The islands of Hawaii are the birthplace of one of the oldest forms body art in the world, dating back to the very origins of tattooing. This age-old practice of making traditional tribal tattoos by hand, known as kakau, was pushed to the brink of extinction over the course of the last several hundred years, but now it’s making a comeback thanks to the efforts of a handful of artists. Creating tattoos the same way that their ancestors have since around 400 C.E., these individuals are revitalizing an aspect of their way of life that was nearly killed off by colonialism and the tattoo machine.
Keone Nunes, a Native Hawaiian, is largely responsible for having revitalized kakau. He’s been creating uhi, the term for a tattoos done in this ancient style, since the early ‘90s. He first picked up the tools of his ancestors out of a desire to preserve this meaningful facet of his cultural heritage. Since then, he’s apprenticed several hauama (students), and in doing so, has saved the tradition from fading away. Apprentices play a vital role in the process of making uhi, assisting by preparing materials and spreading recipients’ skin, because wielding the mallet and needles requires both of the artist’s hands. The symbolism is so important and complicated that learning the art form can take decades, and for good reason: hauama are the torchbearers of their culture.
After 26 years of training under Nunes, Keli’iokalani Makua is finally taking up his mentor’s mantel. Not long ago, he had the honor of undergoing an ‘uniki ceremony, commemorating his acceptance of the responsibility of imparting artistic tradition to future generations. Becoming a Kahuna Ka Uhi (master of tattoos) takes so long because the designs are tailored to indigenous families’ mookauhau, or genealogies. Millennia-old bloodlines are associated with specific patterns, so in order to be able to properly perform their duties, kakau artists must become thoroughly versed in the oral history of their people, memorizing which patterns belong to different family trees through working with clients. In short, they are pillars of their communities.
The term kakau breaks down into two verbs: ka or “to strike” and kau “to place upon,” actively reflecting the idea of bestowing a formal title on someone — a marker of identity. It also is onomatopoeic, taking after the sound that the wooden mallet makes against the moli, the set of sharpened bones used to insert ink. There are two types of tattoos that Kahuna Ka Uhi make: noa, which are available to anyone seeking the spiritually ramifying qualities of uhi, and kapo — patterns hat only members of indigenous communities are allowed to wear. While noa are based on traditional designs, kapo signify family ties and societal rank.
The importance of uhi to those who practice kakau is embodied in the rituals surrounding the art form. Before tattooing a member of their tribe, kakau artists spend a significant amount of time and energy preparing the tools (it used to take months to gather and file bone to shape the combs). Just before the first permanent notch is made, a prayer is said for the the recipient, requesting that the gods give them strength enough to endure the painful process. Once the uhi is finally completed, one final prayer is made to bless the piece.
To Native Hawaiians, wearing one of these ornate tattoos is a distinction like no other. It not only represents social standing, but is also a written record of their family’s past proudly displayed on their skin. With each new kapo brought into the world by Kahuna Ka Uhi, the tradition of kakau regains some of its former strength. As long as tattooists like Makua continue to pass on the knowledge of the art form to their apprentices, it will never disappear, like it came so close to doing only three decades ago.