Talk to Ashley Callingbull about her skin ink for half an hour, and you will have a powerful conversation about resilience, strength and self-love.
Some people simply like how their tattoos look when they see themselves in the mirror. But Cree model, actor, activist and RW & Co. ambassador Ashley Callingbull has a deep connection to the symbols she has chosen to decorate her skin with: “Tattoos are a powerful way of sharing what you’ve been through and what you’ve overcome.”
Born in Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, Callingbull rocketed to fame after being crowned Mrs. Universe 2015 in Minsk, Belarus. Her air-punching victory marked the first time an Indigenous woman and a Canadian had ever won the title. Since then, the 30-year-old has used her platform to fight for Indigenous issues, including raising awareness about the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Her journey to where she is today was far from smooth. When she was a child, her mother brought them to live with her then boyfriend on another Alberta reserve. There, Callingbull grew up in poverty and, unbeknownst to her mother at the time, endured six years of physical and sexual abuse at his hand. A victim herself, her mother finally built up the courage to pack up their belongings and escape to Callingbull’s grandparents’ house in Enoch.
Callingbull could have easily spiralled downward, but she credits her grandmother, a medicine woman who raised over 26 foster children and whom she calls “Kokum” in Cree, with helping her heal. “She is the one who taught me about the strength that is in my culture and kept me on the right track,” she says. “She would always tell me ‘Things will always work out.’” Her grandmother passed away in 2006, but Callingbull will forever have her name, Charlotte, on her right wrist. “Every time I look down, I think of her, and it makes me feel strong again.”
When Callingbull was 14, she experienced another trauma. Her sister Ambee was diagnosed with a chromosome disorder known as trisomy 18 and passed away at only six days old. She marked the memory with a pair of wings on her right ankle. “I thought I’d give her wings because she’s my little angel,” says Callingbull. “And putting them on my ankle, it’s like she keeps me flying.”
Callingbull’s other sister, Mariah, is her soulmate and best friend. They may be separated by distance, but Callingbull has a star tattooed behind one ear and Mariah has a crescent moon. “No matter where we are in the world, she’s always going to be the moon and I’m going to be the stars,” she explains. “We’ll always be together.”
They say that tattoos are addictive, so what body ink is next? “Shining Rock” (a name given to her by an elder) in Plains Cree syllabics. “[The elder] said that my name is really powerful because everywhere I go, I bring light to people,” she says. “And the rock represents the oldest and purest thing on the earth.”
That tattoo likely won’t be the last, even though Callingbull went into all this with a fear of needles. “I would faint when I got a flu shot,” she laughs. Her first tattoo—the name of an ex on her left wrist—was a rush decision. But she later covered it with a blossoming rose, her Kokum’s favourite flower: “I wanted to think that I’m growing…that I’m always blooming into the person I’m meant to be.”