Cultural Appropriation in the Tattoo Industry: Art or Racism?

Posted by Caitlin Newago on

Last night, I was lounging around doing a whole lot of nothing. Typical Friday night shenanigans. Checking my phone, I had a few notifications from my tattoo artist- Mark, owner and artist at Stronghold Tattoo in Duluth, MN.

“Hey I have a question”

He had a client requesting a tattoo cover up design of a skull in a headdress. He had realized it could be offensive, and called me for advice. I explained to him how a literal portrait of a dead indian romanticizes the genocide of indigenous peoples. I confirmed it is indeed offensive and explained why (check the resources at the bottom of this page to learn about it!) He listened, asked questions, and didn’t argue with me. He mentioned he’d made some other designs that would work for the cover up and would be presenting them to the client. I gave him some links and resources that he could have handy to refer to when explaining to the client how the original design is problematic at best.

I met Mark in December of 2017. He was working at another shop that had racist flash on the walls, and me being me, I said something. A lot of somethings. While he was tattooing me, he listened and absorbed what I was saying. He asked questions and reflected what I was saying back to me to ensure he understood correctly. This is when I initially explained how the American traditional designs that often hypersexualize indigenous women are wildly harmful. Fast forward to present day, he’s got his own shop (Stronghold Tattoo.) Along with a clean and modern aesthetic, no racist images are to be found.

After hanging up with Mark, I felt a little conflicted. While the conversation went extremely well and I was blown away by Mark’s receptiveness and respectfulness, it left me feeling a little resentful. Why isn’t this the norm? Why is the tattoo industry so dismissive of indigenous voices? Too often, designs that are harmful to indigenous people are created without a second thought of how it could affect us. MMIW is an epidemic in NDN country, yet tattoo flash depicting topless indigenous women is normally plastered on the walls of tattoo studios. Is it really just art, or is it a fetishization that contributes to the normalization of oversexualizing Native women? Is it, or can it be, both? 

What feels like constantly, comments pop up all over social media justifying these offensive pieces. 

“It’s just art.”

“It’s not that deep.”

“It’s just a design, they didn’t mean to be offensive!”

“But they’re honoring the culture.”

Except.. It IS that deep. Designs portraying dead or naked Native people isn’t an honor. It’s hurtful at best. It’s harmful. It may seem like a small, isolated incident of misguided intentions. But these microaggressions add up, this all contributes to the ongoing genocide of indigenous people. How can one not see a motif of a topless Native woman, war paint splattered on her face and adorning a feathered headband, as harmful? Our women are quite literally dropping like flies. And no one cares. This epidemic has been ongoing for decades, and it’s just now gaining a little recognition. Why do artists feel so entitled to these offensive designs? It’s 2020, Google exists! There’s nothing wrong with learning and doing better.

You can make art without being an asshole.

Find more of Mark’s art on his social media:

Or on his website:



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