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An eye for ink

Iowa museum spotlights Indigenous cultures through tattoo exhibition

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ELK HORN: For many people, tattoos are a way to express themselves and decorate their body. For the Kayan, an Indigenous group in Borneo, they consider tattoos the only thing they can take into the afterlife.

At the Museum of Danish America, located in Elk Horn, an exhibition focusing on the history of tattoos opened on May 27. The collection was curated by anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak.

On Friday, Krutak presented a lecture at the museum, where he discussed the tattooing methods of the different Indigenous people he’s met during his time abroad.

Krutak is an anthropologist from Lincoln, Nebraska who is well-known for his research focusing on tattoos and their cultural background. Krutak has traveled to several countries around the world, meeting with Indigienous groups to learn about their vanishing practices of tattooing. 

“I’m really passionate about telling people’s stories, especially giving voice to those stories that might not be heard,” Krutak said. 

Krutak said he works mainly with Indigenous elders. Oftentimes, Krutak said they’re not very mobile and they live in very remote areas of the world. By learning from them, Krutak said recording their methods of tattooing allows it to stay alive. 

“I am really driven to record this vanishing cultural heritage before it disappears and to preserve it and document the best way I can for future generations, because the future generations are the ones that are going to use it, perhaps to jumpstart a revitalization movement, but there needs to be some kind of a baseline of data,” Krutak said. 

The same exhibition was first displayed at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah. Krutak said the same museum developed a traveling show, which he helped assist with presenting. 

Before making its way in Elk Horn, Krutak said the exhibition was previously in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for about three months.

In regards to the Museum of Danish America, Krutak said he’s appreciative of the production value for the exhibition. 

“There’s new items here that have not been exhibited before, and the space, I think it’s great,” Krutak said. “It’s really atmospheric.”

Although tattoos were previously stigmatized in the United States, public perception has shifted within recent years, with a 2019 poll by Ipsos says 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo. 

In his lecture, Krutak shared the reasoning behind the tattoos of Indigenous people he worked with and how they parallel modern tattooing. For example, Krutak said tattoos were used as a means of healing, whether it’s physical or spiritual. In terms of contemporary tattooing, Krutak said people often get tattoos for emotional healing. 

“Tattooing is sort of a history of our humanity told cross-culturally,” Krutak said. “Tattoos have a lot to do with identity, no matter what culture you come from. They have a lot to do with marking social achievements, special events, to commemorate certain things in your life that are important that you carry on your body, like a biographical text.”

A majority of the seats were filled for Krutak’s lecture. After he finished speaking, Krutak had an opportunity to meet with guests, as well as sign and sell his books. 

Overall, Krutak said he was happy with the turnout of the lecture and the questions he received from the audience. 

“I think everybody was pleased with how the event went down,” Krutak said. “I put in new material, new video clips that I have never shown before, so it added to the length.”

The exhibition will be available through Sept. 5. The museum is open Monday through Saturday, with its hours going from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

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