These Tattoos Are a Ceremony for Connecting with Yourself
A member of the Nlaka'pamux Nation, tattoo artist Dion Kaszas explains the transformative power of ancestral skin-marking practice.
For most of my life, I had no idea that my people, the Nlaka’pamux, had a tradition of tattooing. In 2006 I came across a pamphlet at a local tattoo shop about these ancestral practices, written by a settler anthropologist. My head nearly popped off when I saw it, and I resolved to learn more about this part of my culture.
I became a tattoo artist three years later, at a small-town street shop called Vertigo Tattoos in Salmon Arm, BC. I started out tattooing anyone that came in the door, using the electric tattoo machine. I’ve since learned to work in many different styles: dot work, ornamental, tribal, watercolour, and especially the traditional hand-tattooing methods, hand poke, and skin stich which my Nlaka’pamux ancestors used.
Walking this path, I’ve continually sought to learn more about ancestral skin-marking practices. The journey has helped me understand how embodied marks — “tattoos” — can be a powerful tool for grounding and rooting our people into our identities, our cultures, and our territories.
Today, my aim is to transform the knowledge I have gained into contemporary Nlaka’pamux blackwork tattoos by stretching our visual language to fit the curvature and movement of the human form.
I am exploring how the human body can become a canvas for the reimagining of Nlaka’pamux tattooing.
As part of this mission, I am in the process of compiling a dictionary of Nlaka’pamux visual language. I have travelled to museum collections and databases to visually repatriate this material to our community, and I’ve ventured out onto the land and spent time in the territory, discovering the messages left on the rocks by my ancestors. I’ve also read as much written material as I can find.
Once the dictionary is complete, I’ll print around 300 copies, which will go to every band and every band school in the Nation. All of the major academic institutions in our territory will get a copy, and any Elders or knowledge keepers that I’m acquainted with will get one, too. I’ll also keep a few copies to distribute when I meet someone doing similar work.
We’re embarking on a journey of enculturation: understanding the history of genocide, including the Indian Act, the Gradual Civilization Act, and other assimilationist policies, we recognize that the colonizers were trying to strip us of our identity. This is a process of bringing us back to ourselves.
Knowing who you are
I started the blackwork project because I was giving the smaller “traditional” pattern designs to settlers, and I started to feel uncomfortable with that. So I asked myself: “How can I share these markings with people who are not from my own community? How can I share our visual language in a way that feels contemporary?”
I wanted to offer something to Nlaka’pamux and non-Nlaka’pamux, Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaborators, which would represent an evolution away from the things that we did ancestrally.
Our ancestors tattooed small motifs and groupings primarily on the forearms, lower legs, and face, and I’ve since experimented with shifting this work beyond those traditional placements and sizes: moving to full bodysuits, big back pieces, and full sleeves, which include our visual language.
I thought to myself, “Well, if you see a big, huge back piece, our ancestors didn’t do that.” But you can still see the motifs, designs, and the visual language from our community in this new work.
My dream is that our artists can use their visual language and begin to make a living off the things that make us who we are. We have the rights, relationship, and responsibility to use our designs, patterns, and motifs in the way that we need to.
It’s important to not only know our languages, including our visual language, but also to enact that language.
When I make a blackwork tattoo with a collaborator, it’s our visual language walking out into the world.
Patterns and prayers
When someone wants to embark on a blackwork tattoo, the process begins with a consultation to ensure that we’re both on the same page. I make sure they understand some of the privacy considerations that we have to navigate together, like being naked, basically. For people to go through this process, I need to create a safe space for them.
Once we have a shared understanding of the process, I ask questions about the person’s life and goals, which brings up some of their experiences and challenges, as well as some of the things that they’re dreaming and thinking about. It can also bring up some things they need protection from. Then I go to the visual dictionary and use my understanding of those symbols to design a tattoo for them based on our conversation.
When I use the visual dictionary, sometimes the pattern I propose is a reminder.
If the person has faced challenges or struggles, I might use a ladder pattern, which signifies their ability to climb out of the darkness.
Sometimes the pattern is a prayer, so when they look at the tattoo, they’ll be reminded of the hope that they’ll triumph and move forward.
While I make this work available to non-Indigenous folks, I won’t share certain things with settlers: very traditional ancestral patterns and designs that were used as tattoos, for instance, or pictograph patterns associated with stories passed down from Elders or associated with someone’s dream. But I do use some of the more generic things, like basketry patterns and painted clothing.
Starting the journey
When I started this work, I had a hunch that it is a form of healing knowledge. Now I see that I was right. For the people who do it, getting a blackwork tattoo is a transformational process. This type of work can root our youth and our people into who they are.
For a full bodysuit, you’re looking at 15 to 20 sittings of eight to ten hours each. It’s a huge commitment, but this is the work that we have to do to transform the world for coming generations.
A lot of times, we’re not connected to our bodies. But when you’re sitting for up to five days, getting the tattoo done, you have a chance to understand how fucking powerful you are.
That confidence ends up coming through in different ways. This is a ceremony to connect you with yourself, so you can find a better relationship with who you are. The skin mark that I ultimately make is an artifact of that whole process you’ve been through.
My dream has always been that each community and each nation will have at least two or three practitioners: a male and a female and a two-spirit practitioner. So if people want to get the work done, they can get it done by one of their people.
There’s a lot of power in having that work done by someone from your community who fully understands it.
But right now we’re in the infancy of this work, and people just need the mark however they can get it. If the person is getting something from their own community and culture, it doesn’t matter who does it. They get that mark and we start that journey.
Dion Kaszas has been tattooing since 2009. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Skin Deep Magazine, The World Atlas of Tattoo, Tattoo Traditions of Native North America, and most recently the television series Skindigenous, which premiered in 2018 on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and USA Ink on FOX Nation.