Column: Jen Shakti, the Modern Tattoo Shaman

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The tattoo has been an important sacred trial for individuals across multiple cultures for generations. The path of pain, identified in Western Witchcraft by Gerald Gardner and other early 20th-century esotericists, has a long history of altering consciousness and manifesting changes in people’s lives. Native cultures around the world have been utilizing the tattoo to mark sacred life passages for centuries, and those of Western heritage have been doing so for almost as long as they have had co­­­­­­­­­ntact with outside cultures. Whether it is a sacred mark of a warrior initiation, or a mark of military service, sacred ink that tells a tribal person’s life story or a mark of one’s alma mater, tattoos have long represented what is important in the narrative of people’s lives.

Photo credit: Jen Shakti

[Photo credit: Jen Shakti.]

As often happens when indigenous ceremonies get translated into new cultures, the sacredness of the tattoo became diluted as Western culture embraced it. It became associated with seedy tattoo parlors and drunken patrons. It became denigrated to the realm of “tramp stamps” and the butt of sitcom jokes. But while popularization can sometimes dilute something, it also helps to normalize it. These days, tattoos are all over our culture. They are personal, they are unique. However outsiders may misinterpret them, tattoos usually represent extremely important things to those who wear them. In that sense, tattoos are still powerful rites of passage representing important elements of a person’s life. Some artists take this ancient sacred practice to the next level.

Jen Shakti, proprietor of the Mermaid’s Tale, is one of those artists. Shakti describes herself as “a modern tattoo shaman” who uses her artistic ability to provide a “medicine gift” to her clients. For her, tattooing is more than a business. It is an initiatory ritual where the magical intention is permanently inscribed into the client. “I use my visionary talent and mythic symbolism with ceremony to create a powerful beneficial shift for my client through the initiation,” she explains. She knows that tattooing is her life’s work.

Jen Shakti [Courtesy photo]

Jen Shakti [courtesy photo].

Shakti has always been intimately connected to both healing and artwork. Working as a massage therapist and tattoo artist in the early ’90s, she noticed that she “could see and feel” changing energy in herself and in others. Later, she learned kundalini yoga and greater refined her spiritual connection to energy. Spiritually, Shakti formally stepped onto the path of the shaman in 2008, when she was initiated into the South American Q’ero shaman lineage. That same year, Shakti spent time in Kaui as a guest tattoo artist. This experience gave her face-to-face time in a land where tattoo was a sacred part of the indigenous culture. Her profession and her spirituality came together, and, as she puts it, “the ancestors began ‘speaking’ to me and inspiring me to create and share what I had developed with sacred tattooing.” A sacred tattoo artist was born.

“The perfect clients would come in with projects and experiences that taught me what to do,” she remembers. “Talk about synchronicity!” Through this work, Shakti developed a unique, ceremonial tattoo experience.

“Getting a sacred tattoo is a unique and personalized experience,” says Shakti. First, there is a consultation where she and the client work together to develop both the art and the intention of the ritual. She asks the client what they wish for this tattoo to bring into their lives, and clients sometimes choose to participate in a shamanic healing before they continue with the ceremony. “I listen for clues and details on both the art and the ceremony,” says Shakti, “I ask questions to envision the design and feel what the energetic technique is going to be and the best strategy for working together.”

Photo credit: Jen Shakti

[Photo credit: Jen Shakti.]

The ceremony itself begins with the opening of sacred space. “Sacred space helps us step out of ordinary life and into the realm of magic where everything is possible,” says Shakti. The creation of space often includes a chakra opening because, as she says, “tattooing works just like acupuncture, but more intensely focused.” The more open your energy is, the better it can flow through the ceremony and create the change that is desired. Then, the tattoo work begins. It is a trial of pain and consciousness which leaves the client permanently, physically, and energetically changed. “Many of my clients have told me they feel emotional and physical relief from weeks to months after their tattoos,” says Shakti.

Sacred space is ceremonially closed after the work of the tattoo is complete. With clear energy, the intention has been implanted, and the sacredness is again acknowledged at the end of the working. “It is really sweet and beautiful,” she says.

Photo credit: Jen Shakti

[Photo credit: Jen Shakti.]

Shakti believes that “there is an incredible transformative power that comes with receiving a tattoo. In a few moments, you are permanently changed for the rest of your life. I believe this is where the magic is, and why tattooing is still practiced today.” She sees the process as similar to a rite of initiation. “An initiation or rite of passage marks a major life transition,” she says.  “There is often a physical trial that creates an altered state which brings a lesson or a teaching that helps you connect with your own inner awareness. The rite gives you confidence and power to live your life differently from that point forward.”

Photo credit: Jen Shakti

[Photo credit: Jen Shakti.]

While rites of passage have been vital components of culture across history, Shakti believes that they have begun to die out in modern culture. “When we don’t have rites of passage,” she says, “we lose our direction, personally and culturally. There is a psychic confusion” that strains people’s understanding of their own lives and where they choose to go in the future. “I believe that this is why many young adults self-initiate with tattoos,” Shakti explains. “The primal urge to identify ‘who they are’ and ‘what they believe in’ and where they ‘belong’ is very strong.”

Balance, she thinks, can be restored “through initiations and rites of passage.” Shakti believes that “all initiations are an innovation in spirit to engage life at a higher level. I feel that this is what most people are seeking in spiritual practice, and tattoos are a beautiful compliment to that.”

To further that quest for balance, Shakti has begun to offer one- to two day tattoo retreats. They are all-inclusive events. The retreat is a customized experience “to inspire the best version of you.” It includes private accommodations as well as “visits to local sacred sites and a full length healing session.” The tattoo “is the main event.” Shakti says that there is also time for integration, and she offers shamanic techniques to “keep the magic flowing.” Beyond these retreats, Shakti is also willing to train other spiritually-oriented tattoo artists to join in with the sacred tattoo philosophy.

“My vision,” she concludes, “is that as more people get empowered through tattoos consciousness will shift to bring even greater light to the world. I believe that is what I’m here to do at this time.” It is a lofty goal, but Shakti is working toward it session by session, needle by needle, one ceremony at a time.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.