The Sun Dancer tattoo is an easily recognizable American traditional design, first painted by Bert Grimm, a pioneer of American traditional tattooing who worked from around 1916-1970. An important part of Indigenous history and culture, the Sun Dance is a spiritual ceremony that was and is still very important to different groups, primarily to those of the plains cultures in America and Canada.
The ceremony is a gruelling but important one, primarily (though not entirely) performed by males. The dancer fasts, going without both food and drink for days at a time, while dancing around a sacred fire and traditional pole meant to represent the sun. Others drum and sing prayers while the dancer dances until exhausted.
As part of the ceremony, piercing and suspension is also common. This involves a leader piercing rods into the chest or back of the dancer, while they drag a bison head until the skin rips. Other variations involve horses pulling at the rods, or the dancer being suspended from the pole by the rods in their skin. This inspired modern suspension.
Often times the dancer would become delirious and hallucinate both from the physical and mental exertion, topped with dehydration and extreme hunger. Unfortunately the ceremony was banned in Canada in 1885 under the Indian Act, but the ban was dropped in 1951, though Indigenous people continue(d) to be treated unfairly. Today the Sun Dance is still performed by some communities.
One of the first examples of this ceremony being painted is Bert Grimm’s Sun Dancer flash and tattoo. The original painting depicts a girl dancing with her left knee raised, right hand holding a spear, with a shield depicting a bald eagle in her left hand. A red sun and traditional roses make up the background.
As the design was first made by a pioneer of American traditional tattooing, it is mainly tattooed today in the same style. Though people do take artistic liberties, sometimes including animals or other flowers, and even changing the subject of the tattoo. It is often done as a back tattoo, but can also be seen on arms and legs, usually as still large pieces, though through adaptation artists have created smaller pieces as well.
To read more about the Sun Dance please check out https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sun-dance
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