Skindigenous digs into the Native roots of tattoos

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These days, whether you live in a small town or a major city, you’re likely to come across people sporting tattoos on their arms, legs, hands, neck or face. As many of the social stigmas surrounding the practice become less prevalent, more people worldwide are making the choice to get inked.

A Harris poll conducted in 2015 revealed that three out of 10 Americans have tattoos, up from two out of 10 in 2011. An Ipsos Reid poll shows similar statistics for Canadians. With those numbers in mind, it’s little wonder we’re seeing more ink every day. But such a steep rise in tattooing practices begs the question: how many people with tattoos are aware of the long history and multicultural origins of the practice they’re taking part in?

That question led filmmaker Jason Brennan to develop his new documentary series Skindigenous, currently airing on APTN. The show takes viewers on a journey around the world to discover a few of the many different Indigenous tattoo traditions that continue to be practiced, and reveals what those traditions mean for the artists and communities who preserve them.

Each of the 13 episodes of the series profiles a particular artist or community, from regions as far as New Zealand, Samoa, Hawaii, Indonesia, the Philippines and Mexico, or as close as Newfoundland, Ontario, Alberta, Alaska and British Columbia. Special attention is given to the tools, techniques and symbols that characterize each tradition and make it unique. Yet while the artists profiled in the series may live and work all around the world, they share the fact that they practice tattooing as a means to stay connected to their Indigenous heritage.

“A lot of people get a tattoo to represent who they are,” Brennan says. “There’s a desire for a lot of Indigenous people to find out about who their people are. There’s a whole ‘reclaiming the tradition’ angle that we discovered.”

Brennan – a member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg community in western Quebec – first got the idea for the series while working on a documentary in Thailand. One of the crew members decided to get a tattoo in a local parlour, and Brennan seized the opportunity to record the event on video.

“I thought, ‘We should shoot this, and make it into a demo’,” he recalls.

Back on home soil, Brennan set about editing the footage, with a view to pitch the idea of a series to APTN. As it turned out, his timing was perfect, and within a few months the show was in development.

It was during that time he connected with Dion Kaszas, a Salmon Arm, BC, tattoo artist who is pursuing a Master’s degree in Indigenous Studies with a specific interest in tattooing. Kaszas helped Brennan with his research and in tracking down Indigenous tattoo artists across Canada and worldwide. He also ended up being the subject of one of the episodes. Brennan then recruited fellow documentary filmmakers to help cover the wide range of subjects he discovered in his research. In the end, writing and directing duties for the 13 episodes were split between Sonia Bonspille-Boileau, Randy Kelly, Jean-François Martel, Kim O’Bomsawin and Brennan himself.

“A lot of these people are friends of mine, and I’ve known them for a while,” Brennan says. “So we attributed different directors to different episodes based on their specific skills and interests.”

For example, several of the episodes about female tattoo artists – such as Métis artist Amy Malbeuf, Inupiaq artist Marjorie Tahbone and Nisga’a Nation artist Nakitta Trimble – were written and directed by female directors Bonspille-Boileau and O’Bomsawin, as a way of highlighting the importance of tattoo traditions for Indigenous women. Meanwhile other episodes – such as those in Indonesia and the Philippines – required a willingness to travel long distances, and to spend time living in a rustic environment.

“Randy [Kelly] lives for that stuff,” says Brennan, laughing. “Travelling for 35 hours, five hours by canoe. He doesn’t mind living in a family house with screaming pigs. He connects with that really fast.”

Such was the case for the series’ first episode, which takes viewers to the remote mountain village of Buscalan in the northern Philippines. There, we’re introduced to Whang-Od Oggay, a traditional tattoo artist (or mambatok) who learned the art from her father, and has been practicing for close to 80 years. In keeping with tradition, she makes her tools from bamboo and the thorn of a pomelo tree. Meanwhile, her ink is a simple mix of water, sweet potato and charcoal from the bottom of a cooking pot, which she combines in a coconut husk.

When Whang-Od began tattooing as a teenager, it was a ritual reserved for men on specific occasions, such as returning from war. Now, as thousands of tourists from around the world travel to Buscalan every year to get tattooed, Whang-Od has begun to teach the traditional tattooing techniques to her great-nieces so that the art will be preserved for generations to come.

For Brennan, observing the revival and preservation of those traditions undertaken by passionate artists such as Whang-Od was a deeply positive experience, and he looks forward to seeing how viewers will connect with the material.

“My hope is that people will see the show and see tattooing as a way of reflecting themselves as an individual, and also their culture,” he says. “Hopefully people will do a bit more research, and get the right artist to do it. And for people who are not into tattoos, it hopefully gives them a glimpse of those cultures.”

The series is produced by Nish Media, and is also accompanied by a website ( where viewers can catch a glimpse of behind-the-scenes footage and other extras. An app on the website also gives Indigenous tattoo artists from around the world a forum to record and view their tattoo art.

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