The stencils of completed tattoos inside Sarah Whalen-Lunn’s home studio pay homage to the hundreds of intimate and healing sessions she’s had at her home since becoming a tattoo artist about six years ago.
A hand drawn pair of wolves is pinned next to a raised fist with “solidarity” written underneath. You will also find cutouts for a polar bear and a cluster of berries nearby.
Traditionally, the imagery-based tattoos were made by Whalen-Lunn, an Anchorage based Iñupiaq artist.
Whalen-Lunn’s ability to give tattoos helped her connect to her culture as well as those within her community. Her first tattoo was on her face.
Now she guesses that this number could be in the hundreds.
Tattooing, Whalen-Lunn said, is a “tradition that we had for thousands of years, before this tiny little blip of colonization and religion and missionaries, and now we can take it back.”
A statement of identity
Whalen-Lunn is part of a new generation of Indigenous tattoo artists bringing new life to the techniques practiced in Alaska for thousands of years by Iñupiat and Yup’ik women. In Alaska, Christian missionaries arrived in 19th- and 20th centuries. They banned tattooing among other cultural practices.
There are two types of Inuit tattooing: hand-poke or skin-stitching. Hand-poke uses a needle to poke ink into skin whereas with skin-stitching, which is less common now, the tattooist uses a needle to sew into the skin with thread dipped in ink, according to the Anchorage Museum’s exhibition page on “Identifying Marks: Tattoos and Expression”.
Tattooing used to be done by women in the Circumpolar Nord.
Traditional markings –– including tavluġun (chin tattoo), sassuma aana (Sea mother tattoos are on the fingers). iri You can see the tattoos from the corner of your eyes. siqñiq (forehead tattoo, also meaning “sun,”) –– are extremely personal and are often used as an expression of cultural and individual identity, Whalen-Lunn said.
“The whole process is different,” she said of Inuit tattooing, compared to western tattooing. “It’s quieter, it’s more patient. It is not necessarily about the aesthetic of how it looks, but it’s about the intention in it.”
Whalen-Lunn stated that she builds hand pokes for each recipient, and ensures they are done with intention.
Whalen-Lunn was one of a handful of artists selected to participate in the Inuit tattoo revitalization project through the Anchorage Museum’s Urban Intervention Series of the Polar Lab program. Nordlum was originally from Kotzebue and Maya Sialuk Jacobsen (Greenland) led the program. Ultraviolence Tattoo owner Jake Scribner was the cohort’s Western tattoo mentor.
”At the time I had no idea that our people had tattoos, like no clue,” Whalen-Lunn said.
It was during the 2016 training that Whalen-Lunn first heard Iñupiaq being spoken.
Her mother, Irene “Bumba” Hayes, was taken out of Unalakleet at a very young age, she said, which resulted in Whalen-Lunn’s acute disconnect from her culture.
“There’s been such a resurgence in indigenous art and indigenous pride and you see it in all aspects,” she said. “(You see it in) language, you see it in food, you see it in art, you see it everywhere. It’s like coming back home. People are looking for ways to come back home.”
Whalen-Lunn began traveling to Alaska’s northern villages to tattoo after she said received a Rasmuson Foundation grant in 2018 –– the first tattooer awarded such a grant.
Through a National Endowment for the Arts grant, she and her 16-year-old child, Bowie, visited St. Paul Island this past August and Whalen-Lunn tattooed residents for two weeks –– her first work trip since the pandemic.
Bowie took the opportunity to check out tattooing and was part of this trip.
“We did quite a few things where they got to experience truly what it’s like to be one Native with one other Native doing this work that hadn’t been done in, you know, over 100 years for us,” Whalen-Lunn said. “Just seeing that excitement and that kind of hunger that (Bowie has) for being involved in this traditional tattooing. It’s just pretty incredible.”
Whalen-Lunn continues to hope that Inuit tattooing will become more commonplace and part of daily life for the younger generation.
She uses her own tradition markings to help her to understand herself better and to show her gratitude to her community.
“They steel you up in who you are, they kind of force you to walk a little bit taller,” she said. “They force you to try and do a little bit better. They’re constant reminders of your ancestors, of who’s walking with you. So, they change you.”