Yet there are cultures in which tattoos represent
the essential spirit and essence of a person, signifying rank,
status, achievement, membership, even the events of one’s
These are the kind of tattoos provided at a small, downtown Honolulu
studio where, a rare tufunga ta-tatau (tattoo artist) still creates
traditional tattoos for those who are serious and committed.
We create a new tribe,” said tattoo artist Aisea, whose
studio is on the fourth floor at 1154 Fort St. “Tattoo
is a form of identity.”
In traditional Polynesia, individual behavior was regulated by
a strict system of religious beliefs that included things to
be avoided (kapu, or taboo) as well as things to be embraced.
The elements of the system were often communicated via symbols
that everyone recognized.
Black is a symbol of mana—protective shield,” Aisea
said; he was wearing a black T-shirt that read “Hawaiian
The tattoos on his face, neck, torso, arms, and legs, he explained,
reflect the concept of the tattoo as a protective device, a commonplace
in many areas of Polynesia where the full body tattoo was believed
to be a kind of armor.
Rick Lacar, a friend of Aisea and a tattoo artist himself, has
a whole body work of tattoos—head, face, torso, arms, legs,
and feet. Aisea used his work on Lacar to demonstrate the process
of traditional tattooing. Traditionally, the tapping of the ink
into the skin was combined with chants that enveloped the subject
with sacred protection. As times, and medical knowledge, have
changed, today music is played instead of chants, and magical
protection is replaced with modern medical procedures.
Even though we’re doing it the traditional way,” Aisea
said, “we have modernized sterilization. People used to
die from infections.”
Today, cushions are carefully covered in plastic bags, and the
area to be tattooed is washed with antibacterial soap. Aisea
washed his hands and used latex gloves. To the uninitiated, Lacar
with his whole body tattooed might seem intimidating, but he
is easy to talk to, and he brought laughter to the studio.
I couldn’t find my G-string, so I wore my shorts instead.” Aisea
first shaved the hair from Lacar’s right thigh, then used
a red “Sharpie” to sketch a pattern that mirrored
the one on Lacar’s tattooed left thigh.
Lacar explained that his left thigh had been done two weeks earlier,
with a modern needle gun, and it had not healed as well as it
would have with traditional tapping. With the traditional tapping,
Lacar said, “the dead skin easily peels off, like a snake
Traditional tapping requires a group of at least three: one to
stretch the skin, one to tap, another to clean off the blood.
Lacar’s and Aisea’s families gathered around the
small studio to provide this assistance, and to bring warmth
and encouragement as the sound of tapping begins. The traditional
au (tattooing comb) and sausau (mallet used to tap the comb into
the skin) are both made from wood.
Despite the pain, Lacar joked, “I want to read a book.
I don’t want to look at toes all day.”
During the whole process, Aisea’s daughter sat at her desk
listening to her CD-player, quietly doing her homework, while
his wife sat cross-legged across from him, observing the entire
process. On the other side of the small studio, Lacar’s
wife fed him fried chicken as his thigh trembled with the pain.
Use your palm instead of your fingers to stretch the skin,” Aisea
said, explaining that fingers cause ripples.”
Lacar said he wants to experience the ways of his ancestors, “to
experience the olden days,” and Aisea, while tapping, described
how women traditionally were also tattooed, with the majority
of the tattoo work done on the fingers, hands, tongues, and wrists,
which appears to be spiritually based.
He explained that that women in Polynesian society were generally
believed to be closer to the gods, more spiritual, and that in
Samoa, women were attracted to men with tattoos because tattooing
was expensive, and a man who had tattoos was seen to be wealthy
and thus important in the community. In fact, Aisea explained,
women generally rejected nontattooed men as being sexually undesirable.
As the clear sounds of tapping continued, Lacar asked, with a
laugh, when Aisea would be free to do his buttocks, the only
place left untattooed.
Anytime,” Aisea replied.
Slowly, the pattern took form, symmetrically identical to the
left thigh. When he was finished, Lacar remained face down on
the mat, and Aisea cleaned the tools as one of his assistants
disinfected Lacar’s thigh, which finally stopped bleeding.
It would take time for Lacar to heal, and his wife would help
him clean and disinfect his tattoo every day, and help him to
walk, because the pain would be intense until healing began.
Aisea relaxed, sitting on a stool and smiling in appreciation
while looking at his work. He believes that “a tattoo is
the only thing that you own in life.”
All photos by Grace Liao