Book published on Inuit tattoo revitalization 'all my visions coming to life,' says author

It began as a personal mission to revive a traditional Inuit custom. Now, it's become a published book — one that Angela Hovak Johnston hopes will inspire Inuit women across Canada.

Angela Hovak Johnston has tattooed nearly 100 women since beginning her work to revive traditional practice

It began as a personal mission to revive a traditional Inuit custom. Now, it's become a published book — one that Angela Hovak Johnston hopes will inspire Inuit women across Canada.

In late November, Johnston, the driving force behind the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project, published Reawakening Our Ancestors' Lines: Revitalizing Inuit Traditional Tattooing. The book tells the stories of 26 women in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, the first to receive traditional Inuit tattoos from Johnston.

"When I got the email and the photos of the book from the printers, I just broke down and started crying," she said. "It was so amazing. It happened. Just all my visions coming to life."

Johnston has been working to revive the practice of traditional Inuit tattooing since 2005, when she learned the last woman tattooed in the traditional way had died. After learning the traditional way of tattooing from an artist from Alaska, Johnston, who got her own facial tattoos nine years ago, has now tattooed nearly 100 women, starting with participants in her home community of Kugluktuk.

Johnston tattoos a woman in Kugluktuk. Her book includes the stories of 26 women from the community, the first that she visited to provide traditional Inuit tattoos. (Cora DeVos/Little Inuk Photography)

It's those women's stories that make up the book, and it was in Kugluktuk where it had its official launch, said Johnston.

"I really wanted the women of Kugluktuk to see the book before anybody else. We had such a great turnout," she said.

"It was really beautiful and really cute to watch them. When they opened the book, they heard the crack, right? And they were like: 'I don't want to crack it!'

"Just seeing the pride in the women when they were opening the book, and the women saying they can't believe they're in a book, and how beautiful they look, and how excited they are to read the other women's stories."

Johnston said a book had been part of the plan for the project since its inception: "that's how I envisioned the project, was to have something documented by us, the stories told by Inuit women.

Johnston, Mary Kudlik and Julia Ogina show off their traditional Inuit tattoos in Ulukhaktok, N.W.T. The experience of tattooing and receiving a tattoo is 'very emotional, very empowering, and very trusting,' said Johnston. (Submitted by Hovak Johnston)

"The women of that area, it was so powerful. Just finally having another Inuk woman from our area learn how to do the tattooing how it was done by our ancestors. It was very emotional, very empowering, and very trusting."

A second launch for the book was held in Yellowknife on Dec. 18, and Johnston is hoping the publishing of the book can have lasting implications beyond documenting the tattoo project.

"It's such a good message for Inuit women and Inuit little girls, that we can do it," she said. "If we push hard enough, and there's something we really believe in and we work toward it no matter what, it's possible."

With files from Alyssa Mosher, Peter Sheldon