As European explorers and Native chiefs set-up the translation protocol of their meetings, in the background, sailors and warriors would check out each other’s tattoos and piercings. You could say those were the first cross cultural exchanges in the Americas. Tattooing and body art was widespread among most tribes but because of Christianity and acculturation it disappeared or went underground for a century or so. Since the late 1960’s, modern society has seen a resurgence of all types of tattooing, with tribal designs especially trending. Before, it was the domain of subcultures like bikers, sailors, gangs, clubs, and inmates. Then the 1980’s saw the rise of Punk and a Youth culture of non-conformity and body art took off. Tribal tattoos now reflect Clan symbols and legends, totems and spirit protectors, family traditions and Native languages. Tribal members now modernize traditional arts like wampum designs and pictographs into body art to update and re-affirm cultural identity.
Milestone events occurred along the way. In 1710, 3 Mohawk Chiefs (called ‘Kings’) visited London to garner assistance from the royal court to fight the French and their Algonquin allies. Queen Anne commissioned a painting by John Verelst to celebrate the event, prints made from these paintings were widely disseminated and are still used today by artists to base their tattoo designs (i.e. the late 90’s film, Brotherhood of the Wolf). But as these Mohawk warriors walked the streets of London they created a media-buzz, soon tattoos became the rage among young dandies and they would gather into groups of street ruffians, acting out as they perceived tribal “Mohawks” might. 250 years later all this re-appeared in the late 1970’s among the Punks of London. Along this timeline, young Victorian ladies would also tattoo hidden areas with small designs and this of course has continued with young women today. Punk culture as haute-couture was reveled in all its retro glory at the MET in NYC this past spring, with plenty of real and temporary tattoos, some Mo and mostly Faux-hawks and neo-tribal pleather.
The Iroquois Museum opened a tattoo themed art exhibit called IndianInk: The Iroquois and the Art of Tattoos, in May and it will run through November 30. Tattoo and body art experts, Lars Krutak and Michael Galban, held presentations open to the public. Ganondogan Historic Site contributed to Galban’s lecture, as he has extensively researched Iroquois and Northeastern body art. During the annual Labor Day Weekend Festival of the Arts, August 31 and September 1, there will be high quality painted and airbrushed temporary tattoos by Mohawk artist Peter Loran, with artwork by Iroquois artists Peter B. Jones, Carson Waterman, John Thomas and myself. The Museum presents individuals with their body art/tattoo designs on photo-panels throughout the it’s space at every level. Co-curators Colette Lemmon and Stephanie Shultes visited Iroquois communities to do the research on a personal art form that dates back thousands of years, and many tattooed Natives have shared their ink on a Facebook page related to the exhibition. It is a very different, personal yet dynamic kind of art exhibit.
In Iroquois country, as these photos demonstrate, the Hiawatha Belt is a particuarly popular design. Its five shapes symbolize the five nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk) of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
IndianInk is inspired by TATTOO NATION, a Nation to Nation sponsored event in 1997 and a conference paper presented by Carla Hemlock in 2011. The Iroquois Museum was founded in 1980, is located at Howe’s Cave, NY, 40 miles west of Albany. For further info: IroquoisMuseum.org or call (518) 296-8949.