Through tattooing, Dion Kaszas is playing a key role in stitching together the fabric of indigenous identity that colonization aimed to destroy.
That role is recognized in Skindigenous, a series on APTN TV that features indigenous tattoo artists from places around the world including New Zealand, Alaska, Indonesia, the Philippines, Samoa and Canada.
Kaszas, who grew up in Salmon Arm and practises his skill at Vertigo Tattoo, is described in the series as a leader in the revival of indigenous tattooing.
The revival is also a personal one, as he explains at the opening of the episode.
Amid sweeping views of Shuswap Lake and other areas of the community, Kaszas talks on camera about his experience.
“For me, the process of reviving my indigenous Nlaka’pamux tattooing practice has been a way of remembering, gaining back those teachings, gaining back those cultural ideals I never gained – so it’s a way of healing and re-indigenizing myself.”
For millennia, states the Skindigenous website, humans have been marking their bodies with images and symbols giving visible form to what they hold sacred. “Today,” the site continues, “indigenous artists around the world continue to practice this ancient art using their own techniques and traditions. For these artists, tattooing is an essential part of their cultural identity, as well as a vehicle for connecting with nature, the ancestors, and the spiritual world.”
Kaszas’ connection to indigenous tattooing was awakened in 2006 while sitting in the waiting room of a tattoo shop. He picked up a booklet from the early 1900s by anthropologist James Teit, Tattooing and Face and Body Painting of the Thompson Indians. At that time, he did not know his Nlaka’pamux First Nation had a tattooing tradition.
Much has changed. Kaszas immersed himself in learning about the ancient art. He honed his skills with the traditional hand poke and skin stitch techniques. He began working on his Masters thesis at UBC Okanagan in Indigenous Studies and will soon defend his thesis, which is focused on the revival of indigenous people’s tattooing practices. He has received awards and is sought-after and featured for his knowledge and artistry.
Coming up on June 7, 8 and 9, Kaszas will be guest curator at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver for Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest.
After APTN’s four days of shooting last year for Kaszas’ episode of Skindigenous, they asked him to become an expert consultant on the series because he knows so many of the indigenous cultural tattoo practitioners.
On the day of the interview for this article, Kaszas’ sister Kris Wilson and her spouse Wes were in his studio.
Grief is fresh for them, as Kris and Dion’s dad died on March 1. He loved eagles. To honour their father, Dion tattooed an eagle on Kris’ arm, appropriately above a mountain tattoo with an Earth line below it.
The Earth line was often on an indigenous person’s garments, explains Kaszas.
“It is connected to our Earth view – our responsibilities and connectiveness to the earth.”
Traditional pit houses were also part of that view.
“When you think of being in a pit house, it’s another way you understand the Earth circling us.”
The tattooed Earth line is also a reminder of that connection.
Kaszas is thrilled to be part of the Skindigenous series, and is excited the production company is indigenous as is the main producer of the show, Jason Brennan. Rather than through a mainstream media lens, he says the show speaks to the whole picture of a revival.
“It’s connected to the historical background of the colonial project, with residential schools, missionization, banning of the potlatch at the Coast and in B.C., and indigenous cultural ceremonies…”
“Tattoos are so tied to our identity,” he emphasizes, and that identity is connected to the land.
“When we come back to uplifting ourselves, we’re not only claiming our own identity, but giving us strength to fight the fights we need to fight, with the reclaiming of our land…”
Kaszas’ episode has already aired on APTN, so can now be viewed online at http://aptn.ca/skindigenous/.