Killer Whale Tattoo

Easily one of the most awe-inspiring sea creatures for the peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, the killer whale has found its way into both lore and lineage, and so also tattoo imagery. For thousands of years before the arrival of European culture, many distinct groups of people inhabited and thrived in this part of the New World – groups such as the Haida, the Tlingit, and Tsimshian, among others. Their complexly stylized, immediately recognizable , and highly collectible artwork has become renown the world over. The killer whale was well known in this area, often seen close to shore and even venturing into some of the inland waterways near the coast. Their predatory activities, ferocity, and tendency to live in small groups were their distinguishing behaviors while their distinctive features included black and white markings, a dorsal fin, a blowhole, large teeth, and a fluked tail, which are all keys in their depiction in artwork. However, the importance of the killer whale and its use as a tattoo symbol are only partly due to its formidable might in nature. In many indigenous traditions of art and craft, art is virtually never art for art’s sake. Instead the images and the items on which they appear are part of a larger belief system.

Killer whale tattoo design by Greg James.

Killer whale tattoo design by Greg James.

Often in the traditional teachings of this region, allusion is made to a distant time in the past when humans and all other living things regularly interacted: speaking, fighting, intermarrying, reincarnating in each others forms, and even changing from one form to another. Modern families are able to trace their lineage to an important moment in that distant time when their ancestors interacted with one of these great animal beings. The stylized image of that animal , when taken as a family crest, is used exclusively by that family and displayed on everything from totem poles to ceremonial capes. When ethnologist James G. Swan recorded Haida tattoos in 1874, he saw these same images used for tattooing, including the killer whale, noting that “It is said to be part of the mountains because it can be seen close to the mainland.” Today, the killer whale tattoo is probably the most popular of the animal designs of the Pacific Northwest. While modern wearers are likely not claiming an ancient hereditary right, they are more than likely drawn to the power and beauty of the animal that the Haida deemed “the most feared of the sea creatures.”


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