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Inside the Mind of “Tattooed Woman”

Uqallaqatigiinngniq: Sharing Voices

Oct 22, 2021
by Phebe Bentley

This sculpture, Tattooed Woman (c.1958), looks as though it would weigh a ton. Besides the obvious—the sheer mass of a carving this size—I am intrigued by the intangible meanings this figure carries. All the lived experiences that make her who she is. In Inuktitut I would call her silatujuq—wise, talented, rational, intuitive and an expert in all things. The sculpture depicts a woman in her amauti, which she would have handcrafted with knowledge passed down to her from her mother and likely her grandmother. Her piercing eyes tell a story of where she’s been and what she has gone through. Tunniit are visible on her cheeks, and she wears them proudly.  

There is a term used in Inuktitut for the large, fluffy snowflakes that slowly fall from the sky that I never understood until now: arnangualijuq. That term roughly translates into snowflakes falling in the shape of a woman. It’s ironic how a carving made of stone reminds me of those snowflakes gracefully falling from the sky.

Johnny Inukpuk, RCA, was a sculptor from Inukjuak, Nunavik, QC, whose carvings gained popularity in the 1950s. During this time, Inukjuak would have been at a turning point. Traditionally Inuit did not settle in one place; they moved with the herds and seasons. My mother was born in the ’50s, just outside of what is now known as Kangirsuk. My great-great-grandmother, Nunaruaq, was initially from Inukjuak and travelled across Nunavik to finally settle in Kangirsuk. I was surprised to learn that she was Johnny Inukpuk’s aunt; it all makes sense now that I would have picked this piece to write about. Inukpuk’s Tattooed Woman feels familiar to me. 


Tunniit, or traditional Inuit face tattoos, and kakiniit, tattoos located elsewhere on the body, were not prevalent in the 1950s. Once worn with pride—symbolizing a coming of age, protection from the sun goddess, beauty, accomplishments, recognition for loved ones in the afterlife and more—kakiniit and tunniit vanished with the arrival of Europeans and the introduction of Catholicism in the early 1900s. Whole generations were colonized and molded to idolize European ideas and beauty norms. 

I see strength, perseverance, pain and trauma in the perfectly imperfect eyes of this woman. In those same eyes, I see love, acceptance, knowledge and patience. I know a woman who had to take charge of the household when her husband and the other men went out to find the next meal, often for days or weeks at a time—a true matriarch. An arnaq who saw heartbreak, famine, relocations and the only way of life that she has always known vanish and change before her eyes.

Inukpuk was known for melting vinyl records when making the pupils in his later works of art [1] and I imagine what songs might be embedded into her eyes. Perhaps music from Elvis, Johnny Cash or Frank Sinatra are playing on repeat inside her mind. I want to think that the process of melting those records transformed the sound vibrations from the loud ‘50s rock and roll music to beats from Inukpuk’s surroundings—the serene sounds of the Nuna embedded in her mind.

Having worked with steatite myself, I can visualize the process from start to finish. Inukpuk would have likely sourced the stone from somewhere near Inukjuak. Once he found the right piece, he would chipped away at it with a chisel and other tools until he had the desired shape. Next comes the sanding—so much sanding. I can almost smell it, almost feel the powdery dust left behind. Last but not least comes the buffing to make the piece shine once again. Inukpuk transformed a giant piece of rock into this beautiful, detailed and realistic version of the women of Nunavik, the women that raised me, the woman I am today.

[1] “Johnny Inukpuk,” Nunavik Art Alive, Inuit Art Foundation, accessed September 2021, http://art.avataq.qc.ca/artists/profile/johnny-inukpuk



This series was made possible with the generous support of the TD Ready Commitment.

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