Creativity as a driving force for community, healing & wellness

A Q&A with Willard Malebear Jr. of Iktomi Tattoo and Unified Theory Collective

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation
5 min readNov 14, 2023

This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.

Willard Malebear Jr.

Willard Malebear Jr. is a professional artist and tattoo artist. He has been featured in multiple art events and galleries around Minnesota’s Twin Cities and is a passionate advocate for the arts and recovery. He is also an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the founder and CEO of both Iktomi Tattoo and Unified Theory Collective, an Indigenous-owned company with two primary missions: 1) provide communities free access to creative materials and equipment as a source of wellness to combat social crisis, and 2) provide quality professional creative services to businesses and organizations. We met Malebear over the summer, stayed in touch, and connected again during National Native American Heritage Month to learn more about his vision for using creativity as a platform for community interconnectedness, recovery and well-being.

Q: What does recovery look like for you, and how has it empowered different aspects of your life?

Recovery to me is living a life of integrity, purpose and service. Ever since making the commitment to recovery, my life has changed dramatically and in basically all aspects. I feel more connected to my community, my family and my spirit. After working hard for the first couple years in recovery, I started to see the rewards. It took a lot of patience and time, but it was worth every struggle and low moment.

Q: What about art and creativity makes it such a powerful force for recovery and well-being in your own life and others lives? And how do you respond to people who might say, ‘But I’m not an artist — I’m not creative’?

Creativity allows me to express my deepest emotions in a comfortable, meditative and healing format. I found that engaging in art leads to self-discovery, personal insight, and a boosted sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. Having a consistent outlet for creativity has been one of the strongest tools in my recovery. Whenever I struggle, I sit down and draw; this helps me reflect and process.

Whenever someone says that they are not an artist, I normally quote Pablo Picasso: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.” Picasso also said: “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth. Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Willard Malebear Jr. with two of his paintings. (Photo by Katy Vernon of Dissonance)

Q: What does your Native American heritage mean to you, to your recovery and to your work? What about family?

Reconnecting with my Indigenous culture has meant the world to me. When I first made my commitment to sobriety, I was incarcerated and while in prison I regularly attended Indigenous ceremony. My commitment to my culture and to my sobriety go hand-in-hand as they both give me a sense of purpose and service to something greater than myself. I try to carry the Indigenous value of “being a good relative” to all aspects of my life. In my work life, I try to be a good relative to my coworkers, by being fair and honest and transparent, and showing up for them even in the hard times. The same can be said for showing up as a good relative for my family and friends.

Q: What does it mean for you to advocate for recovery?

It means encouraging others to reach their full potential and seek empowerment over adversity. I believe in the power of sharing your story and allowing others to learn through our experiences. We can all learn something from each other.

Unified Theory Collective

Q: What are your grandest entrepreneurial hopes, dreams and vision for Unified Theory Collective?

My hope for Unified Theory Collective is to continue to serve and enable the artist in everyone, not only in our community but for communities across this planet.

I believe in the gospel of creativity, and I will preach the benefits of daily practices in the arts.

I truly believe in the purpose and mission that Unified Theory Collective stands for — of enabling people seeking creative expression. I have also just started a nonprofit called Art Shelf, which will serve communities much like a food shelf but with art supplies, feeding creative minds. I look forward to living this life of fostering creative growth on this amazing planet that we all share.

Willard Malebear and his late mother, Judy Malebear.

Q: What is your favorite tattoo or other piece of art you ever created?

My favorite tattoo that I have ever made was on my mom. It was the first tattoo I ever did. I think about her tattoo, and I think about that moment all the time. That was 15 years ago. My mom was still in generally good health then, and life was just taking a wild turn. My mom passed away a couple years ago. She was super proud to see me sober, tattooing again, ready to have a new baby, and in a happy, healthy place in life. When I was in the hospital right after she passed away, I immediately remembered that night we tattooed and that made me smile. My mom was not the type to ever have a tattoo. I just remember being so happy that she was going to be my first tattoo. It’s definitely one of my favorite memories from this life.

Three Willard Malebear Jr. tattoos.



Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

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