Salish roots. In recent years he has devoted countless hours to the study and practice of the traditional tattooing arts that were nearly lost to colonization. His work of retrieval has connected with him with Indigenous tattoo artists around the world. For Dion, tattoo is an indispensable part of Indigenous culture, a full-fledged language for expressing identity and cultural belonging. He sees his work as an integral part of a broader cultural revival through which First Nations are reaffirming their presence in Canada and on the world stage. Join us as Dion creates new pieces on members of his community using traditional methods.

  • 5. Samoa

    Western Samoa is one of the few places on the planet where traditional tattooing continued unimpeded through the colonial era. Sua Peter Sulu’ape is a contemporary master of the craft. With his father and brothers, he works out of a cultural village in the heart of Apia, the Samoan capital. The Sulu’apes are one of only two Samoan families who are authorized by tradition to create tattoos in accordance with ancient custom. Embracing their role, they carry on a sacred practice whose origins lie in legend, and which continues to shape the character of Samoa today.

  • 6. Newfoundland

    Jordan Bennett is an artist of Mi’kmaq descent whose work blends pop culture and traditional teachings into work that connects the past, the present, and the future. Drawing on Mi’kmaq and Beothuk symbols and designs, he is playing an active role in the reemergence of Indigenous culture on the East Coast and across Canada. His tattooing methods include the skin stitch technique using needle and thread, and the hand poke using a single hand-wielded needle. For him, these techniques are tools for bringing to light that which was kept in the dark for too long, allowing Indigenous people to express their pride by uniting their bodies with their culture in a powerful affirmation.

  • 7. Hawaii

    If Keone Nunes had never picked up the tools and answered the call to master of kakau, there would likely be no traditional tattooing in Hawaii today. Reviving this ancient art form was Keone’s life project, and today he is reaping the rewards of his tremendous effort in cultural renewal. Hawaiian tattoo has become a key part of a great Polynesian awakening that, over the last few decades, has revitalized the Hawaiian islands’ Indigenous community. Going far beyond aesthetics, kakau heals, protects, and preserves. It upholds the spirit of aloha, a philosophy that continues to guide Hawaiians in modern times.

  • 8. Seattle

    Seattle-born artist Nahaan sees tattoo, like many other forms of artistic expression, as a political act and a form of resistance. This artist of mixed First Nations heritage draws on traditional teachings to create new work using modern and traditional methods alike. Born and raised in an urban environment, Nahaan uses the city as a platform for upholding and revivifying cultural practices that colonization once threatened to wipe out. Drawing on the symbology and aesthetics of the Indigenous West Coast, his tattoo work becomes “permanent regalia” on the bodies he works on, expressing through image and symbol the deepest beliefs of his ancestors and the forces that give life to his people and the land.

  • 9. New Zealand

    In the twentieth century, the Maori of New Zealand all but lost their tattooing tradition. Only the women who continued to sport the traditional chin design ensured that the art did not disappear completely. Today, a tattoo renaissance is underway, and artist Gordon Toi plays a key role in the process. Using modern machines to weave ancient patterns reflecting the powers of the natural world, Gordon has made it his life’s quest to ensure that the art of ta moko can continue to flourish in the twenty-first century and beyond. His studio House of Natives is more than a tattoo shop—it is a cultural institution and a place where one feels the presence of the sacred.

  • 10. Alaska

    Marjorie Tahbone, an Alaskan artist of Inupiaq heritage, was first among the living women of her family to get her traditional chin tattoo. Because no one was practicing the tattooing art at the time, she had to get her markings from a non-Indigenous artist in Fairbanks. Significant as the experience was, it ignited in Marjorie a desire to revive the practice for her community. Following this desire, she took up the tools and the old methods and became a full-fledged traditional tattooist working in the Inupiaq tradition. Thanks to Marjorie and other culture bearers across the North, the tradition of inking women’s skin to mark major life events and to symbolize spiritual beliefs is once again a part of Indigenous life in the region.

  • 11. Prince Rupert

    Nakkita Trimble is the only tattoo artist from the Nisga’a Nation. Along with elders from her community, she hopes to revive the traditional process of tattooing known as gihlee’e. Ts’iksna'a's - the tattoos - were usually composed of crests, known as ayukws, and of adaawa's, which are stories, legends and history. She plans to teach someone else the art of the Nisga’a tattoing so that more people can reconnect with this ancient practice.

  • 12. Mexico

    The ancient city of Palenque was once a hub of Mayan civilization. For centuries after its decline, it lay hidden under layers of tropical vegetation, until modern archaeologists peeled back the jungle to reveal it to the world in the last century. Today, Palenque is both an cultural centre and a sacred site. It was here that Indigenous artist Samuel Olman chose to set up his traditional Mayan tattoo practice. Living in the heart of the jungle near the ancient ruins, Samuel heads up the Olman Project, which aims to revive the art, knowledge and wisdom of Mesoamerican tattooing, while adapting it to the modern world.

  • 13. Toronto

    Jay Soule is a multidisciplinary artist known as “Chippewar” in the Indigenous community. His internationally-recognized work expresses much of the angst of today’s Indigenous population in Canada. Adopted at five years of age, Jay was taken from his birth mother and grew up outside his home community. He is considered part of the “Sixties Scoop,” a period in which Indigenous children were removed from their families and assimilated into non-Indigenous households. As a teenager, Jay left his home and opted for a life on the street. For a few years, he lived among the street kids of Toronto, eventually finding refuge in one of the city’s Indigenous shelters.

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