Cultural traditions’ indelible mark

Keone Nunes, Traditional Tattoo Artist and Cultural Practitioner, Waianae, Hawaii

Feature | Waianae, Hawaii | 10 August 2022
Native Hawaiian traditional tattoo artist and cultural practitioner Keone Nunes, uses the same techniques, and traditional tools used thousands of years ago by the ancient Polynesians. The process of creating the tattoo is called kakau and the tattoo itself is called uhi. ILO Photo/ John Isaac
“Being Hawaiian to me, has always meant having a responsibility to carry on our traditions and carry-on the knowledge base that was created by our ancestors,” declares Keone Nunes, a traditional tattoo artist and cultural practitioner based on the Waianae coast of Hawaii’s Oahu island.

“It’s about acknowledging that sacrifice and hard work,” he adds as he looks up and takes a quick break from the design he is tattooing on a client’s thigh. Pushing his glasses up to the bridge of his nose, he dips his traditional tattooing tool in black ink and resumes work on the client.

The tools he uses consist of a wooden tapping stick called hāhau, a moli which resembles a small rake made of wood and sharp animal bone or tusk, which is the tool that pierces the design on the skin, and then the ink bowl called apu paʻu that the moli is dipped into and then put on the skin.

“You know this method is thousands of years old. It’s the same method that was used throughout the Pacific and in areas of Southeast Asia, and India,” Nunes says of the tapping method he uses to tattoo his subjects. “In Hawaiian this traditional tattoo is called uhi and the process or what I am doing right now- placing the tattoo on the skin, is called kakau. So basically kakau is the verb and what remains is uhi,” he reiterates.

Preserving this traditional art form is very important to Nunes who was able to revive and bring back this tradition by studying under his mentor. Through his apprentices who assist him, he hopes that they will share their knowledge and learnings with their kids and so forth. First-hand knowledge and practical experience he says are vital for the passing on of this tradition and cultural education, in comparison to book knowledge. ILO Photo/ John Isaac
A Native Hawaiian, Keone grew up surrounded by his family and community and as such was fortunate enough to sit and learn from his elders known as kupuna, who imparted various cultural knowledge and traditions upon him. While many subjects were discussed with him, one that became an important focus was that about the ancient art and tradition of the Hawaiian tattoo.

The knowledge of culture and traditions which he gained from his elders came in handy when he became interested in practicing kakau which he has been doing since the ‘90s. He uses the same techniques and traditional tools, that were used thousands of years ago in Polynesia.

“It doesn’t really hurt that much, and actually machine tattooing hurts more,” he insists as he continues tapping the uhi, on the client lying down on the straw mat. His two apprentices assist him with holding the client still, stretching his skin, and wiping excess ink from the area every now and then.

“It’s important that they learn from me in this situation, so that they have first-hand knowledge of this practice, not book knowledge and can pass this on to their kids which is vital for the survival of this practice in our cultural education,” Nunes assets.

Keone says his work is a passion, a responsibility, and a way to give back and empower his community, by sharing this unique traditional art form and practice. He explains that the purpose of these tattoos is to identify and honor oneself, family, and future generations and to acknowledge the ancestors too. He takes pride in being able to use the same traditional techniques as his ancestors did, which he says is quicker and helps the tattoo heal faster than, a tattoo created by a machine. ILO Photo/ John Isaac
For him preserving this traditional art from is crucial as it was virtually lost until he was able to revive it when he began studying the practice as an apprentice under his mentor, a Samoan by the name of Suʻa Suluʻape Paulo.

Taking a break from tapping his tools Nunes sits up straight and examines the intricacy of his work. He explains that tattooing in ancient and native Hawaiian tradition was not just for the sole purpose of decoration, but for the greater purpose of identifying and honoring oneself, and one’s family.

“It was to honor yourself, your family, future generations, as well as acknowledging your ancestry,” he underscores. Referring to his client, Nunes says, “He is doing this not just for himself but for his kids and their kids too, because from now on they will see the pattern and know who this person is. And when the time comes for him to join his ancestors, they will recognize who he is as well, so it really is so much more than just a tattoo.”

On the subject of the ancient technology of tattooing versus machine tattooing, Keone acknowledges that there is an assumption that newer technology is better for tattooing in that it does the job faster and heals quickly too. “The reality is quite the opposite,” he says with a confident smile.

“There is great value in a lot of the traditional knowledge and technologies of our people. Not only is it ethnocentric, but it also acknowledges the achievements and inventions of traditional people. Not just Hawaiians but many others, including the ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids. What good is modern technology when traditional technology may be just as good if not better?”

Watching Nunes’ focus on his craft and hearing him speak about his work and Hawaiian tradition, there is no doubting his commitment, love and passion for the unique work he does and his pride in being Hawaiian.

“To me this is not work, this is a passion, a responsibility and it’s my way of giving back to my community and empowering who we are as a people,” he says with pride and fervor in his voice. “Because once you put this tattoo on, there's no denying who you are.”

Pausing for a moment, he closes his eyes and enjoys the cool coastal wind that has just come in. He opens his eyes, clears his throat, and with a knowing smile says, “This is a joyful recreation of a song that has been sung to us through the winds by our ancestors. That is what this is.”