Arts·Art Hurts

Skin stitch tattoos are exactly what they sound like — and for Amy Malbeuf, they embody culture

Visual artist and cultural tattoo practitioner Amy Malbeuf considers her skin stitching to be part of a healing process for Indigenous women.

'When we wear cultural markings we are saying who we are, where we come from'

This is the eighth and final instalment of Art Hurts, a new CBC Arts digital series now streaming on CBC Gem, that focuses on eight of the game-changers in the Canadian tattoo landscape. And they're all female-identifying or gender non-binary. Just saying, guys.

Over the past few weeks, we've brought you stories from across  the  country about tattoos. And they've been told by powerful women and gender non-binary artists, who have used their practice as a way to express themselves, assert their identity and make a lasting mark. Now, you're meeting Amy Malbeuf, a visual artist and cultural tattoo practitioner from Alberta and currently based in Terrance Bay, Nova Scotia. She practices the art of skin stitch, a process that involves running thread through ink and literally sewing it into the skin. It sounds painful — we suspect it is painful — but for Malbeuf, it's also healing.

Malbeuf says of her tattoos: "As contemporary peoples, if we can ascribe our own meanings to these designs, our own meaning from our lived reality as our lived experiences, then that's what makes them powerful." Her practice is one of many such Indigenous traditions resurfacing across the country, reclaiming processes that have been stolen and re-found over decades. For Malbeuf, the skin stitch custom also speaks of bonds between women. "When I think about the historical kind of process of tattooing, I have no doubt in my mind that women are attached to each other just based on the process and the skills involved. I mean, women were tattooed, so why wouldn't they be the ones tattooing?"

In this video made by filmmaker Matthew Brown with the help of Zoë Boyd, you spend time with Malbeuf as she sews a new tattoo of a Thunderbird and reflects on her place in the Indigenous tattoo revival. She says, "This has been lost for so long and taken away for so long that it's important to share it with others so that we can work together and build it up — and so that becomes accessible to our communities."

Follow Amy Malbeuf here.

Stream Art Hurts now on CBC Gem.

About the Author

Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an instructor at OCADU and is always quite terrified of bees.