By Léo Azambuja

Hawaiian Kala Alexander, a professional surfer, actor and business owner from Kaua‘i, shows some of his tattoos done by Samuel Shaw, owner of Kulture Tattoo Kollective. Hawaiian koa wood spear courtesy of Photo by Léo Azambuja

The art of tattooing arrived in Hawai‘i through Polynesian seafarers many centuries ago. The first wave of Polynesian migrants is believed to have come from the Marquesas Islands between 300 and 600 AD. A second wave of seafarers came from Tahiti around 1000 AD.

Historians believe Tahitians traveled back and forth to Hawai‘i, with the last migration landing in Wailua, Kaua‘i’s Eastside, sometime around 1300 AD. Tahitian chiefs and priests introduced new religious practices, social structures and the kapu system to Hawai‘i.

“They brought a lot of cultural practices, and one of them was tattooing,” Hawaiian tattoo artist Keone Nunes said of Polynesian voyagers. “Tattooing was looked upon as something of great honor, to increase the mana … and also some designs were for protection.”

Nunes started his tattooing career more than two decades ago, encouraged by the knowledge passed on to him by older Hawaiians. Though he always specialized in traditional Hawaiian tattoos, it wasn’t until 1996 that he dropped the electric tattoo gun and started tattooing with hand-made, old-fashioned Hawaiian tattoo tools made of wood and bones. Now, Nunes makes his own tools and does tattoos in the same fashion Hawaiians did hundreds of years ago.

A sketch by John Webber of a Kaua‘i native from Waimea, circa 1778.

Tattoo artist Samuel Shaw said one of the most powerful aspects of traditional Hawaiian tattoos is genealogy, the family history going back generations.

“To keep that knowledge with you, through chanting, that makes it powerful. So that’s what’s Hawaiian tattoo, a reminder of what’s Hawaiian, specially if you’re Hawaiian,” said Shaw, who has more than 25 years of experience in Polynesian tattoos.

Though a couple of his Shaw’s own tattoos were done with traditional tools — and one by Nunes himself — he works with a contemporary tattoo gun in his shop, Kulture Tattoo Kollective in Hanapepe, Kaua‘i’s Westside.

And it was exactly on Kaua‘i’s Westside, specifically in Waimea, where Westerners saw Hawaiian tattoos for the first time almost 240 years ago.

The earliest written account of Hawaiian tattoos is by Capt. James Cook on Feb. 2, 1778 during his third and final voyage, when he first encountered the Hawaiian Islands. Waimea was the first place in Hawai‘i that Cook came ashore.

Keone Nunes tattooing with traditional Hawaiian tattoo tools. Contributed photo

“Tattowing or staining is practiced here, but not in a high degree, nor does it appear to be directed by any particular mode but rather by fance. Their figures were straight lines, stars and circles, and many had the figures of the taame (taumi) or breast plate of Otahiete (Tahiti), though we saw it not among them,” Cook wrote. This account indicates he saw tattoos resembling Tahitian breastplates, but he didn’t see the objects.

John Webber, an academically trained artist onboard Cook’s voyage, did a pen-and-ink wash titled An Island View in Atooi, now at the British Library, showing tattoos on Hawaiians portrayed in a village in Waimea in January 1778. It was the first time a Western artist illustrated Hawaiian tattoos.

The few tattoo drawings or paintings Webber did, as well as a few drawings by Cook’s surgeon and amateur artist William Ellis, are some of the most important accounts of traditional Hawaiian tattoos, since there are less than 10 of those artworks, and they were done before Hawai‘i was significantly changed by Western contact.

Original ink wash drawing by Jacques Arago titled ‘Naturel Des Isles Sandwiches’ (Native of the Hawaiian Islands), circa 1819. Notice the traditional niho mano, or shark teeth, mixed with Western motifs, goats and fans, and the name of Kamehameha and the date of his death — two years before Hawaiian language was put into writing by missionaries.

Ukrainian-born artist Louis Choris came to Hawai‘i in 1916 onboard the Russian ship Rurik. Choris’ work is also considered important because it is the last view of Hawaiian society before the kapu system fell following the death of Hawaiian Islands unifier Kamehameha I in 1819. His work, however, already shows Western influence in Hawaiian tattoos.

By the time French artist Jacques Arago came here in 1919 onboard French ship Uranie, it had been more than 40 years since Cook had first touched Hawai‘i, and there was an abundance of Western motifs present in Hawaiian tattoos. Arago, who spent three weeks as a draftsman on the expedition, wrote, “They (women) make drawings of necklaces and garters on the skin in a manner really wonderful; their other devices consist of hunting horns, helmets, muskets, rings, but more particularly fans, and goats. Those of the men are musket cannon, goats and dominos; together with the name of Tammeamah (Kamehameha), and the day of his death.”

Missionaries first arrived in Hawai‘i in 1821. They slowly became influent in Hawaiian society and government, and saw many aspects of Hawaiian culture as heresy. After a coup-d’état overthrew Queen Liliu‘okalani in January 1893, Hawaiian cultural traditions were quickly suppressed by missionaries, by then utterly influential in Hawai‘i government. Important pieces of Hawaiian culture, such as hula and even the language itself, were aggressively condemned, and barely survived. Consequently, traditional Hawaiian tattooing also almost completely disappeared.

Some of the traditional Hawaiian tattoo tools used by Keone Nunes.

Between the early 1800s and the early 1900s, Nunes said, most of the tattooing survived within families in the rural countryside. Some of the last traditional Hawaiian tattooing done was possibly in the 1920s, according to Nunes.

“I met a person whose grandfather got tattooed traditionally, and he died in the late 1960s,” said Nunes, adding he assumes the man probably got tattooed in his teens. “So that would’ve been in the 1920s.”

Shaw said by the 1970s, Hawaiian tattooing was pretty much non-existent.

Some of the Polynesian designs used by Samuel Shaw in his shop, Kulture Tattoo Kollective in Hanapepe. Photo by Léo Azambuja

“To have your culture taken from you and told it’s bad, your language is banned, your Hawaiian practice is banned, hula is banned, tattooing banned, that’s heavy,” Shaw said.

But in the 1970s the Hawaiian Renaissance movement gained a lot of momentum. It was time of protest, with the occupation of Kaho‘olawe by Hawaiians from Molokai; and also a time of reviving lost traditions, with the launching of the Hokule‘a sailing canoe.

It was also a time when Samoans were coming to Hawai‘i. Shaw said he heard that at that time, Samoans living in Hawai‘i were doing their traditional pe‘a tattooing, going from the knee to the waist, representing their ties to their community, their families and their responsibilities.

“If you sat through the 10-day process of getting it and you went through that pain, you were able to take on anything in life,” Shaw said of the Samoan pe‘a. When Hawaiians asked the Samoans if they could get a pe‘a too, Shaw said, they were told, “Wait a minute, you guys have a history of tattooing too.” This may have helped to spark the movement of bringing back Hawaiian tattoos.

The Hawaiian armband became popular in the 1980s, along with commercialized versions of Hawaiian tattoos. As the Renaissance movement built up, Shaw said, the traditional Hawaiian tattoo designs Nunes was using, such as the niho mano, triangles meaning shark teeth, became increasingly more popular.

Original ink wash drawing by Jacques Arago titled ‘Tahorahi,’ circa August 1819.

Shaw got into Hawaiian tattoos after he moved to Kaua‘i from Texas some 25 years ago. He settled in Wainiha, where local Hawaiians kept asking him for tattoos, bringing designs and explaining their stories.

“I felt the power in tattooing those designs,” Shaw said. “Living on Kaua‘i kinda transformed me. And then the history, the challenges the Hawaiians faced; the annexation, the conquest, it got under my skin. I wanted to defend this, I wanted to defend the Hawaiians.”

Nunes said there are a lot of misconceptions about tattooing with traditional Hawaiian tools. In the right hands, he said, tattooing with traditional tools can be faster and less painful than tattooing with a machine. He does his tattoos on Oahu’s Westside, and can be contacted through his Instagram account, @keonen.

Shaw says tattooing is a rite of passage, especially if the tattoo is done the way Nunes does, with traditional tools.

“To get that process, the traditional way, that’s really embracing your culture, that’s getting deep, that’s going beyond the words, the written language,” Shaw said.

Shaw can be contacted at

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