South Florida


In Hawaii, tattoos are a mark of pride

To native Hawaiians, tattoos are cultural. To visitors, they're cool.

By Jay Jones

Special to The Los Angeles Times

July 20, 2008

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Wailuku, Hawaii

'Mom, Dad, can I get a tattoo?"

That's a hot-button issue for many parents. They panic at the thought of their teenager being inked -- scarred! -- for life at a still tender age.

If, however, the question is posed in Hawaii, the parents' reaction may be quite different. In the 50th state, tattoos are part of the culture, having been introduced centuries ago by early voyagers from other Polynesian islands. Today, tattoo parlors are just about as prolific as souvenir shops. The number has increased 16% in just one year, state records show. Tourists, it seems, are returning home not only with the obligatory shell necklaces and pineapples but also with tattoos.

"People are saying, 'I want your culture, a part of it, tattooed on my body for the rest of my life,' " says David "Boze" Kapoi, a tattoo artist in Wailuku on Maui.

Kapoi is a talented, in-demand artist. Earlier this year -- when Eli Kapilii wanted a meaningful design on his left leg -- he rejected the dozens of tattooists on the Big Island, where he lives. Instead, he forked out a couple hundred bucks for a plane ticket to Maui, where Kapoi runs the Pride Ink shop in Wailuku, just a few miles from the airport in Kahului.

According to Kapilii, "Boze is the best in the state."

"If you want a good Polynesian tattoo, you've got to book him," he says.

"I told Boze I wanted a tiki representing guidance. The tiki oversees everything. I wanted it on my leg, the lowest part of my body, as a foundation. It represents me, always looking forward."

Kapoi does his designs freehand, combining modern and traditional elements from various Polynesian cultures. His clients include a father and son who got identical tattoos on their chests just before the dad, a soldier, left for Iraq. Kapoi has also tattooed members of a graduating class from a Maui high school.

For several years, tattoos have been part of the graduation ritual for seniors in the Hawaiian immersion program at King Kekaulike High School in Pukalani.

"It's a rite of passage," says Pauahi Hookano, a teacher in the school's immersion program, in which all classes are taught in Hawaiian. Hookano created the design for the class of 2007.

"I put three years of thought into it," she says of the design, which consists of nine connected patterns, one for each graduate. Hookano and six of her students got the tattoo, which she named "maluoia," Hawaiian for "protected."

"My hope for my students is that they're protected, that they're safe and they're sheltered in their lives," she says. "It's a responsibility to put your mark on somebody else."

Hookano explains that, in Hawaii, tattoos often contain lizards, sea turtles, tropical flowers and other symbols of the ancient traditions she teaches. She tells her students that, for some Hawaiians, tattoos hold great spiritual significance.

"Once you put a mark on your skin, you've got to take into perspective that from that moment in time, your identity changes," cautions 45-year-old Keeaumoku Kapu, a taro farmer in the mountains above the town of Lahaina, in western Maui.

"The younger generation is so anxious to get a tattoo," he says. "In my family, the only way to get a tattoo is through [spiritual] rites of passage. And I tell my kids, 'Just because you get a diploma from high school, that's not a rite of passage.' "

Kapu's three grown sons all bear the same hip-to-ankle tattoo as their father, a design that represents 27 generations of their family. Kapu did the work himself - as his father had done to him -- but not until he thought his sons were mature enough to articulate why they deserved the branding.

The growing popularity of tattoos is helping to revive native Hawaiian culture, which first Christian missionaries and then politicians tried for decades to erase, Kapu says.

"You've got to remember that a lot of these [cultural] things were forbidden," he says. "The resurgence is great, because people are in dire need of their identity."

Kapu, however, shuns the commercial tattoo parlors that seem to be everywhere on the islands. He's concerned that their artists use ancient symbols they don't understand or appreciate, going so far as to describe their work as nothing more than "graffiti."

"We get a lot of people who get a tattoo on Maui and go back home saying, insincerely, that they're Hawaiian," Kapu says. "Do they want to live in the true identity of the old traditional symbols or just live an illusion?"

Hookano, the teacher, understands Kapu's reverence but doesn't share his perspective, at least not completely.

"There are people out there that feel that tattooing is a very sacred thing," she says. "But on the flip side, even traditionally, tattoos were also used as they are now -- as body art."

Artist Kapoi thinks Hawaiians should celebrate the fact that people from all over the world are choosing traditional Hawaiian symbols for their tattoos.

"I'm proud, happy and honored to tattoo them with my native style," he says.