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by Grace Liao, Arts & Entertainment editor
 

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 life.

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 strength.”

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 skin.”

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

 


Lacar looks over his shoulder trying to take a glimpse of what will be done to his right thigh. Aisea prepares for the tools to be sanitized and begins by propping Lacar’s thigh on a cushion.

 

Lacar’s thigh is trembling and slightly bleeding as he is pierced with the traditional tools. The ink spreads throughout the cuts and slowly turns into a work of art. Assistants are helping Aisea to stretch the skin with their palms instead of their fingers to prevent ripples.
 

Assistants help Aisea tattoo as Lacar quietly reads a book about Polynesian tattoos.
 
 

 

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