Holly Mititquq Nordlum

Artist Spotlight: An Iñupiaq artist and traditional tattoo practitioner on healing that spans generations.

Souveraineté autochtone Création Avenir possible Activisme

Holly Mititquq Nordlum is an Iñupiaq artist, graphic designer and public art contractor who works in  printmaking, painting, metalwork, filmmaking and traditional Inuit tattooing. Her art is rooted in the past but centered on the lives and issues of Native peoples today. She looks for opportunities to support social justice with her artwork. You can see examples of her work on the website Naniq Design

Nordlum earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in graphic design and photography at the University of Alaska Anchorage and continues her education through a commitment to learning from Elders and fellow artists. “Inuit cultures, along with my Ancestors, guide my work,” Nordlum said. “But I am most inspired by our lives today and the way we live in two worlds—one old and the modern urban life.”  

Photo of Holly Mititquq Nordlum in a black sleeveless shirt with a black background. She has tattoos on her chin, forearms and left ring-finger.
Artist Holly Mititquq Nordlum. COURTESY MICHAEL CONTI PHOTOGRAPHY.

Though Nordlum works in several media, she is well known as a traditional tattoo artist. In 2015 she connected with and began learning from Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, a Greenlandic Inuk based in Copenhagen who works in traditional Inuit tattooing and trained as a Western tattoo artist. Jacobsen specializes in historical research and traditional tools. Nordlum worked with traditional healer and medical doctor Allison Kelliher to learn about Indigenous healing techniques, and she worked with Jake Scrivner, a professional Alaska tattoo artist, to train in health and safety procedures. 

Close up photo of Holly Mititquq Nordlum’s hands making a tattoo on a woman’s hand using the Inuit traditional technique of needle-poking by hand.
Artist Holly Mititquq Nordlum gives a tattoo using the Inuit traditional technique of needle-poking by hand. COURTESY MICHAEL CONTI PHOTOGRAPHY.

With funding support from the Anchorage Museum and Alaska Native Heritage Center, Nordlum created a program on an Inuit tattoo traditions and techniques named Tupik Mi to provide instruction to a small group of Inuit women from Jacobsen, Scrivner and Dr. Kelliher. Her hope was that participants would carry forward and rekindle Alaska Native tattoo traditions that were nearly lost: the program trained them to provide traditional markings and to find apprentices for making the work self-sustaining. During the program, Jacobsen gave Nordlum her first chin tattoo and made it similar to the design Nordlum’s great-grandmother had. Public events included lectures and a tattoo demonstration to educate visitors about the Inuit traditional technique of needle-poking by hand. Project documentation online includes Tupik Mi: Inuit Traditional Markings on Facebook, two short films by Michael Conti and a public presentation at the Anchorage Museum.  

Over years of work, Nordlum has experienced how Inuit tattooing is a way to heal from generations of colonization by supporting cultural reclamation and Indigenous pride. “Our ancestors are a part of us, and they guide us,” Nordlum shared. “There is a connection to something bigger. I am made up of energy created by the people that came before me. That’s why I make the decisions I make, and I do what I do. When I am making art, I am always looking at where I am, and being an Iñupiaq person on Dena’ina land, and how I balance that.” 

Nordlum pays close attention to the processes and communications generated from tattooing Indigenous women. “We are in this wonderful time when Native peoples are talking about the past,” Nordlum said. “People recently are openly talking about their past experiences—honestly and not sugar coating it. Talking about the trauma and recapturing our Native ways like tattooing and storytelling is an effective way to heal.” Self-care is important to Nordlum, making sure that who she works with is in the right space. “I bring the people I tattoo into my home and invite them as a part of my family,” she said. “We are reconnecting. We work together on where they are at in their lives, and this is very special.”

Photo of artist Sarah Whalen-Lunn wearing a strapless black dress that shows traditional Inuit tattoos on her chest and right shoulder.
Photo of artist Sarah Whalen-Lunn. COURTESY MICHAEL CONTI PHOTOGRAPHY.

When giving people Inuit tattoos, Nordlum helps them understand the symbolism, cultural meanings and family connections within the line art. “When I am tattooing someone, I let them know that when it comes to sharing the stories and meaning behind the Inuit tattoos, it is up to them to teach their kids and grandkids about the stories and tattoos, to impart the knowledge about our traditions that had been nearly lost.” 

And her work connects families. “I’ve had grandmothers with their kids come in for tattoos,” she says. “Now, I’ve seen even grandkids come in. There is something so powerful in that—to see healing now span generations.”

Photo of Peggi Perry’s hands showing traditional Inuit tattoo lines on her fingers, work done by Holly Mititquq Nordlum.
Peggi Perry’s hands tattooed by Holly Mititquq Nordlum. COURTESY RICHARD PERRY PHOTOGRAPHY.

Author biography

Richard Perry from Anchorage, Alaska, is Yup’ik and Gwich’in. He is a writer, journalist and photographer with a BA in Philosophy, Applied Ethics. He has regularly published articles and photos in Indian Country Today, First Alaskans magazine, and Alaska Business Monthly. In 2016, Perry completed a month-long artist residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. More recently, he has written a graphic novel called The Wildmen of Denali, which is currently in the process of being illustrated.

Acknowledgements

This article was funded in part by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.

This story is part of the Alaska Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.