How do I ask a culture's permission to use their art?
October 30, 2020 4:44 PM   Subscribe

I want to get a Pacific Northwest native art tattoo but I'm a white guy. Can I do this without misappropriation?

I am a Pacific Northwesterner. It's in my blood. I feel a strong attachment to the region and I miss it when I'm not here. When I was working my dream job in Europe, apart from family I didn't miss the US, I missed the region. I didn't miss the culture or the stores or anything you usually do...I missed Oregon. I missed the land.

One of the things I love most is the native art. Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian and other First Nations/PNW Native art that can be seen throughout the region. I have a lot of pieces in my office, and always look for galleries when I'm in other PNW cities like Vancouver or Juneau.

It's because of this connection that I want to make it permanent. To solidify my connection. I have a basic design in mind, but before I even think about looking for an artist to partner with, I am painfully aware that I am a white guy who wants to use Native art. I don't want to be That Guy. This is not a sudden wild hair. This is something I have been wrestling with for over 20 years. The cultural appropriation is what has stopped me.

I know that there isn't a monolithic clearinghouse or anything I can submit requests to, but is there anything I can or should do to show that I respect the culture and am not just getting it because I think it looks pretty? That I put a lot of thought and feeling into it, that I didn't just point to something in a flair book?

It wouldn't be in a place that normally shows. You'd only see it if I showed it to you. But I'd know. And it would bother me.

tl;dr Can I get inked while remaining respectful?
posted by geckoinpdx to Society & Culture (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Short answer, from a settler whose work has meant learning about a variety of protocols and respectful ways to collaborate with Indigenous communities: no.

Alternate idea: a plant, an animal, a building, or a landscape feature from the region that has meaning for you, rendered in a way that does not refer visually to Indigenous renderings of those things.
posted by sixswitch at 4:51 PM on October 30, 2020 [37 favorites]

The obvious solution would be to talk to your PNW Native friends about this and ask what they think.

If you don't have any Native friends -- I don't want to make assumptions, but your description of this 20-year-long engagement with Native culture does not mention engagement with any actual living Native people -- then I think you have your answer right there.
posted by neroli at 5:03 PM on October 30, 2020 [43 favorites]

I'm sorry, but yeah, this isn't okay. I don't agree that asking indigenous friends for permission is the way to go. Enough indigenous folks are on record saying this isn't okay that it doesn't matter if one or two say it is.

You are, as you know, descended from settlers and colonists. You aren't native or indigenous. I find that folks from Portland are always quite eager to tell others that they're "from here," that there's a strong desire to claim it (as if any of us have any say in where we are born). But feeling a strong appreciation of and respect for indigenous art and imagery isn't the same as being indigenous. You are still appropriating those symbols for ... vanity?

The other thing I see in Portland is a strong desire among some liberal white folks to be seen as a "good" white person, the kind who gets it. I feel this impulse in myself sometimes. I think it's worth looking at and then rejecting. I think you want to be worthy of this tattoo, to show you're a good kind of white Oregon person.

I wonder if this being taboo is what has kept you somewhat fixated on it?

I also want to point out that you are demonstrating some entitlement: even though you know this isn't your culture or imagery, you still feel entitled to put it on your body. That's very much a settler attitude.

I think the best way to put a lot of thought and feeling into this is to respect the indigenous folks who don't really care what kind of white person you are. There are many beautiful images and symbols of Oregon that aren't connected to indigenous folks. Maybe start exploring some of those.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:13 PM on October 30, 2020 [26 favorites]

You would need to find a PNW indigenous person who is a tattoo artist and is from the cultural background you want to evoke and work with them to develop something they consider respectful and appropriate for an outsider.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:15 PM on October 30, 2020 [33 favorites]

(That's a minimum -- it doesn't make your idea okay, but if you don't do at least that, nothing else you do could make it okay.)
posted by jacquilynne at 5:17 PM on October 30, 2020 [7 favorites]

Indigenous folks have spoken pretty forcefully about the negative impact of non-Native folks appropriating aspects of Native cultures (for example). I would not get this tattoo.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:48 PM on October 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't, not because of anybody's outside opinion (like you said, it's very unlikely that anyone will see it unless you're naked together) but because YOU seem to feel uncomfortable about it, which seems like a red flag for something that's practically permanent on your own skin. Find something that that you don't feel that you need a permission slip for and you'll be happier in the long run.
posted by kingdead at 5:51 PM on October 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Friend, I say this is the gentlest way possible, from a white person who feels a very strong connection to their home state.

No. Do not do this.

I also find it very telling that the people whose art you mentioned are all located in Canada and Alaska. If you feel very inspired by this style of art then there are so many ways for you to show this in a respectful way that honors indigenous people. Perhaps you could support native artists and buy some art to hang in your home? If you are not already doing this, but have spent 20 years thinking about getting a tattoo in the style of native artists well....then..... maybe you should think about why.

Like others said, there are many ways to honor your home by using symbols or important things to show your connection to Oregon. Perhaps the state bird (Western meadowlark)? Or the state crustacean (dungeness crab!)? Or the state tree (douglas fir)?
posted by ruhroh at 5:53 PM on October 30, 2020 [6 favorites]

Yup jacquilynne beat me to it. The *only* possible way this could work is if you find an indigenous tattoo artist, whose ancestors stewarded the land for generations and generations, and work with them on a tribute piece to the PNW, preferably Oregon in particular (FYI none of the nations' territories you listed cover modern day Oregon), done in their personal artistic style, not a broadly traditional one.
Doing that would be a much truer tribute to the land you love than what you're currently considering.
posted by JuliaIglesias at 5:54 PM on October 30, 2020 [6 favorites]

In short, do not do this thing.

In slightly longer, find a tattoo artist who is a PNW Native and bring your question to them; commission an original piece that evokes the land you miss in a way the artist can condone - it will not be what you are thinking you want but it might be better. You would have to be careful to find someone who is entirely comfortable telling you no despite possibly losing a commission. It will not be easy.
posted by Mizu at 5:54 PM on October 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

I’m on the east coast now, but lived in the PNW for 20 years and completely get the connection you express.

I handle this by buying nice jewelry and art made by PNW Indian artists.
posted by Sublimity at 5:57 PM on October 30, 2020 [7 favorites]

I need to add, because I noticed that in your post you mention that you have a lot of art in your office in the very distinct style of native art, when I ask about supporting native artists I am thinking of specific artists that you follow and support, not random pieces that you find in galleries.
posted by ruhroh at 6:04 PM on October 30, 2020

No. Get an evergreen, or the outline of the state, or the state bird/flower/animal/flag, or an abstract map of the city/region you love most. But don’t get indigenous artwork, from a community you don’t belong to, tattooed on your body.
posted by stellaluna at 6:24 PM on October 30, 2020 [2 favorites]


Oregon, as a state, was created to be a white supremacist “utopia.”

There is literally no way to get an appropriative tattoo without seeming like an appropriator. And it is almost especially not possible after 20 years in Oregon.

Definitely do not get an outline of the state, which has almost no relationship to the landmarks of the people the land is stolen from.

Unless the galleries you are buying art in are owned by a person who is Native, go directly to individual artists for your paintings and prints in the future. Since you have some art that I will assume in good faith was created by actual Native artists (And not settlers co-opting the style), google those artists and see if any of them have created tattoo art. If they do not, check to see if any tattoo artists list any of your artists as inspiration. Commission one of the artists you find to collaborate in a piece that they are comfortable with you wearing.

Do. Not. Ever. Request. A. Traditional. Native. Tattoo. Also do not try to steer the artist toward specific imagery if they resist a request. It is none of your business why there might be particular trees, animals, or patterns they do not want on your body or incorporated into a particular piece.

There is growing number of Native women in the PNW getting traditional facial tattoos from artists who use traditional methods. Each of these is highly personalized, with private meaning. Consider sponsoring a woman who wants to honor her own heritage in that way.
posted by bilabial at 6:49 PM on October 30, 2020 [7 favorites]

Nthing work with an indigenous tattoo artist, describe your intent and wanting to honor the region and loving the art but wanting to show respect and not appropriate, and commission an original design by them.
posted by Miko at 6:49 PM on October 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

When you say you don't want to be "that guy," you are thinking of a guy who casually picks an appropriative tattoo because it looks cool.

But there is a different "that guy," and it's much trickier because he's not as obviously disrespectful. "That guy" isn't casual; he's actually inspired by something meaningful that belongs to someone else, and he really wishes it belonged to him. So he takes it.

And you could argue that culture isn't finite and can't be taken *away* from someone. But there are so many ways that's not true--from forced assimilation to enslavement to mockery to mass murder--that you trying to take a little piece of ownership like that is just a tiny part of a huge history of white people plastering over other peoples' meaning with their own.

It sucks not getting what you want, and we're white, so usually we don't hit that wall of frustration. But you don't get to find a loophole to get around it; if you don't want to be that guy, you have to live with the discomfort and not get what you want. Sorry.
posted by gideonfrog at 7:43 PM on October 30, 2020 [28 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the reality check, all.

It's the PNW as a whole, rather than Oregon specifically. It's not an Oregon Pride thing. If it was I'd just get the state outline with home in script on the bottom like everyone else. Or the Cascadia flag. I'm an Oregonian but actually feel a bigger pull to Alaska and Victoria...but point taken.

I do have artists that I like, but they're mostly sculptors and none of them do ink AFAIK. But it's something to reconsider; it's been a while since I looked so there may be someone new out there.

It makes no difference, but it's Raven specifically, not a generic "PNW art" catch-all that I was looking at. There are very personal reasons.

I'd have found and worked with a native artist, and the work would have been done in the region mentioned (BC or Alaska, not here in Oregon).

This is all pointing me to where I was already headed; I just need to design my own, the way I designed all my others.
posted by geckoinpdx at 7:47 PM on October 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is a good piece on corvids and appropriation.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:54 PM on October 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

It's the PNW as a whole, rather than Oregon specifically. It's not an Oregon Pride thing. If it was I'd just get the state outline with home in script on the bottom like everyone else. Or the Cascadia flag. I'm an Oregonian but actually feel a bigger pull to Alaska and Victoria

I think getting a tattoo of the major coastlines, landforms, and watersheds of the area you feel drawn to could be very meaningful.
posted by yohko at 8:35 PM on October 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's the PNW as a whole...It's not an Oregon Pride thing.

If it was I'd just get (snip) the Cascadia flag.

Representing the whole PNW is literally what the Doug flag is about. Get that, or use that as a theme, instead if you're trying to honor your connection to the PNW.
posted by pdb at 8:38 PM on October 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

If you are capitalizing the word Raven to indicate you want a tattoo that references a very specific myth about a very specific sacrifice, definitely do not do this. Do not get a tattoo of any raven and tell people it is inspired by that myth (or really any myth of Indigenous people!). Do not incorporate any Indigenous depiction of Raven in your own artwork. Do not ask another settler to incorporate this image into artwork for you or in collaboration with you. And do not ask an Indigenous artist to assist you in appropriating this myth.

From one settler to another, I understand the comfort of finding meaning in these symbols. They are not ours for personal decoration. Not as garments, and certainly not as permanent body modifications.

Do not ask the one Native person you know if this is ok.

We are all telling you, as a chorus, that this is widely (though not universally) considered to be gross, inappropriate, and at best inconsiderate.
posted by bilabial at 9:50 PM on October 30, 2020 [8 favorites]

Also, from Wikipedia article about Raven Stories:
It is customary that others should not tell stories that are owned by another clan, especially if they do not live in the same area.

Because my comment above may not be entirely clear: it is extremely unlikely that you are familiar enough with Raven stories to have a particular, specific, geographically local Raven myth that you are especially attached to. But even if you do, these are not your stories to tell, obliquely or directly. They are absolutely not your stories to wear.

Please do not do this.

Source: spent large parts of my childhood in the PNW, attended schools with Indigenous kids. These appropriations hurt real people and are always done by people who insist “my version is truly not problematic.”

What that means is there is nobody in your life from the group who trusts you enough to tell you that you have hurt them. And let me tell you, as a person who is trusted to hear when your tattoo hurts someone, I won’t be defending you.
posted by bilabial at 10:03 PM on October 30, 2020 [11 favorites]

As a settler, I'm joining the chorus of others who are saying "No. This is a very bad idea."

Personally, if you want to honor the Indigenous peoples of the PNW? Take the money that you would have used on a tattoo, and donate it to a local Indigenous organization instead.

If you want some suggestions:


Real Rent Duwamish is in Seattle, WA.

These are both good organizations, helping out Native and Indigenous peoples in the PNW, and they both need all the financial help that they can get - especially in this pandemic.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:05 PM on October 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm an actual Indigenous Person and I would not get a tattoo of PNW Native art because I am ojibwe from Ontario. It'd just be weird. And you know what? Even if you did this in the most proper respectful way, if I met you and saw a Raven tattoo in Haida style tattoo, I would definitely think you were that guy.
posted by aclevername at 4:47 AM on October 31, 2020 [18 favorites]

I've been thinking about your question. I know you have your answer. But I have done a lot of thinking on this subject and as a colonizer I feel like it's kind of on me to add something here. Please bear with me a bit. My mum raised us to believe we had a First Nations connection but when I tried to trace it, the connection fizzled out...sort of. My mom's cousin actually was the missing link, in that she does have blood quantum membership. We went to tribe events from time to time growing up as guests of her family. However, on my side of the family we have no direct connection. What I think happened was a kid my mum kind of appropriated her beloved cousin's "specialness" and because of our family dynamics it got passed along, in sort of the worst way.

So I kind of have had to go through a process that was pretty personal of understanding why a sense of connection to something doesn't make the connection true on both ends.

Here's the thing about appropriating First Nations cultural markers to honour your sense of connection to the land - colonizers first misappropriated and stole the land, denigrated and sought to exterminate entire peoples and cultures in order to take those resources, and continue to reinforce those inequities - and now you want to express your appreciation for that resource through their symbols and beliefs and tales.

One set of thinking about this, which I have come to value, is that one reason white people want to claim connection or ancestry to First Nations is because it is a way of shifting the discomfort around those facts. When you are deciding that your connection to the PNW can only be expressed through the culture that was displaced in order that you feel the purity of that connection, in this case that you express your displacement you are entering a very deep level of appropriation here.

Here's a quote from a think piece I read: "White families tell their children about a connection to a mythic Native American past as a way to lay claim to territory and to a sense of belonging. It is a way of asserting: we are the true First Peoples."

It's not just you -- it's the sick system we're in -- but I would strongly encourage you to rethink why you feel that it's this expression that connects you to the land before you put it on your body.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:45 AM on October 31, 2020 [24 favorites]

You can't get that permission. So dont do this.

If you do move forward with your plan, everyone will think you're a disrespectful colonizer who feels entitled to take something that doesn't belong to him and justifies it because he really likes it and feels a strong personal connection to it. And they will be right.

That sentiment inspired every terrible atrocity visited on native peoples in North America, AND YOU KNOW THIS or you wouldn't be asking this question.

Yes, even if you design it yourself. People know that style and they will still think you're that guy
posted by ananci at 8:48 AM on October 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

As an artist who loves the hispanic art I've grown up seeing in the southwest, I'd like to very respectfully ask for some clarification on this issue if anyone has a moment/the inclination to explain it to me. Let me be clear first though. I am not disputing anything in this thread and I do not do any commercial art for sale of any kind. Also I do not have any tattoos with art based on hispanic or other culturally based art.

My question is, where is the difference between buying a piece of art made by indigenous people for display in your house (which has been suggested in this thread as okay to do) and buying a piece of art from an indigenous tattoo artist for display on your body?

Please don't pile on me, I'm genuinely looking for clarification. I am not disputing the advice not to do this.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:26 PM on October 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

Well I am not sure I'm the best person to answer this but since I posted my other thoughts for me...first, there are questions and issues about purchasing art and displaying it. For example, dreamcatchers are problematic.

But assuming that the answer isn't "no art" - for me, assuming art is acquired authentically and ethically, the difference is that a piece of art is an artist's self-expression, that speaks to me in some way and I buy it.

As described by the OP, the OP wanted to commission a work to create a tattoo about his experience to have on his body to express his connection to a land from which he has felt displaced - a way of carrying his own experience. While I agree that working with an indigenous artist to ask what they think would be appropriate is the highest good of that particular form of self-expression, the OP wasn't saying "I met this tattoo artist from this traditional and their work is amazing and I would like to ask them to put something on my body, what do you think?"

The OP was looking for a tattoo artist to use a specific kind of art and symbolism from a tradition (or group of traditions) that is not the OP's, in order to express the OP's personal connection to the land and their experience. That's different, to me.

I have a few pieces where I know the artist personally well, one of whom I had a fairly intimate relationship with and who created or finished a piece knowing who would buy it but in all the cases - they are an Artist Original. I didn't say "please paint me a work in your style to commemorate my experience," I said, I love your stuff, can I please pay you for one?

I know tattooing is more collaborative and I know that there is commissioned art, but I think in both/all those cases, it's actually more important to be mindful of issues around appropriation.

I can't speak to context of tattooing itself but I also am mindful that there is a serious context and history around that as well.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:19 PM on October 31, 2020 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you've made up your mind, but just for the sake of posterity: Anthony Kiedis.
posted by box at 3:07 PM on October 31, 2020

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