Connecting the Dots: Traditional Skin-Stitched Tattoos Create Inuit Sisterhood
“The first person I tattooed was me,” says Sarah Ayaqi Whalen-Lunn, traditional Inuit tattoo artist. “I can show you.” She unzips her boot to reveal a small tattoo on her ankle: an ulu — an Iñupiaq woman’s knife.
Whalen-Lunn’s grandmother was Iñupiaq from Unalakleet. Whalen-Lunn’s mother was taken out of Unalakleet at age 3. She was brought to Nome and then eventually placed in Anchorage, where Whalen-Lunn grew up.
“What are you?” was a question Whalen-Lunn always got from customers at Darwin’s Theory, where she tended bar in Anchorage, as if her ethnicity or ancestry was a game show puzzle to solve. One stranger nailed it, saying it was her eyes. “You look like a Unalakleet girl.”
Unalakleet is about 150 miles southeast of Nome. “Ever since I was 8, I had the idea in my head of wanting to go there. I wanted so desperately to find a part of myself, something that had always been missing.” A year ago, with support from the Rasmuson Foundation, Whalen-Lunn went. Not knowing anybody, it was a hard trip. “It was gorgeous, really beautiful, but in no way was it my home. There was a camera in my face, but I couldn’t help but cry.”
Inuit tattooing is an unapologetic declaration of identity, a way to take back what was lost. The facial markings proclaim, “This is how we show ourselves to the world.”
Whalen-Lunn says she had no idea about the history of tattooing among Inuit women until her friend, Holly Mititquq Nordlum, an artist originally from Kotzebue, started talking to her in 2013 or so.
When Nordlum couldn’t find anyone to give her a traditional chin tattoo, she was put in touch with Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, an Inuit tattooist from the west coast of Greenland. The two women created a project they called Tupik Mi, short for Tupikmiut — tattoo people — to revive skin-stitched tattoos among Iñupiaq and Yup’ik women. The project received funding from the Anchorage Museum’s Polar Lab.
Whalen-Lunn applied for an apprenticeship through Tupik Mi to learn traditional tattooing from Jacobsen. “I was convinced I wouldn’t be selected. I was full of self-doubt. ‘I don’t know anything. I’m not Inuit enough.’ I didn’t grow up connected. I didn’t know who I was. Nobody knew who I was.”
Whalen-Lunn says, “Holly makes me do things she knows I can do. Holly tells me, ‘Be brave. Be crazy brave.’”
Whalen-Lunn always drew, especially when she didn’t have the words for her feelings. She also had been doing large-scale art, oil paintings, watercolors and mosaic work. So, with her portfolio and accompanying essay, Whalen-Lunn was one of three women chosen for the program.
Their training started with a foundation in health and safety. “Without that,” Whalen-Lunn says, “we could be hurting people instead of healing.” They learned proper procedures from Jake Scrivner, a top tattoo influencer in Anchorage.
What do the Inuit tattoos mean? They reveal a woman’s strength, her spiritual connection, her identity, her culture.
Inuit tattooing was banned by missionaries who came to Alaska in the 1900s, along with traditional dancing and the use of indigenous languages. Reclaiming what was lost is healing for Iñupiaq and Yup’ik women. So, no matter how much these Inuit tattoos are admired by others, Whalen-Lunn declines their requests and politely points them in a different direction. She says these clients are understanding.
Originally the tattoos marked special occasions, such as a transition into womanhood, but although she wants her daughters to have some sense of who they came from, Whalen-Lunn says, “I can’t really mark them when they start menstruation.” Her youngest is now 13.
Whalen-Lunn’s daughters are light-skinned and blue-eyed. “I tell them it doesn’t take away who came before you.” The walls of Whalen-Lunn’s studio are papered with her ink drawings on flaps of tissue paper. Photos of her mother and one of her grandmothers look over her.
It took Whalen-Lunn a long time to get her first facial marks: a single row of dots. Now, she says, when her daughters see old photos of her without the marks, they tell her, “You look so weird, like a baby.”
In Western tattoo shops, there’s a lot of ego. The attitude might be, “You’re so lucky to have my work on you.” Whalen-Lunn takes a different approach. She is a force of kindness and compassion. She thanks them for their trust. She says, “It’s such a gift that people give me, to (let me) do work for them.”
On her Instagram page, Whalen-Lunn focuses on the women, the sisterhood. “I am proud to know you, and I am honored to mark you,” she often writes.
“I see you and see your spirit and your hard work to heal,” she writes in another post. “I am so proud of you, proud to call you a sister walking this world. For some of us, this is part of our journey. This is part of reclaiming our bodies.”
These marks are reminders of their strength. Whalen-Lunn says, “Our strength is undeniable.”
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