Austin tattoo artist helps Native Canadians recapture a tradition of ink
Tattoo artist Bart Willis has a couple of distinct fanbases for his work.
In Austin, aficionados head to Southside Tattoo — Willis is co-owner of the shop next door to the Continental Club on South Congress Avenue — to be inked with designs inspired by the art of two Native Canadian tribes. And in the islands off British Columbia, the members of those tribes, the Haida and the Kwakwaka'wakw, are recapturing their peoples' long history of tattooing with help from Willis.
Art in circles
Inside Southside Tattoo, part of the wall by Willis' work area is covered by samples of the Native Canadian art he permanently bestows upon customers. The images are familiar symbols of the Pacific Northwest — animals such as orcas, eagles and bears represented via a system of ovals and lines of varying thickness (art historian Bill Holm dubbed this the formline system during the 1960s). Red and black are prominent colors.
Willis, 44, became interested in native culture as a child. Raised near Calgary, Alberta, he recalled a traveling museum exhibition that introduced him to the art.
"The last room was a West Coast room, and they had huge canoes, big cedar boxes and masks; that made a huge impression," he said.
Similar images now appear on tourist trinkets, but the art is part of a much older tradition.
These symbols appear, painted and carved, on a variety of artifacts. When anthropologists arrived in Western Canada during the latter part of the 19th century, they noted that many people even wore the art as tattoos signifying familial ties, status and occupation. By this time, however, smallpox had nearly wiped out many of these tribes. That, in addition to the presence of Christian missionaries, led to a decline in tattooing.
Willis moved to Austin in 1990 to play music, but then became serious about becoming a tattoo artist. He had been tattooing for a few years, and was in the process of trying to find the path he would take as an artist, when he made his first trip to the Alert Bay in 1996 to see killer whales, a lifelong dream of his. Alert Bay, a village of about 1,000 people on the coast north of Vancouver, is a hub of the Kwakwaka'wakw tribe. He was surprised to find that there were not many people with tattoos, and decided to plan a second trip, this time with his tattoo gun.
"I thought, 'Wow, there's nobody tattooing near that place for 500 miles,' so I went up for a weekend to try it out," he said. "Before I went, I knew that they might throw (tribal) art at me to tattoo; I hoped they would." So he began to research native art.
Returning the art
In the kitchen of his South Austin home, Willis flips through books explaining the art. Oval forms, called ovoids, act as the foundation of the many of the images. "It's really like a system of art; it's pretty formal," he said.
After having some success working in impromptu tattoo parlors, including a hair salon and a fire station, in Alert Bay, Willis was eager to visit Masset, an island village farther up the coast, and home to the Haida. He introduced himself to members of a motorcycle club who said they would be interested in getting tattooed. He set up shop in a motel room.
"I went up there for a week and almost never left my motel," Willis said. "The response was so overwhelming."
While there, Willis met Joyce Bennett, an artist and a matriarch in the community. Bennett remembered her great-grandmother's tattoos, and decided that she would sit for one as well. It was a link to the past. Willis said that as Joyce received her tattoo, a dogfish (a small shark), she thought of her ancestors.
"It was just a memory of tattoo, and Joyce getting it, it legitimized me doing it there, and then it just snowballed," Willis said.
Soon other members of the community, old and young, were getting tattoos, many of which have very specific meanings. Some tattoos represent experiences; others are symbols of Haida names.
"There's been this really cool renaissance there," Willis said, noting that while not everyone in the two villages has embraced tattoos, it's more than just a hip statement. "This is part of their culture, so they don't see it as being trendy. By wearing (tattoos), they're reinventing their culture, which was almost lost."
Willis has tattooed Sherri Dick, a Haida weaver who lives in Masset, twice. One of the tattoos is a hand-and-wrist pattern that traditionally was worn by weavers in the tribe.
"Everybody in town looks forward to him coming, because he's really grown close to the people around here," Dick said. "When he comes, it's amazing. I always wonder if he doesn't get overwhelmed or overtired because we're so demanding of him. There are people lined up two or three strong the whole time he's here, and it's not just because he's a good tattoo artist. It's because we love him."
Willis now spends about three months a year in Alert Bay and Masset. He affectionately refers to people he stays with as family. He has also brought his own family, as well as a fellow tattoo artist, to visit. He lights up when talking about his plans to return.
Willis incorporates the native art of Western Canada into his work in Austin, designing what he sees as a sort of fusion between tribal art and more contemporary tattoo style.
When asked how his friends in Canada feel about his use of their tribal images for tattoos in Austin, Willis says he understands that it could be a delicate issue.
"It's not like we're stealing their culture or representing ourselves as part of their clan," he said. "If anything, it brings awareness to their culture. The more people are aware and appreciate their art, the greater the opportunity there is for the culture to thrive."