The word tattoo derives from the Tahitian word, “tatua” which in Hawaiian is “kakau.” Broken down, the word in Hawaiian means, ka, “to strike” and kau, “to place upon.” The process of traditional tapping occurs when a plastic or wooden mallet hits the moli, a piece of sharp bone responsible for piercing the skin. The moli leaves a mark known as “uhi,” translating to covering or veil. Traditionally, ancient tattoos symbolized tribes, family histories, and relationships with the environment, while contemporary Western tattoos depict any image desired. Those who opt for a traditional tattoo will have designs similar to the past. Historically, only those deemed “Kahuna” tattooed the people, and the symbols and techniques he employed were oral stories passed between generations- from master to apprentice. For the most part, there are no written records explaining each symbol, the records are within the tattooists head for fear of symbolic misinterpretation. Each symbol applied to the body has a spiritual significance particular to that person and their story. The tattoos are intended to preserve the person’s history and protect their being. However, over the course of the 1900s, the art of traditional tattooing disappeared from the Hawaiian islands altogether.
In the late 90’s, Hawaiian Keone Nunes, began a revival of traditional tattooing. Recognized by others for possessing a natural talent in tapping and an interest in learning, he had the opportunity to learn from the man seen as the master of tap tattooing- Su’a Sulu’ape Paolo of New Zealand. Returning to Hawaii, Nunes dedicated his life to the artistry of traditional tapping. As the original master of the Hawaiian revival, Nunes has trained many apprentices to continue the tapping tradition. The profession of a traditional tattooist is more of a lifestyle than a career. To become a master, you are a student until he passes away. Before his passing, the master will choose one of his students to succeed him, and they will become the new master, while the others will not. There is no set time for an apprenticeship under Nunes, he graduates you when you are ready, and you remain his student until he dies. Currently, Nunes has five apprentices, all of whom believe that Nunes chose them by fate. An apprentice tells Freesurf, “If characteristics align and how you act and carry yourself and move aligns, then he might select you.” But Nunes must recognize a sense of commitment amongst those who show interest. He will invite them back to learn over and over again, taking note of who returns and how often. The decision to accept the offer from Nunes is not one to be taken lightly. His dedicated apprentice tells us that he was, “extremely hesitant at first because of the weight of the responsibility it held. It’s a lifelong commitment. A lifestyle commitment. Everything you do has to be calculated in how you act and carry yourself. It’s a spirituality thing.” For those who choose to follow Nunes’s path, they assist him in his work on a regular basis.
Clients do not hire Nunes to perform what they want; they hire Nunes to create a tattoo that they were destined to have, that pays tribute to their past and protects them and their families in their future. “I ask them to tell me about themselves. I ask what is important for the person. What do they want it to represent, and then we go from there. Often when I’m talking with them, I get certain feelings as to what might be appropriate even though they might not say it. 98-99% of the time I’m pretty spot on.” Nunes creates something unique for each person he tattoos. By tradition, only the artist can come up with the design. “It tells about who he is, some of the protective types of things and some things about his quest for knowledge,” he tells me. While Nunes is open to tattooing non-Hawaiians, he talks to them first to find out the reason they want the tattoo; he needs to have a good feeling about the person and the reasoning for the tattoo first. There is also much thought and preparation put into the process of tapping. Before the client arrives, Nunes prays, and before he taps, he says a silent prayer over the ink bowl. The black ink is carbon-based, unlike the ink in conventional tattoo parlors. As humans are carbon based, the ink must also be so as to become a part of the body. Soot is also used from a kukui nut to thicken the base.
Nunes uses a hippo tusk as his moli, as well as a piece of high-quality plastic as his mallet. Just as Nunes chooses what symbols comprise the tattoo, he also picks where the tattoo goes. The first tattoo on the body is the leg because each leg represents a different side of a human- the right side being male and the left side being female. As customary, the tattoo goes on the side that is opposite from the person’s sex to “create balance and strengthen the opposite side.” The opposite side is “where we have weakness and are not understanding the power and significance of the other side,” and in this way, we can achieve a spiritual balance.