The practice was so prevalent in the early days of the U.S. that tribal peoples have longed for it to be discontinued. Today, those tribal cultures continue to carry on the traditions — but that is all they are, traditional and ancient traditions. With a little attention to what they mean, and a bit of thought about what the meaning is, it all changes.
The U.S. government’s stance on the issue is that as a non-Native, the tattooist is simply doing people a favor or honoring their heritage. But for the tribes, it is far more than that.
This is where the American Indian Movement’s involvement is so crucial. As part of their “Indian Reservation Sovereignty Treaty Project,” they work to put the power into people’s hands. As a result of their work and their continued advocacy, tribal tattooists are coming out of the shadows: They are fighting for their rights to work and work alone, without an undue burden placed on those who want to work. It is, for them, a way of life in an era where the “traditional” does not apply.
What does it mean to fight against the tattooing industry?
The tattoo industry — which has grown like no other in the United States for over a century — is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. It employs over 1.5 million people — over half of all tattooists in the country — and makes up about 12 percent of the tattoo market.
Overwhelmingly, they are “customers” who are willing to pay for tattoos. That is, they need to pay for tattoos so they can have them.
For tattooists of all stripes — and many who have never dealt with them before — the tattoo industry is very much an “old man” business. Tattoos come in a wide variety of sizes and styles, with prices ranging from very minimal to very expensive. When the ink runs dry, the tattoos fall apart or break off. There is a lack of diversity in the quality and durability of tattoo ink.
Even when tattoos are designed with care and attention to detail, the tattooing industry can cause a big problem when your client is a tribal member. Tribal governments have a tough time controlling and controlling the tattoo industry.
For years, tribes and tribes organizations have fought for their independence (like the Tohono O’odham, Arizona, and Nechako of California tribes), trying to hold back the growth and power of the tattoo industry