Juneau artist Crystal Worl takes Tlingit culture to the national level — through a postage stamp
Crystal Worl poses in front of her mural featuring Elizabeth Peratrovich. She painted the mural in Downtown Juneau in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Worl)
There’s a new addition to the United States Postal Service, and it’s a stamp by Alaska Native artist Crystal Worl. It is one of a set of four stamps in a collection titled “The Art of the Skateboard”, which will be officially launched on March 24. The stamps are part of an effort to celebrate the art and diversity of the sport, and they portray skateboard decks and the art that is often found on them. Worl was one of the creators chosen for the project and is the only artist to represent Alaska Native communities on what will be a nationally-circulated stamp.
While her feature on a stamp is ground-breaking, Worl is not the only Tlingit person to have her art featured on a national scale. Her brother Rico designed a stamp for the USPS two years ago, but Worl’s design is entirely her own.
The image featured on the stamp is of a blue and indigo sockeye salmon, an image that Worl says is steeped in meaning.
“I think the symbology of salmon is also really powerful. It’s a symbol of wealth and the environment doing well and the animals doing well,” she said.
Worl highlighted how the fish is a source of pride for the people in Alaska who engage in subsistence living. “Alaskans are really proud to be fishermen, to be subsistence [hunters] and live off the land,” she said. “There’s a lot of nutrients that the salmon has provided Indigenous people here for thousands and thousands of years and the fact that it’s depicted in formline design is recognizably Alaskan.”
The image of the salmon depicted on the stamp is created in the style of formline, which Worl specializes in. Northwest Coast Formline design is a type of art that’s important to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples in Southeast Alaska. The design style uses different types of lines to build positive and negative spaces that together create an image or story.
“People will recognize it as very Alaskan, and it’s an incredible opportunity and tool to really educate the public and people globally about Indigenous people and our story: We’re still here, that we are the ones to tell our story, and it’s beautiful,” Worl said.
The opportunity to share her art and Tlingit culture with the world is not lost on her. She said that the stamps are a way to celebrate Indigenous culture responsibly.
“It’s really important to have Native people have our own narrative,” she said. Worl noted that when people choose to buy items like knockoff totem poles or keychains, they take away the power of Indigenous people to tell their own stories. She believes her culture should be shared and appreciated responsibly, and Tlingit art on a stamp is a great way to do that.
“It’s just a really powerful, incredible opportunity for the world to celebrate this culture in a way that’s healthy, in a way that gives Indigenous people a platform and opportunity to share and tell our story. Because it’s beautiful, and it should be shared, it should be told by its original people,” she said.
And Worl is doing a lot of work to make sure those stories are being told. She co-owns the store Trickster Company with her brother, Rico. Together, they create innovative Indigenous art and gifts that reflect Tlingit culture. Worl is not a skateboarder herself, but she said creating art for the stamp is close to her roots. Trickster began as a deck design company, where Worl and her brother would paint skateboarding decks for members of the community who may not have been able to purchase more traditional forms of artwork.
“[W]e wanted to manufacture the designs onto products so that we could see them being skated on and not just hung up on walls as art but being utilized and being accessible to youth and community members that may not be able to afford artwork,” she said.
And she pointed out that skateboarding as a sport is becoming increasingly popular all over Alaska, Canada, and the United States, which she’s excited to see. “[N]ative kids are really embracing and getting into skateboarding and basketball, which is really great.”
Sharing her art with others is something that matters to Worl. She grew up in a large family that supported her artistic endeavors, and she said that community is essential to her. Her aunt would send her paint brushes and paints for her to play with, and she was encouraged to practice her creativity. “I’ve never been punished for drawing on the walls,” she said.
She first found a mentor in her brother, Rico, but later studied formline under the tutelage of Robert Davidson in Vancouver, British Columbia. She said this experience opened her eyes to the depth of the art form and taught her to appreciate it in a different way: “There’s just endless amounts of information and stories and books written in the art.”
Yet, in her day-to-day life, Worl is not surrounded by mentors. “[M]y career as an artist, it’s very lonely. I know that,” she said. But despite that loneliness, Worl still creates — for herself and for those who come after her.
“I’m committed to it for the rest of my life, and I’m excited to learn from it and practice it the rest of my life and also share it and pass it on to those who follow me in the next generation.”
Worl strives to represent Tlingit culture for herself and others, but she laughed at the thought of imbuing intentionality into every aspect of her daily life.
“It would be weird to be really intentional, like ‘Oh, how am I gonna be Indigenous today?’” She went on to say that sometimes her art is just that: art.
“People get really excited and they’re like, wow, what’s the meaning [of the art] tell us about your heritage and roots and how this depicts that, and I’m like, I don’t know. It’s just in my nature. It’s in my upbringing, and it’s just like, it’s normal,” she said.
She emphasized that her life as an artist isn’t as mystical as some people might want it to be. There is still a responsibility that comes with recognizing the past in order to move forward in the future, especially when it comes to the relationship between Indigenous people and the United States government.
“We don’t have the best history in terms of our relationship, and [the stamp] is an act of turning the table, and changing history by giving the narrative, the story, back to us, to Indigenous artists and people to tell,” she said. “Because we absolutely do want to share our culture, our values, and our art and our language.”
And Worl’s art for the new stamp certainly accomplishes that. She is excited about this collaboration and what else there may be to come — both the challenges and the joys of creating a more inclusive and representative world.
“It’s really exciting to be a modern person in this day, but also still rooted in my identity. Who I am, but also still looking into the future,” she said.
Worl went on to say: “I think it starts with working and communicating with one another. We all share salmon, we all eat the same food, and we all share living on this really awesome, beautiful land.”
Worl’s stamp can be ordered at the online Postal Service Store before March 24. After it’s issued, it can be purchased at post offices.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Postal Service site and post offices are the only places where the stamps are certain to be sold.
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