Reviving an Indigenous Tradition: Face Tattoos - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Heidi Lucero is preserving the culture of forgotten indigenous groups in California, through markers that are impossible to ignore.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because these striking markers cannot be ignored.

By Mark Hay

  • Artist Heidi Lucero is bringing back traditional “111” face tattoos for indigenous people in California.
  • The tattoos are a bold marker that evoke power and heritage for groups who have been marginalized for centuries.

Six years ago, Heidi Lucero, a member of the Acjachemen and Mutsun Ohlone tribal communities of Southern California, decided to do something that almost no one in her cultures had done in decades: She got several dark lines tattooed from points on her lower lip down to the bottom of her chin.

Once worn by most women in indigenous communities across the region, these “111” tattoos had all but vanished by the dawn of the millennium like many local symbols and traditions, thanks to centuries of cultural extermination. Lucero, 49, an artist and advocate for her people’s cultures, wanted to push back on that erasure by bringing the lines out of the past and directly onto her body, as a permanent and visible “marker of identity.”

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Heidi Lucero being tattooed dark lines from points on her lower lip down to the bottom of her chin.

This started as a personal endeavor. But as droves of indigenous people in Lucero’s orbit started asking about the context of her tattoo or how they could get one, she decided to go further. She’s now working to revive the entire institution of Native Southern Californian tattooing — not just the markings, but the method of hand-tapping them onto skin and the mix of beliefs and traditions within which they were given. Through research, workshops and doing her own tattooing, she’s making an impact.

[The tattoos are] an outward marker that we’re still here, we’re not going anywhere.

Heidi Lucero

“She has instilled a great deal of pride in all of us,” says L. Frank Manriquez, an artist and activist from the Acjachemen and Tongva communities who wears traditional face tattoos. “It’s like there was always this door we were looking through” to elements of their past and culture, Manriquez adds, “and Heidi has opened it wider, enlarged it, made it more accessible.”

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In addition to being an advocate, Lucero inks tattoos herself.

Lucero isn’t the first person to attempt to revive indigenous tattooing traditions marginalized by imperialism, cultural eradication and outright genocide. From South Asia to Polynesia to British Columbia, culture bearers and tattooists have sparked resurgences in recent decades.

“When we wear our traditional tattoos, we are embodying the intergenerational resilience of our ancestors,” says Dion Kaszas, a Nlaka’pamux tattoo practitioner and advocate for similar resurgence movements. “When people look down at their ancestral markings, they remember the territories, land, families and communities they are connected to and who love and care for them,” Kaszas says, a profound sense of connection that he believes can help them cope with “the new problems of hopelessness, mental illness and suicide.”

Heidi Lucero

Lucero grew up in and around Long Beach, California, hearing stories about her indigenous ancestry from her mother and grandmother. As an adult, she decided to dedicate her life to monitoring and protecting regional sacred sites. A onetime phlebotomist who now works on indigenous advocacy and education full time, Lucero decided to get tattooed after seeing a number of indigenous women in Northern California who’d been getting their 111s since at least the mid-2000s, usually via the assistance of artists from other revival movements, like Keone Nunes of Hawaii.

However, most tattoo revival movements have deep wells of historical documentation and living memory to guide their work. Southern California, hit by early and intense waves of colonization, seemingly lost its tattooing traditions sooner and more thoroughly than many other regions — and the European records of their practices are sparse. In fact, Manriquez notes, many people seem to believe that the region’s indigenous cultures are extinct. (“I make a lot of art about being ‘extinct,’” she adds.) It doesn’t help that, despite decades of effort, America’s federal government has not acquiesced to requests to recognize the existence of the modern Acjachemen, Mutsun Ohlone, Tongva and numerous other tribes in the area. Skeptical outsiders at times lean on anthropological and historical research to claim that some local tribes, like the Coastal Band of the Chumash, are actually just Mexican Americans claiming an indigenous identity.

That makes Lucero’s work difficult — but also important both as “an outward marker that we’re still here, we’re not going anywhere,” she says, and as the foundation for a wider cultural revival encompassing everything from foods to worship. “Her work gives us a place to be who we are — a pre-contamination place,” Manriquez argues. “In California, that’s pretty hard to come by.”

Reintroducing tattoos is often also hard work for wearers. Manriquez admits she wasn’t prepared, when she got her first face tattoo, for the deluge of racist comments, or for people to suddenly expect her to be some holy, idealized source of wisdom on indigenous cultures all the time. Lucero’s mother stopped talking to her for five years because, coming from an era when people were raised to hide their Native heritage as a matter of shame or self-preservation, she could not fathom her daughter’s decision to mark herself out like that.

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Lucero’s work is important as “an outward marker that we’re still here, we’re not going anywhere.”

Lucero has tackled documentation deficits by building bridges from Southern California to regions with related but better-preserved tattooing traditions and active revival movements. She’s also embraced the notion that traditions are not static, leaning into adaptation and innovation. She knows outsiders are often quick to point to innovation as proof of the illegitimacy of her identity, because it doesn’t line up with their ossified vision of a Native American past. But those outside communities have become support networks to face down hate and criticism.  

She also believes that people come around quickly to revival movements. Her mother is talking to her again, and, as of last fall, she no longer felt compelled to cover her own chin tattoo while at work. She even recently tattooed a Chumash judge in the Los Angeles area who wears her chin marks openly. Granted, outsiders often take growing acceptance and visibility as invitations to start appropriating indigenous symbols — and may be especially likely to do so now as face tattoos become more popular in wider American culture. But many activists are eager to help movements like hers push back on such cultural raiding.

Whatever challenges she faces, Lucero says she’s committed to pushing forward. In fact, she says, she won’t stop until the traditions are fully alive, “and we’re all tattooed again.” 

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