Transformation Through Tattoo
Scroll to Continue
Nunes, considers himself more of a practitioner than a tattooist. He brought back the art of traditional tattooing to Hawaii in the 90’s, learning from the Samoan kakau (tattoo) master, Sua Suluape Paulo. It’s an art form that doesn’t use machinery, just traditional, handmade tools — made of whale bone, wood and fibers — to tap natural ink into the skin.
In a small hale (house) in the back of Nunes home in Waianae, he prepares for his next subject. The designs he creates relate to genealogies, protection or aumakua (family gods), and the kuleana (responsibility) that goes with them. Nunes says a prayer so that the ink and the tools will work hand in hand to create something that will give mana (spiritual power) to the individual. It’s a special ceremony to witness, but it’s an art form that was almost lost to time.
“When you receive a tattoo, you not only change physically, but oftentimes, there is a deeper change within you.”
The word "tatau" or "kakau" in actuality means to be placed upon and struck, and that's what we're doing, where "ka" means "to strike," "kau" is "upon," to strike upon the skin. The word "tattoo" comes from the root word "tatau." And it was taken by European sailors and brought back to Europe. And instead of saying "tatau," they called it tattoo.
Where does the word tattoo come from?
The tools are the conduit of the work. That's why the genealogy of the tools is very, very important. I was very fortunate to have been taught by Sua Suluape Paulo, arguably the best traditional tattooist in the world. In '98, he came over to Hawaii, and he wanted to watch me tattoo. He presented me with some tools and said, "This is for you to reintroduce back to Hawaii." At that time, no one was tattooing like that in Hawaii. I realized that I had a responsibility that I couldn't back away from. It's the tools that choose you, it's not you that chooses the tools.
Tell us about the importance of your tools.
It was just amazing, because to lie there and understand that what you're feeling is exactly what your ancestors felt 1,000, 2,000 years ago is amazing. We're not afforded that opportunity to truly understand how our ancestors felt, because we live in such a contemporary world now. And for me, it was profound.
What was it like getting your first traditional tattoo?
“It should be taken for its root value, getting back to the basics of who we are as a people.”
In traditional times, there were many people that got tattooed, but it was only people with high rank that had a tremendous amount of work done. Part of it was because the healing process with traditional inks took a lot longer time. So, the tattooist had a very high rank within the overall societal scheme of things. What was told to me was that they are of a high priestly level, so high that they were the only ones that were allowed to shed the blood of alii, of royalty, and not be killed.
What was the importance of a tattooist in ancient Hawaiian times?
It's not about you, it's about the person you're working with and the connection you have to be able to make sure that whatever design you've decided on will be able to benefit them. So, it’s not just a one-way thing, it’s work that is done by two people that really trust each other.
Talk about the connection between you and the person receiving a tattoo.
The placement and designs afford the person a connection with their ancestors, a connection with who they are. It reaffirms that person as being kanaka (Native Hawaiian), as being from this place. It gives you a deeper-rooted connection. It gives you a basis, a foundation to continue your life on.
How do these tattoos connect Native Hawaiians to their roots?
It’s a peaceful morning at Kahana Bay on Oahu’s Windward side. There isn’t a single soul on the sand – a far cry from the bright lights and buzz of Waikiki. The waves here are legendary. Once, long ago, a Kahana Bay Chief challenged the Goddess Hiiaka – sister of Pele, the Goddess of fire – to a surfing competition in these waters. It did not go well for the Chief…More
Anela Evans sings a melodic oli (chant) atop a cliff overlooking Puu Pehe (known as Sweetheart Rock), on Lanai’s south shore. She’s just come from her day job as a cultural liaison at the Four Seasons Lanai, just a short hike from here. As she sings over this dramatic vista, she still wears her formal work suit. It’s a contrast that not only informs who she is, but the contradictions in Lanai itself…More
The subway rumbles under Columbus Circle in New York City. Inside the towering Time Warner Center is Per Se by Chef Thomas Keller, one of the best restaurants in New York. This is where Brandon Baptiste cut his teeth, working tirelessly 12-16 hours a day, perfecting his culinary skills, and learning from the very best, to be the very best…More
Kaumakaiwa Kanakaole performs a hula and oli (chant) in the streets of downtown Hilo. Her voice is pure. Her movements, powerful. In an increasingly modern world, this is how she connects to the Island of Hawaii. To the snowcapped mountains of Maunakea. To the rolling, green hills of Waimea. To the primordial, black lava rock of Kilauea…More
It’s 2 a.m. on Oahu’s breathtaking, Waianae coast. At this hour, the connection between the physical and the spiritual world intermingles. In the shore break, Keone Nunes is waking up his tools for Kahekili, the god of tattooing. He does a prayer and dips his tattooing tools into the water to make them aware they’ll be doing sacred work today. It's a fairly simple ceremony, but it's embedded in thousands of years of culture…More
Chef Sheldon Simeon and Brandon Lee stand in a pasture of happy pigs in lush Honokaa, north of Hilo on the Island of Hawaii. Tonight, they’ll be cooking for a big, local-style potluck at Sheldon’s father’s house. But before the dishes hit the table, the guys wanted to take a visit to the source – the farm…More
The sun rises over Halawa Valley, Molokai. Greg Solatorio blows the pu, or conch shell. At the other end of the lush valley, Greg’s father, Anakala Pilipo Solatorio, blows his pu back. There is no cell phone connection here. This is how father and son communicate over distances. The conch shell echoes across this beautiful, verdant valley. This could be today or it could 200 years ago…More
Dustin Tester stands in the warm waters of Olowalu Beach giving a wide-eyed 10-year old her first surfing lesson. Dustin grew up on the beaches of Lahaina. Her grandfather helped build the A-Frame cabins just offshore – the same cabins she runs her Maui Surfer Girls surf camp out of today. She has an infectious energy. That energy helped her survive one of the most dangerous waves in the world…More
The stars shine bright above Maui. Kala Tanaka sits on the sand overlooking the ocean on the west side. Kala is a voyager and an educator at Hui o Waa Kaulua, Maui’s Voyaging Society. When she stays on land for too long, she begins to long for the sea. But it hasn’t always been that way…More
The sun is about to break over the horizon at tranquil Lydgate Beach, just south of the iconic Wailua River on Kauai’s east side. Leinaala Jardin has a long day ahead of her. Jardin is a kumu hula (hula teacher). She’s here with her halau (hula school), Halau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leinaala, for a hiuwai, a traditional water blessing. Tonight, they’ll be performing in front of 1,000 people to celebrate her halau’s 21st anniversary…More
Kauai Hiking Tours offers day hikes, backpacking trips and driving tours on Kauai Island. Our local guides are passionate about sharing their knowledge with aloha. We welcome adventurers of all ages & ability levels - several options of beginner, intermediate, and advanced tours are available.
Cruise the reefs in style on Kona's largest custom dive charter. Dance with mantas. Dive or snorkel with Kona's amazing marine life. Experience the mystery and magic of black water. Try diving for the first time with our awesome crew. Receive $15 off by booking online at konahonudivers.com. Use promo code gohawaii.
Island and You is the tour of all things local! This circle-island tour lets you visit sacred historical sites, enjoy the island’s best authentic Hawaiian food, and shop for the perfect souvenir as you tour around Oahu. Make the most of your time in Hawaii. Take a day to taste, see and feel it all!
Hawaiian Paddle Sports offers authentic, sustainable eco-tours that empower guests to discover a deeper appreciation of and connection to Hawaii’s marine environment. Guests can choose from private kayak, outrigger canoe, canoe surfing, whale watch, and snorkel tours, or take SUP or surf lessons.
Snorkel with award-winning Fair Wind Cruises! Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, our snorkeling tour travels up the Kona Coast to snorkel at historic Kealakekua Bay marine sanctuary, site of Captain Cook Monument. Our family friendly tours will be the highlight of your Kona, Hawaii vacation!
Kohala Zipline's Kohala Canopy Adventure features elevated suspension bridges, soaring tree platforms and thrilling ziplines. Whether you are a real zipline enthusiast or a first-time adventure seeker, the Kohala Canopy Adventure will be an unforgettable experience.
If you can dream it, we can do it. Paradise Helicopters offers you the opportunity to create memories that will last a lifetime while here in the islands. See volcanoes, waterfalls & more on our helicopter tours, exclusive landings and custom charters departing from Kona, Hilo and Turtle Bay Resort.