Missionaries and colonization nearly extinguished the indigenous practice of tattooing among Alaska Natives and Inuit across the circumpolar north. Now, modern advocates and artists see the beginning of a widespread revival.
But revitalization efforts are being threatened by an unanticipated barrier: state bureaucracy.
Inside the cramped back room of an Anchorage tattoo parlor filled with colorful masks and sketches, tattoo guns steadily buzzed as artist Holly Mititquq Nordlum scrubbed down a sink.
“I’m doing a little bit of cleaning, just to make sure the space we’re working with is very safe,” she explained.
Nordlum has been at the forefront of the indigenous tattoo revival in Alaska, receiving recognition and support from major cultural institutions, including the Anchorage Museum and the Sundance Institute. But her work has gone well beyond the boundaries of fine arts: Nordlum turned herself into a piece last year, when Greenlandic tattooist and collaborator Maya Sialuk Jacobsen tattooed her before a public audience in this same shop, stitching a design into her forearm with a needle and thread. Days later, in private, Jacobsen poked six lines down Nordlum’s chin, a design drawn from her home in Kotzebue.
More recently, she’s been preparing a month-long workshop for three Alaska Native women in every aspect of traditional tattooing, from state regulations to the history of designs and practicing on human skin. The course should set the women up to apply for an official state license. Part of the state’s requirements for licensing tattooists is 150 hours of “practical operations” in a tattoo shop. Nordlum, who is not certified to tattoo, has started putting in that work already. And even though she’s an established artist, she’s by no means exempt from menial chores – hence the scrubbing.
“It counts towards the hours that then count toward your license for the state requirements,” she said, unfazed. “It’s just part of the process.”
Within the international community of indigenous artists and advocates working to revitalize tattooing, seeking official approval is controversial. Some people reject that governments have any right to regulate indigenous practices that go back thousands of years. But Nordlum is of the mind that in today’s world, getting an official license is just another box to check off to facilitate the larger goal of reviving traditional tattooing as a vibrant cultural process.
“As somebody organizing the program, I feel like I should do everything in my power to be as qualified as I can be,” Norldum said. Though she thinks safety and sanitation standards are a given for serious practitioners, she thinks it builds credibility if she has the state’s seal of approval.
In spite of these aims, Nordlum was recently admonished by the State of Alaska. In a “non-disciplinary letter of advisement,” a state investigator informed her that last year’s tattoo demonstration violated state statutes; visiting artist Jacobsen’s request for a courtesy license to tattoo in Alaska was deemed incomplete.
Angela Birt, an investigator for the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, said the letter is not an official sanction. But if the same rule is broken again, Nordlum or Jacobsen could face more serious consequences.
For Nordlum, getting the letter felt like an insult. She said she’d repeatedly asked for clarity on how to meet regulatory requirements, only to be either stonewalled or shrugged off.
“All I’ve been asking for for two years is someone to talk to me and work with me, because there’s obviously things that aren’t going to mesh, and there is no response,” Nordlum said.
“I’m really trying to work with the State of Alaska,” she added. “It’s my state, I live here, and I’m being roadblocked every step of the way.”
But regulators with the state don’t see it that way.
Sara Chambers is with the Division of Corporations, Business, and Professional Licensing, and oversees the 43 different boards that set standards for various industries. Among them is the Board of Barbers and Hairdressers, which includes under its purview body modification and tattooing. According to Chambers, that board has clearly defined protocols to allow traditional tattooing.
The problem was not the process, Chambers said, it was the execution: Nordlum’s application for a courtesy license for Jacobsen last year likely would have been approved, but it wasn’t submitted in time.
Chambers said the division is accustomed to handling nuanced license applications given the unique challenges raised by conditions across much of rural Alaska, and she denied that regulatory requirements for traditional tattooing are unworkable. Even amid a growing number of applications over the last few years, Chambers said the division has enough staff on hand to work through issues with residents.
The state’s rules over tattoos are intended to protect Alaskans from serious risks of blood-born pathogens and diseases, Chambers said, adding that a successful licensing process depends on applicants being well-informed about regulations.
“The casual hobbyist sometimes has to ask themselves whether they plan to meet the standards required by the legislature,” Chambers said.
But cultural practices like traditional tattooing are fundamentally different from occupational standards governing, for example, barbers and hairdressers. That’s according to a body of international law that is focused on cases like these, and puts the onus on governments to be flexible in guaranteeing access to cultural rights.
“Unfortunately, this is par for the course,” said Dalee Sambo Dorough, an associate professor of political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and an expert member of the United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
According to Dorough, there are numerous provisions under the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — a non-binding document the U.S. has supported since 2010 — that bolster Nordlum’s position that the state has been unreasonably rigid.
Article 31 spells out that indigenous peoples have a right to “maintain, control, (and) protect” “traditional cultural expressions,” which explicitly includes design and visual arts. Article 36 specifies that indigenous groups separated by international borders, which could include Inuit of the Circumpolar North, have a right to convene for cultural practices. Not only that, but state governments are obligated to help implement this right.
“There should be some openness and willingness on the part of the state government to find a way to work with them, rather than requiring that they conform to the imposed regulatory scheme,” Dorough said by phone from her Anchorage office. In her interpretation, international conventions trump the regulatory requirements laid out by the barbers and hairdressers.
But that conclusion might not be enough for Nordlum, who is still scrambling to finalize logistics, funding, and travel ahead of the upcoming workshop, which begins in October.
She didn’t bother submitting paperwork to the state this time around, because calls to the relevant regulatory bodies didn’t shed any new light on the application process. She said she was curtly directed to get a courtesy license for Jacobsen, just like last year. After spending dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars in 2015, Nordlum said it felt like a pointless waste of time and money.
Nordlum hopes a solution will come from law-makers or the governor’s office. In the meantime, she doesn’t understand why the state is making it so difficult to bring in a teacher like Jacobsen to share skills that Alaskans are desperate to learn.
“She’s a culture bearer,” Nordlum said. “This is a cultural practice.”