“One of the things that terrified me was the skin stitching. It was like I thought I would put one stitch into my leg, and all of my emotions and all the things that I’ve kept bottled up for so long would have no choice but to come out.”
So says Sarah Whalen-Lunn in the trailer for the documentary film “Tupik: Inuit Ink.” A CIRI shareholder of Iñupiaq descent, Sarah has for the last year and a half been working as a traditional Inuit tattoo artist. She began training in hand-poking and skin-stitching methods in October 2016 under Greenlandic tattoo artist Maya Sialuk Jacobsen and Iñupiaq artist Holly Mititquq Nordlum as part the Tupik Mi (“tattoo people”) program, which seeks to revive traditional tattooing as a method for healing identity and reclaiming culture. The program is funded in part through the Anchorage Museum’s Urban Intervention Series of Polar Lab, which aims to empower young people through healthy creative expression.
Sarah is connected to CIRI through her mother, the late Irene Hayes of Unalakleet, Alaska; her father is of Irish and French Canadian descent. Though a relative newcomer to tattooing, she has long worked as an artist; her work encompasses large-scale oil paintings, block prints and mosaics. She became interested in Inuit tattooing three years ago. “Holly talked to me about it, and I kind of kept tabs on it. When a call was put out for Iñupiaq female artists to be part of a program to learn traditional tattooing, I jumped. There were 25 applicants, so I thought my chances of actually being chosen were pretty slim. But I made it through to the interview round, and in September, I found out I was one of the three women chosen to learn alongside Holly.”
The Tupik Mi program focuses on two indigenous tattoo methods: hand-poking and skin-stitching. Hand-poked tattoos are created dot by dot using a hand-held stick tool. Skinstitching uses a needle to thread trails of ink under the skin. While the methods are rooted in tradition, the equipment has modernized: cotton thread instead of sinew, ink instead of ash and tattoo needles in place of animal bones. All equipment is either disposable or sterilized, and the artists are trained in health and safety.
Traditional tattooing “was, truly, a part of life and religion in the Arctic,” Sialuk Jacobsen says in the documentary trailer. “We have to reimplement some Inuit thinking that has been removed due to Christianity. It doesn’t mean that we have to go back to living the old ways; we just have to understand the thinking again.”
Sarah works out of a home-based studio in Anchorage. Though she’s seeing increased interest in traditional tattoo methods from people of all walks of life, she limits skin-stitching and tattoos with traditional patterns to Alaska Native people. “Those are about our culture,” she said. (She will, however, use hand-poking to create non-traditional tattoos on non-Natives.)
A mother of five, Sarah said her children and her work as a CIRI Shareholder Participation Committee member inspired her to reconnect to her Alaska Native heritage. “Going into it (the Tupik Mi program), I wasn’t sure what to expect,” she said. “Being in this experience with other Alaska Native women and bringing back this cultural rite that had been taken away, it really forced the emotional walls to come down. I’m more of an emotional person than I believed myself to be. It was transformative, and it has changed me.”
You can find links to Sarah Whalen-Lunn’s work on Instagram under the username @inkstitcher, or she can be reached via email at [email protected]. For information about the “Tupik: Inuit Ink” documentary, visit www.facebook.com/tupikfilm.