Aloha Speakeasy readers, today marks the first day the city has had a normal day. the last couple of weeks to a month to a year have plagued us with an uncommon weather cycle. today truly feels like the beginning of a brand new chapter for us here in los angeles. that aside, this week we truly have a topic dear to my heart.
The origin stories of tattooing vary widely depending on what part of the world you are looking at. This week I dove into the history of tattooing in hawaii.
While Hawaii is a U.S. territory today, it didn’t start off that way and while it was still an independent nation, we can thank Hawaii for introducing tattoos to the United States.
Let’s begin by going back 3,000 years ago. At that time, people of South-East Asia went on a voyage to settle in distant islands around Oceania. The outcome of this epic journey resulted in a very widespread Polynesian culture that encompasses many different sub-cultural groups which include Marquesand, Samonas, Niueans,
Tongans, Cook Islanders, Tahitians, Maori, and of course Hawaiians. Due to the shared ancestral history, the Polynesian people shared similar language and cultural traits across all of the island groups and that includes the art form of tattooing.
For centuries, tattooing was an important part of tribal life for Polynesians and this carried on to the people who settled in Hawaii. It is unknown exactly when the tradition began for the Polynesian culture, but it is believed that the tradition is at least 2000 years old. Polynesian people used tattoos to express their identity and personalities. In Hawaii, the tattoo artists of Hawaiian tribes were carefully trained and held a high importance within their communities. If a tribe had a good tattoo artist, it was a symbol of high wealth and status. For the Hawaiian people, tattoos served many different purposes. In some cases a tattoo represe
nted a high social rank and was only reserved for leaders or warriors with high accomplishments. In other instances, tattoos were like tribal patches that marked rites of passage and even believed to have protective spiritual elements against evil spirits and other forces of nature. The meanings behind tattoos varied greatly between island groups and each group eventually evolved into its own unique variations of designs.
Traditional Hawaiian tattoos are called "kākau or kākau uhi.
Kākau refers to the act of tattooing, while kākau uhi refers to the method of using combs made of natural materials to tap the ink into the skin.
The tattoos are typically bold black ink and geometric in design. In the beginning, tattoo traditions in Hawaii were similar to the full-body Marquesan tattoos, but after they developed their own unique style, the characteristics of a Hawaiian tattoo became asymmetry across both sides of the body. A lot of times the right side of the body would have solid black designs that gave spiritual protection to its wearer. This practice was called Kakay I ka uhi.
What makes Hawaiian tattoo designs different from other parts of the world, including their Pacific island neighbors, is that their tattoos are bolder, larger, and are unique in the way they shape and layer tribal patterns into one larger piece.
For Hawaiians, tattoos were not simply decorative, but instead they told stories, and represented family lineage, spirituality, and personal achievements. The purpose of these tattoos were not about being aesthetically pleasing, but instead to tell the individual's life story or to protect their spiritual well being. They were also used for warriors to look more intimidating in battle. The placements of the tattoo were also important and carried meaning that usually reflected the person’s identity and connection to their community and ancestors. Some people were covered head to toe in these tattoos; ancient lithographs show Hawaiian women with tattoos mainly on their hands, feet, fingers, and calves and both women and men had facial tattooing that was typically found on the brow ridge, cheeks, and chin. No matter the placement and size, each tattoo could unveil the history of that person’s life. Even today, Hawaiian tattoos continue to be a meaningful and significant aspect of culture and identity.
In Hawaii the act of receiving a tattoo was considered an honor and a sacred ritual. Getting a tattoo was often accompanied by ceremonies and prayers. This tradition was really special to the Hawaiian people, so much so that if a person is not honoring their ancestors in a favorable way with their lifestyle choices, they are deemed not ready to get a tattoo.
Getting a tattoo was also extremely painful and receiving a tattoo was seen as a great act of bravery and the sign of a powerful person. Tattoo masters also known as “kahuna” were highly respected. The painful tattoo process would consist of the kahuna cutting the skin open by using a sharp tool and hitting it with a stick acting as a mallet while assistants would stretch the skin and wipe away the blood. The sharp tool that acted as a needle used to puncture the skin would be made of natural things like, bird’s beaks, fish bones, animal claws, cactus barbs, and urchin spines.
The pigment most commonly was black and made from kukui nut ashes and sugarcane juice. Other colors were rare, but sometimes created using various brightly colored island flowers such as the Hawaiian Iris. There are few records of the entire process because tattooing would be done in absolute secrecy. It was such a mystical process to the people that often the tattoo tools would be destroyed once a tattoo was completed.
In 1778, Captain James Cook, a British explorer, sailed to the Hawaiian islands and anchored off the coast of the island Kaua’i.
To his surprise, he was greeted with a warm and friendly welcome from the Hawaiian natives who at this point had been living on the island for over a 1,000 years. The Hawaiian people had a multiple of deities, including Lono, the god of peace and agriculture and it is believed this warm welcome was due to the Hawaiian people mistaking Cook for a physical embodiment of Lono.
Prior to landing in Hawaii and other nearby islands, Captain Cook and his voyagers had never seen tattoos before. Explorers and sailors who continued to land in Hawaii after Cook were fascinated with Hawaiian culture including their tattoos and began to get tattoos themselves. This is how tattoos got introduced to the Western world. European visitors played a huge role in popularizing tattoos in other parts of the world and helped develop modern tattooing techniques.
In 1779, Captain Cook returned to the Hawaiian island to repair a broken mast, but this time he was no longer considered a god. Once on shore, Cook was attacked and killed. Soon after, European settlers and missionaries arrived to colonize the island. On May 8, 1819 the great chief Kamehameha,
a leader who had accomplished uniting the Hawaiian islands into a recognized political entity passed away and with his death, the kapu system (an ancient Hawaiian code of conduct and laws) which was ignored by the European settlers collapsed. The ancient ways of the island began to vanish and kakau (tattooing) was discouraged and suppressed. The closely guarded secrets of tattooing died along with the Kahunas who applied the tattoos.
Today the people of Hawaii strive to rediscover the secrets of their ancient culture and they have had to reinvent what they can’t verify to honor their past and ancestors.
Design wise, Hawaiian tattoos have expanded and now also include other imagery outside of the tribal designs. Common Hawaiian tattoos outside of the tribal designs include things like Honu (sea turtle) which symbolizes good luck, and long life. Other common designs include birds or dolphins which symbolize freedom and movement or sharks which represent strength and power. The impact of traditional tattoos is profound. These tattoos preserve and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Hawaii and that is still true today. Between the imagery that is associated with Hawaii or the traditional tribal designs, people of today want to get these tattoos for self expression and to celebrate their culture and ancestors just like the native Hawaiians before them. While the method of getting these tattoos mostly follow the modern technique we see around the world there are still some tattoo artist in Hawaii who hold the old traditions close like Keone Nunes who practices hand tapping tattoos. Next week i think we'll be taking a detour off historical topics and take a look at something happening to the industry in the right now. I hope you've gained a little insight into our brothers from the Hawaiian islands and the history of tattoos.
til next week my fellow apes!