top of page

IndianInk: Iroquois & The  Art of Tattoos

The art of incised embellishment was once so widespread among indigenous peoples of the northeast that it was its absence, rather than its presence, that warranted historic note.  Despite this popularity, the patterns and practice of tattooing had all but disappeared in Iroquois country by the mid 1800’s.  Today, with the infinitely-challenging human body as canvas, these indelible acts of individuality are undergoing a spectacular resurgence in Native and non-Native communities.


The Iroquois Museum was established on the foundation that the creative expressions of a people are its most vivid and reliable record of cultural affirmation and representation.  It is through this lens that we invite you to explore the work of John B. Thomas, Alex Jacobs, Peter Jones and Carson Waterman; designers such as Ike Hopper, TeeJay Dill, Lyle Logan, Jordan “Tehaweiakaron” Thompson; and the commissioned, often visionary body landscapes of more than 100 Haudenosaunee from across New York State and Canada. 


IndianInk was inspired by Tattoo Nation, a Nation to Nation, First Nations Artist Collective event (Montreal, 1997), by Carla Hemlock’s presentation at a Native American Arts Studies Association Conference (Ottawa, 2011), and first and foremost, by the enthusiastic encouragement of the numerous Iroquois who agreed to participate.


A Record in Ash and Blood

Documentation of what was, no doubt, a well-developed Iroquois tradition of facial and full body tattooing prior to European contact, is far from complete.  Accounts from Father Jouvency’s Jesuit Relations 1610 - 1710, missionaries such as John Heckwelder and Joseph Lafitau, travelers,  traders, and later, anthropologists, form what little record exists.  


Depictions of early tattoos were primarily developed from these accounts and translated through the creative and perhaps imaginative, filter of the illustrator.  Their meanings however, are even more obscure.  One more fully developed construct has formed around the now infamous early 18th Century “Four Kings” and other portraits from this period, iconography on war clubs, and French memoirs indicating an indigenous practice of leaving tattoo symbols at a battle site.  Lives taken and wounds received were irrevocably recorded with lines, hash marks, and chevrons pricked into the thigh, face, or chest of the warrior’s body.  These characters serve as what anthropologist Lars Krutak calls a kind of “military shorthand.”  Animals, celestial symbols, and emphatic mouth and throat ornamentation round out a regional iconography.


Combined, these limited records suggest the significance and extent to which the practice of tattooing was interwoven with cultural and personal identification, lineage, oratory skills, spiritual tenets, and warfare.


The intrusion of Christianity into Iroquois traditional lifeways ignited a host of changes, among them a religious dictate against body modification.  Historian Arnaud Balvay concludes that “According to most colonial commentators, tattooing seemed at best monstrousness, a disfiguring mutilation that made the bearer ugly.” Attitudes such as these, pressures to adopt western appearance and behavior, combined with the relocation of communities quickly extinguished the prominence of this once magnificent art. 

Freaks, Geeks, and Gangs

Negative attitudes towards tattooing persisted through the next century.   Its stigma as a bizarre and indecorous act lent itself well to the circus industry.  For more than 70 years, Cole Brothers, Ringling Brothers, P.T. Barnum and others showcased elaborately tattooed men and women together with bearded ladies, sword swallowers, Siamese twins, and exotic animals.  Nonetheless, tattooing met a ready reception among seamen whose rough and risky lives included camaraderie and a measure of superstition. By the 1960s, tattoos were adopted by bikers, gang members, and other individuals on the fringes of mainstream culture.  Bearing ink became identified with a private code of loyalty and a rebellious disregard for convention. 


While much more widely accepted today, tattooing stubbornly retains its individualistic character as a somewhat provocative form of expression.   Since the 1980s tattooing, especially among youth, has undergone a flourishing renaissance in Iroquois communities.


For most, this trend marks the reclamation of an earlier method of cultural representation.  For others, it indicates the inappropriate, or even dangerous, modification of body.

Behind All That Flash

For Native and non-Native practitioners, tattooing is conceived as a singular and profoundly authentic form of self-expression.  For many Iroquois personal identity is rooted in national pride, sovereignty, and maintenance of the Iroquois Confederacy.   For others, original language 

and Clan membership are a source of irrefutable solidarity and connection. Not surprisingly, the interpretation of these ideas forms the basis of many Iroquois tattoos.


Elements from traditional Iroquois art such as beadwork, pottery, and silverwork are also frequently repurposed into original skin art composites, celebrating both cultural

identity and an ancestral Haudenosaunee aesthetic.  


In an environment of global interchange, components of pop and urban street culture also find their way into the Iroquois ink repertoire.  Occasionally, this contemporary vocabulary is co-opted and given uniquely Native attitude.   Regardless of motif, these expressions serve as a foundational locus of strength and suggest the extraordinary multi-dimensional flexibility of Indigenous identity.

More Than Skin Deep

Today, not only does tattooing stand as a valid art in its own right, but this once maligned form of embellishment has entered an ever-evolving articulation of cultural expression – one that challenges and expands the definition of tradition.   Not unlike ceremonies, dance, and handcrafts, the less conventional language of skin art actively conveys and reinforces cultural principles from one generation to the next. 


Often using the 3-dimensionality of the body to great advantage, inked individuals become arresting mobile storytellers. References to historical events, obligatory relationships to plant and animal communities, and the Creation are boldly etched into arms, shoulders and backs.  Portraits and personal tributes honor elders and acknowledge those who have passed on but continue to inspire, nourish, and protect us. 


One can admire the beauty and intricacy of the design, the skill of the artist, the pain and discipline involved in the process.  But ultimately, what sets this compelling art form apart, and demands our full attention, is its enduring, nearly unalterable – permanence.

bottom of page