Cheyenne Ozînjâ θîhâ, Bearspaw First Nation, artist
“I’m a pretty badass person because I went through a lot and I have a lot of stories to share and a lot of obstacles I had to overcome and still trying to get over.”
Tattooing isn’t what Stoney Nakoda people do, recalls Cheyenne Ozînjâ θîhâ (Bearspaw) being told once by an Elder.
The chin markings Ozînjâ θîhâ saw on Inuit women in pictures were beautiful, she thought, but in her experience growing up, tattoos were never viewed as meaningful or an expression of art, but rather, met with an archaic cynicism and judgment.
“Christianity was a big part of our lives and we were told that we never did tattoos,” Ozînjâ θîhâ said. “Tattoos were frowned upon.”
But to hell with old colonialism-induced habits; at the end of the day, the rebel artist does things her way and is even adding a cultural imprint to her handiwork – specializing in telling old, but not forgotten Stoney Nakoda and Indigenous philosophies through ink and skin.
“I really want my art to speak more for me because my art went through a lot, they developed over the years and then I added in my flaws and my perfections into my work,” Ozînjâ θîhâ said. “I really like my art to speak for myself, including my tattoos because that’s where my passions are today.”
Inside the modest home studio of Ozînjâ θîhâ on the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, her artwork's plastered over the walls. One piece, a self portrait, is of her mixed down the middle with Tina Belcher, a character from adult cartoon Bob’s Burgers – it’s the one piece of the collection the self-taught artist wouldn’t sell.
After being encouraged by her uncle to pursue tattooing, Ozînjâ θîhâ secured a residency with Earthline Tattoo Collective in Saskatoon – easily the best artistic experience of her life.
“Out of 1,000 applications I got in; it was exhilarating,” she said.
She became a full-fledged student of the business; researching techniques, planning to travel to gain knowledge about the industry she was so excited to be a part of.
But a traumatizing incident in 2020 almost made her leave the industry entirely.
While training at a studio in Calgary, a physical altercation between Ozînjâ θîhâ and a male apprentice left a traumatic mark on the budding artist’s mindset and the industry as a whole.
Ozînjâ θîhâ’s voice was getting increasingly agitated talking about the assault at the tattoo parlour and the post-traumatic stress disorder that followed still grabs her by the cuffs of her collar.
“It’s a toxic industry,” she said. “Many survivors have come out and told stories because it’s a white male dominated industry, it’s been really toxic and really cruel to women, people of colour, the LGBTQ, two spirits, and not a lot of people talk about it.
“I do want to be the one to shine that light because a lot of women, a lot people, they are scared to be holding that light because of risking jobs and careers, and I, myself, I don’t really want to go back into a shop.”
At the parlour, Ozînjâ θîhâ heard racial slurs and felt unease with the boxed-in atmosphere, but on that day, what happened scarred her soul.
It started as an aggressive verbal confrontation, which became a self-defence struggle for Ozînjâ θîhâ, who shoved and then was physically assaulted by the apprentice. Leaping on top of her, Ozînjâ θîhâ used her teeth to bite down on her attacker to get free.
She immediately left the studio, as her head still rung and was unable to process the assault.
“I didn’t bother with the police or anything – social media took its toll [against the tattoo studio],” Ozînjâ θîhâ said. “I was going through so many emotions; I didn’t write, I couldn’t even draw, I just shut down. It was not until March this year I started picking up everything again.”
Around then, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which affects emotions and causes an instability in thinking patterns about yourself and others. She uses it as a theme throughout her artistry, often using black and white to depict the contrasting mental health disorder.
“With having borderline personality disorder, you see the world black and white … there’s not really an inbetween, so with everything that happened to me last year, I guess I just kept seeing that, black and white,” she said. “With doing this, it shows I'm trying to add that grey inside my work so I don’t have to just see black and white, I can see the transitions and the inbetween. Adding my flaws and perfections in my artwork."
Drawn to the incredible world of creativity at a young age, Ozînjâ θîhâ focuses on bright neo-traditional tattoos that pop on bland backgrounds, and cultural tattooing, using an ancient hand-poke style to etch intimate or spiritual meaning for clients.
“The closest people to Stoney who did tattoos were the Assiniboine,” Ozînjâ θîhâ said. “I also learned that was back when us Stoney did tattoos. One thing I learned with the Indigenous people is they trade knowledge, so we either obtain that knowledge from marriage or from a trade, we also do the same with language.
“My mentor did say we are always going to be the servants of the people wanting these tattoos and because it’s an intimate story for them, for us to be a part of that as well, it’s incredible.”
Pushing forward in her profession, the mindset of fighting hard to achieve goals is one she hopes rubs off to the next generation of Stoney kids. She thinks after how she grew up, it'd be extraordinary if her tattooing inspired anyone.
Ozînjâ θîhâ wants to raise mental health awareness, telling anyone to not be scared to reach out for help, especially to speak with a councillor or therapist because of the huge stigma around it.
"The young generation, you're gonna be OK, you just have to keep a good mindset," she said.
Those looking to get in contact with Ozînjâ θîhâ can reach her through Instragram, indigi_tattoo, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.