Exhibitionists·Video

Why getting her first tattoo is so meaningful for this 74-year-old Inuit elder

"It makes me feel like my grandmother is beside me, staying close to me." Mary Kudlak shares the emotional process of getting her first kakiniit tattoo.

'It makes me feel like my grandmother is beside me, staying close to me'

Mary Kudlak shares the emotional process of getting her first kakiniit, or traditional Inuit tattoo. 3:52

Mary Kudlak just got her first kakiniit, or Inuit tattoo, and she did it at the age of 74. It's clear that both the tattoo and the process hold great value to her. So why is this only happening now?

The tradition of kakiniit in Inuit culture all but disappeared in the past few decades. The tattoos on various parts of the body, including the face, represent family, culture and community, and the practice was erased by the effects of colonialism. Artist — and tattoo artist — Hovak Johnston was devastated when she first heard that the custom was about to literally die out with the passing of the last woman with traditional tattoos. She says, "I was so heartbroken. I was like, 'This is the last woman, last Inuk woman to have tattoos, passing away. It's going to be another part of our history that's going to be lost, or something that we only learn about in history books. It can't happen. We need to do something about it.'"

(CBC Arts)

So Johnston founded the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project. The organization has now tattooed over 80 women and is continuing to work to revive the art form. And that's how Kudlak ended up getting her first tattoo at the age of 74.

In this video, we get to sit in on the process. It's an emotional one — Johnston says, "To actually do it on her was so powerful and it took me all my strength to keep focused. And after it was done, we just broke down crying."

Find out more about the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project here

Watch Exhibitionists on Friday nights at 12:30am (1am NT) and Sundays at 3:30pm (4pm NT) on CBC Television.

About the Author

Caroline Cox is a filmmaker based out of a remote homestead in the Canadian sub-arctic. Her wilderness lifestyle has inspired her to create the documentary TV series, Wild Kitchen. Cox’s love of the arts comes from years of writing and performing music across Canada.