Kākau: The Art of Native Hawaiian Tattooing

I wanted to share with you a wonderful experience I was able to witness for the first time while here working.  I was invited to be a part of Kiha Rodrigues’ uhi or tattooing.  This was not your typical tattoo parlor though.  This was the Native Hawaiian traditional art of tattooing or kākau, performed by the only Hawaiian in 200 years who has received the honor of conducting this ceremony (uniki) as Kahuna Kā Uhi (Uhi Master), Keli’i Makua

While I had been aware of this tradition and had said many times that the only way I’d ever get a tattoo was through kākau, I had never seen it up close and in person.  I learned a lot of things from Makua, who encouraged me to ask questions.  I learned that the English word for tattoo comes from kākau or tātau as it is known in other parts of the Pacific.  The word was brought back to Europe by Captain James Cook on his voyages.

I also learned that not anyone can get a traditional tattoo as Makua has to determine if an individual is ready by getting the know the person and through a personal interview.  There has to be a reason to get the tattoo that is meaningful, such as a connection to one’s ancestors and their identity as Hawaiian.  He has tattooed non-Native individuals as well, but again, the meaning must be sincere, deep, and purposeful, not just to appropriate the culture and look good.

Makua also shared that he has seen many changes in people who have received their tattoos.  Having the tattoo is a representation of you and your family and your ancestors. Therefore, it is a visual reminder of your responsibility to your family and your community.  If a person is not representing their family or themselves well, through inappropriate behavior like drugs or excessive alcohol, delinquency, etc., he will deem them not ready.  Makua studied under another master, Keoni Nunes, for over 20 years before he retired and passed on the role to Makua.  Now, Makua works with other aprentices who observe and assist him until they are ready to begin the process of tattooing themselves.

Kākau is done with hand tools all created by Makua himself.  The piece that penetrates the skin is typically made out of bone and often that of the Hawaiian albatross as it’s bone is hard and not as porous as other bone.  He sharpens this bone to fine points and has tools of differing widths, depending on the area of coverage he wishes to apply the ink.  The ink is traditionally made from the soot of the kukui tree nut, but he mostly uses commercial ink today as it lasts longer and performs better.  His apprentices stretch the skin and he applies the bone to the skin and begins to tap with another stick to drive the bone into the skin.  The designs come from past generations and were passed down.  He selects unique designs for each individual based on their interview and their genealogy.

I found the process beautiful and mesmerizing.  While at first I focused on the pain being felt by Kiha, I later grew to appreciate the meaning and significance of his uhi to him and his identity as a Hawaiian.  I know that he will wear this uhi with pride.  As for myself, I thought about how this process might be used as part of a social intervention for Native Hawaiians.  Could we possibly take young people who have lost their way and use the promise of an uhi as an incentive for turning their lives around?  Could the process of receiving their uhi also lead to their own transformation as they become connected to their past, present and future?  I hope to do a more structured interview with Makua and perhaps recipients of his work to better understand how kākau might be a tool for promoting wellbeing.  I think it would make an excellent research project and a way to document this art for future generations!

Enjoy the brief video and pictures below!



Video and photo credit: Shelly Bennett thealohalounge.com

If you’d like to learn more:

Resurrection of Uhi

Traditional Hawaiian Tattooing

Other articles on tattooing