Tattoos, artists and ink

For all the times that I’ve seen offensive tattoos with Native-esque symbols or items, there has always been one thing clear — there are at least two people at fault for the offense. The person getting the disrespectful image, and the tattoo artist who inked it on them.

Some time ago, I took the time to approach artist after artist to ask why they would opt to do that instead of maybe informing the client that ‘this design may be offensive to Indigenous peoples’. By and large, the response was, ‘if the client wants that design, it’s not on me to police it’. Yet when asked if they’d do racist or Nazi designs, many would argue that it’s not the same thing. The difference is – one design offends everyone. One offends Indigenous people. Why the dismissal when it’s us who are offended?

At the root of it, artists told me that as an artist, they should not be limited as to what they can do. In ideal, that may seem true enough. Limiting artistry limits artistry. At the same time, artists have expressed that they wouldn’t do certain designs because of their offensiveness and that contradicts that claim.

I stopped trying to reason with tattoo artists because after being educated about how wrong a design like a skull in a headdress or a chick in a headdress is, not a single one ever expressed an interest in learning more about why Indigenous people find them offensive. More often than not, I was blocked from their social media.

The last few days, I’ve seen a lot more of these offensive tattoos crop up as social media expands and people post more pictures of themselves and their ink.

Do tattoo artists have a personal moral code to which they adhere? If so, why don’t culturally appropriative designs merit a place on it to at least object or inform clients of the potential offense? This is a permanent fixture on someone’s body that you, as the artist, are placing.

I believe we should not only point out why these designs are offensive to those who get them, but we should also discover who inked them so they can also be held accountable. If it’s your art, your work and/or your design, you should stand behind it. Just as we should know who not to support, both the person inked and the one who did the inking.

It has been a few years since I’ve tried having a dialogue with tattoo artists. I don’t think anything would have changed in that time, but I’m mildly curious if there have been developments to that end.

Here’s a screenshot of ‘Native American tattoos’ Google search.

A) Plains style headdresses are among the most appropriated items. Just about up there is the dreamcatcher designs. This tattoo has both.

BCD) The lamentable practice of inking a chick in a headdress is already a negative. Face paint/war paint isn’t just random color stripes across one’s face. The color, the shape and location have specific meanings and aren’t decoration.

E) Small sigh. I sort of get the attraction of a headdress, not so much so the reasonings people give themselves to don one or ink one with a non-Native woman wearing it. But why a dog or wolf? What honor does this really convey? Are you uplifting animals to the same status you view us or are you viewing us as animals. Really think about that.

F) Not only is an animal wearing the headdress, the chick is wearing the animal. What noble savagery! Image such as this give a glimpse of just how we’re viewed as not human.

G) This is more so obvious when you take an animal not indigenous to our lands and sock a headdress on it.


While writing my blog post, someone pointed me to this article from 2016. Our conversation didn’t even have anything to do with tattoos, but the photo shoot this group did with a model in a headdress. In looking at their Twitter, it seems STAPAW believes in promoting acceptance of ink and has frowned upon the disrespect of it. Hypocrisy and irony! Let’s break this poorly thought out article down.

“We believe standing against destructive views far outweighs appeasing a select few viewers”

Yeah, but those views as it pertains to Plains style headdresses aren’t destructive. You’re calling our call for respect of our sacred items ‘destructive views’ because your view is akin to someone telling you that you can’t play with that toy and you’re mad.

“The STAPAW staff member writing “Indian Headdress Cultural Appropriation | Facts and Response” is part native American Indian”

So what? “Part native American Indian” (why is ‘Native’ in lowercase like that?) doesn’t give that person authority to make decisions for any one tribe and certainly not any of the Northern Plains tribes even if they were part of one.

“The idea that only a certain ethnicity, culture, heritage or nation can wear an article of clothing is dangerous. It implies we cannot appreciate other’s fashion, styles or ways.”

You can appreciate something without appropriating it. Your graphic of “most of what you wear is another culture’s” is a bullshit argument because our headdresses are sacred to us. They’re not a fashion accessory. They’re not a toy. We don’t even wear them unless we’ve earned them because they’re that sacred to us. To you, ‘sacred’ gets equated to ‘kind of important’ or less than that.

If another culture has sacred items that they ask not to be used, you know what the actual respectful course of action would be? NOT TO USE THEM.

“Our whole movement is based on tattoos and piercings which is all about individuality and uniqueness. Hundreds of cultures throughout history wore feather headdress headwear.”

Yes. But our headdresses are unqiue to us. These SPECIFIC headdresses are what we’ve asked to be respected. We’re not claiming every single headdress type out there. In fact, if they’re all the same to you, why aren’t you using other headdresses instead of ours?

“It is not rude or inconsiderate to wear a Indian headdress anymore than it is rude or inconsiderate for a native American Indian to wear a button up shirt which was invented by the English.”

What English button up is so sacred to the English that they are asking that it never be used in a derogatory fashion? I’ll wait.

“To be blunt we don’t adopt the practice of scalping our enemies, which not all Indians did, and Indians don’t adopt the practice of handing out smallpox blankets, which not all Americans did.”

The government adopted the practice of scalping Indians as a means of proving they had been killed. The government paid for the scalps of my people. When Natives retaliated with the practice, it was your colonizer ancestors who pointed a finger at us to demonize the practice. Which originated with colonizers. The same government did indeed use disease to try and wipe us out too. Both of those started on the white side. You’re feeding stereotypes of scalping and demonizing us in the process.

“If a modern native American Indian wants to wear a button up shirt to work and if a black or white American wants to wear a feather headdress to a modeling shoot or a concert there’s nothing intrinsically offensive about that…”

Yes. There is.

“Only a very small fraction of tribes actually attributed any spiritual meaning to their Native American headdress.”

Only a fraction of tribes have these specific headdresses in their cultures. Sacred doesn’t mean spiritual. Your ‘modern parallel’ to a Catholic rosary is false equivalency. Just because you mangle the design of a headdress doesn’t mean its origins aren’t of Northern Plains style headdresses. You’re just deflecting that you’re not only disrespecting our headdresses, you’re desecrating them with the mockery styles you come up with.

“The Indian headdress was an earned male rites of passage, and thus shouldn’t be worn by non-males who didn’t earn it.”

Hahaha where did you get this from? Did you make it up?

“Well, a fully decorated boy scout uniform is something that takes years to earn.”

Wow you’re really digging deep on this one. Is that boy scout uniform so sacred that they ask you not to wear them? Why couldn’t you use a boy scout uniform for your photo shoot then?

The graphic of ‘you didn’t earn it’ is another false equivalency. You are literally grasping at any straw you can find in a lame attempt to justify wearing a Plains style headdress. A crown or tiara in terms of royalty, is social status. That’s not the same as what a headdress represents.

“Specific feathers and headdresses varied in meaning across tribes for various ceremonies. A wedding dress is also ceremonial in nature…”

Once again, false equivalency. A wedding dress is not a culturally sacred item. Women and men can wear a wedding dress of a million different styles. It’s not one style and can range from simple to incredibly ornate. Yet another false equivalency. Who wrote this article, a high school student?

“We are lucky to live in a country where we have freedom of expression and dress and the liberty to be honest and to offend and appreciate each other’s differences.”

Yeah, lucky to live in a country in which whiteness is centered and as such, those views, regardless of how poorly justified, tend to be clung to as the right ones.

“It would be more easily argued that taking offense to that makes you thin skinned.”

Here’s the old ‘get over it’ argument. You know, that one that we haven’t heard in a minute.

“Hopefully, our reply on culture appropriation was thought provoking.”

It definitely gave great insight on your ignorance and, unless you’ve gotten some education on our cultures and learned some respect, your racism.

Oh and your last graphic on choice of what to wear should also include the line, ‘even if you’re disrespecting other cultures’.

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