By Léo Azambuja

Kulture Tattoo Kollective owner Samuel Shaw. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Kulture Tattoo Kollective in Hanapepe has been serving the Kaua‘i community for seven years, but its owner, Samuel Shaw has been doing traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian tattoos on the island for much longer; about 25 years.

“I opened this shop to support Kaua‘i, and Hawaiians, Filipinos, all the cultural groups that make up Hawai‘i now,” Shaw said. “We represent these different groups that live on this island and call it home now. For us, it’s a real local shop. That’s what we pride ourselves on doing.”

Kulture Kollective’s extensive gallery includes mostly Hawaiian, Maori, Marquesan, Tahitian, Samoan and Filipino tattoos, and they also do other kinds upon request. Besides Shaw, they have a staff of three additional tattoo artists — Keola Akau, Thad Nakau and Kalin Mier — plus a henna and jagua artist, Ashley Roney.

“That’s the best team I could ever ask for,” Shaw said. “We just keep elevating, revolving, going places.”

Samuel Shaw

Roney emphasizes the culture aspect of henna, which goes all the way back to Egypt. Jagua is a fruit used for body ornamentation and also medicinal purposes by many South American indigenous cultures for centuries. Both plants produce a temporary ink.

Shaw says they specialize in all the cultural meanings of the symbols found throughout Polynesia. They want people to come to them with the right intent, to get tattooed to support the culture.

“That’s really import to us, we don’t just put it on to make you look good,” he said. But if looking good is the only reason, it’s OK too.

The store is open seven days a week, with no set business hours. Appointments have to be made online on their website, where new customers can learn more about their work. Shaw calls his shop a private studio because he wants to cater to his clients, without phones ringing during sessions.

“It puts a little more depth to tattooing,” Shaw said. “We don’t want to cater to typical walk-in style tattooing, we want to make it long-term, we want people to remember our name. We want a real impression.”

And a real, lasting impression is what you get at Kulture Kollective.

Shaw learned his craft in a traditional American tattoo shop in Texas. After his apprenticeship was over, his equipment was robbed a gunpoint. He moved to Kaua‘i in 1993, and bought new equipment, but was still unsure whether to pursue tattooing professionally. While he was living in Wainiha, the Hawaiians asked for tattoos, brought their genealogy symbols, and explained what those symbols meant.

In 1998, Shaw and Kala Alexander opened Hanalei Tattoo Co., which lasted about a year. Shaw then opened Human Rites, “because tattooing is a rite of passage,” in Kalaheo and later moved to Kalapaki. After a few years, he closed shop and took off to Europe for two years.

“I lived in Amsterdam, tattooing nothing by strictly Polynesian work,” said Shaw, adding he worked with some the best Polynesian tattoo artists in the world. “And so my tattoo career, there’s pre-Europe and there’s post-Europe. Because Europe changed me.”

He came back to Kaua‘i as a better and faster tattoo artist. But was still unsure of his next step, until a friend teased him to open another studio here. Shaw decided if he were able to secure a lease at the historic Seto Market building overlooking Hanapepe River, he would go for it.

Despite the space had been sitting empty for two years, the owners didn’t want to rent it to him. The owner’s mother, an old-school Japanese lady, thought tattooing was associated with criminals and bikers. Even after Shaw explained he was all about culture, he was denied.

Undeterred, he and Roney, his girlfriend, went to every business nearby and got them to sign a petition saying they wanted the tattoo shop in Hanapepe.

“I sent back (the petition) to the owners of the building, and from that point on they are my best friends,” Shaw said. “ They wanted something in here that supported the culture, and once they saw my intent and my plan, they supported me.”

The shop is usually booked one or two months ahead, but Shaw says it’s worth the wait; the tattoo will be there forever. Visit to book an appointment and for more information on Kulture Tattoo Kollective.