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Willy Street’s giige brings healing tattooing practices to the forefront

The new collective creates a space where queer and Indigenous people can reclaim their bodies.

The new collective creates a space where queer and Indigenous people can reclaim their bodies.

Bear Cunningham, a member of the recently opened Indigenous- and queer-owned tattoo collective giige, came to Madison for a traditional tattoo apprenticeship, but soon grew disillusioned with the industry.

“[Tattooing is] seen as this really cool, badass type of thing and the shop that I was working at really pushed this ‘do every tattoo on everyone you can and make the most money possible’ [ethic],” Bear says. “I was moving towards this nurturing healing space in my practice and I didn’t feel that I had the space to do that anymore.”

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As Bear envisioned a tattoo collective that centered on BIPOC and queer people, they connected with future collective member nipinet online.

“Within five minutes of meeting, they’re like, ‘Do you wanna open a tattoo shop?’ and I was like, ‘I was gonna talk to you about the same thing!’” Bear says. They invited the rest of the members, whom they knew through the local scene. 

“[Indigenous people] have been practicing tattooing in one form or another for thousands of years,” says nipinet, a Two-Spirit tattoo artist with Michif, Anishinaabe and Norwegian ancestry. nipinet, whose designs are inspired by bold, bright Anishinaabe artwork and beaded floral patterns, says it’s empowering to carry on that tradition.

giige (pronounced “ghee-GHEH”) means “heals up” in Anishinaabemowin, the language of many of Wisconsin’s Indigenous tribes. Healing is the foundation of giige’s mission. The collective’s trauma- and gender-informed tattooing practice is steeped in the act of body reclamation. The collective, housed in the former Jamerica location at 1236 Williamson Street, plans to show Indigenous art and sell Native goods and foods. Once the pandemic lets up, giige intends to hold classes and lectures, adding to Madison’s growing number of intentionally inclusive third spaces.


giige’s founders, from left to right: Back row: nibiiwakamigkwe, Danielle Jordan, nipinet, Rene' Heiden. Front row: Bear, Mar Gosselar.

giige’s founders, from left to right: Back row: nibiiwakamigkwe, Danielle Jordan, nipinet, Rene’ Heiden. Front row: Bear, Mar Gosselar.

Bear opted out of working in traditional tattoo shops as they developed a sense for the intimacy between the tattooer and person getting inked—a relationship that underpins giige’s practice. 

“Most of my clients are queer, gender non-comforming, fat—people who may have been uncomfortable in a traditional tattoo setting,” Bear says. “We are all walking with the hurt of carrying the weight of society’s ideas of who we need to be, who our families and friends have told us we need to be, interpersonal relationships and pain—and also a lot of joy.”

A healing approach to tattooing can help people reclaim and love their bodies. 

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“There is a real power in being able to say, ‘I love these parts of myself that other people have told me to get rid of or that other people have told me are foul or gross,’” Bear says. They often incorporate flora and fauna into their designs as a metaphor for a trans experience of feeling trapped in a seed and growing into a whole being. Clients who’ve experienced body dysmorphia can reclaim parts they’ve felt severe physical disconnection from. Tattoos and the metaphorical meanings behind them give people ownership over their image and story, whether the art is from a cartoon like Steven Universe or from the natural world. 

“Being able to carry this emblem, this shield, this talisman on your skin, gives you the power to move through the world knowing a truth about yourself that can never be taken away,” says Mar Gosselar, a giige collective tattoo artist. “The permanence of it and the altering of your body in order to become this new person allows people to recreate themselves in a number of ways outside of tattooing.”

Gosselar says that Indigenous and queer folks may be drawn to tattooing as a route to healing because the experience allows them more agency than traditional healthcare. Hospitals and medicine can expose these groups to racism and gender bias; through psychiatric care, trauma may be dismissed or treated with medication, they say. “Tattooing is a way of marking ourselves and turning a page in our story and owning what has happened to us and moving beyond it,” Gosselar says. 

Trauma-informed tattooing gives people clear control over their experience, Gosselar says. The tattooer makes it known that anything in the process can be interrupted or changed for the client’s comfort. This may look like moving or altering the tattoo stencil or stopping the work if pain triggers a trauma response.

Gender-informed tattooing acknowledges that each client’s gender is their own and tattoos are often a way of expressing and reclaiming that, Gosselar says. It also recognizes the diversity of genders, some of which may not have a formal name. 

“It’s about having clients come in, knowing that they are going to be seen, respected and held in the state they’re in and the person they are in their wholeness,” they say. Gosselar’s designs are influenced by the drawings of naturalist John James Audubon and illustrations from Grimm’s fairy tales.

Accessibility is a priority for giige. Each tattoo artist holds two four-hour spots each month for free tattoos—one for trans and the other for BIPOC clients. The collective also accepts donations to pay it forward. Touch-ups are free for one year, and clients with darker skin tones get a free second session of color saturation. 

There’s another layer to the healing experience at giige. Collective member Rene’ Heiden, a healer whose ancestry includes French Creole, Black, Eastern European, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee, offers tattoo vision sessions to help customers intuit a meaningful design, as well as transformational astrology readings. 

Collective member Danielle Jordan, a Two-Spirit member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, works on the business’ practices and facilities maintenance. She’s also developing bodyworking skills and certifications through an Indigenous lens. 

giige plans to use revenue from tattooing to subsidize its inclusive art and teaching space and a retail venue for Native-produced products. The collective hopes to partner with Indigenous teachers and artists for workshops and exhibits. 

“We have the ability to keep this space open,” says nipinet. “We want this to be something that everyone can contribute to. That’s part of our main goal—to be a platform.” 

“So much of Indigenous and queer culture is education, and we would like to continue moving in that [direction] where, once people are more informed, that makes a safer and better environment for everyone,” says collective member nibiiwakamigkwe, a Two-Spirit artist whose heritage includes the Bear Clan of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, Métis, Anishinaabe, and Cuban. nibiiwakamigkwe works in an administrative role with giige. 

Inclusive third spaces, like Communication and Arts + Literature Laboratory, are places outside of the home and workplace where people and communities can gather. giige’s presence will fill a noticeable gap in Madison’s third-space offerings, says Jennifer Bastian, director and arts program manager at Communication. (Communication is Tone Madison‘s non-profit partner organization.)

“When an Indigenous person goes into a mostly white-led space, that’s not necessarily going to be the most safe space for them, even at a place like Communication,” Bastian says. “It’s important that there are spaces that are by [Native people], and that we support that.” 

giige stands to not only educate Madisonians about Native culture, but inform about ways to give back, recognize harm and make reparations, which benefits the whole community, she says. The collective is also a reminder that Indigenous people live in the area, and have for more than a thousand years. 

“The isthmus itself has always been this massive intertribal gathering place for trade and understanding,” nibiiwakamigkwe says. Indigenous and queer people have always existed in Teejop [Ho Chunk for the Four Lakes area, including Madison]. We are really excited to be this physical point of contact—obviously post-pandemic—for these communities and for others who are looking to learn.” 

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