Tribulations Over Tattoos

Staff Writer Zac Gottlieb
Photos courtesy of Leah Wyzykowski

Photo of a young woman's back tatoo, an ornate hand design

When you think of someone with a tattoo what comes to mind? A tumultuous teen? A brawny biker? A person of plentiful piercings? These are stereotypes of American culture but in actuality the art of tattooing was a sprout that sprung on these Polynesian Islands, with a cultural tradition and meaning Westerners are only beginning to understand.

Sierra Lynn Priennas, hometown of Hilo, Hawaiʻi, said, “I’m not going to say non-locals can’t get a tribal tattoo. If you’re moved by this place, come to love places and people here, if you’ve come to learn the terms of what it means to be a “local” then I think that means you’ve come to understand what it means to love and be a friend here. I don’t see why you should be restricted from getting something so analogous to the islands but at the same time, “hey I made a best friend, ohmygod let’s go and get tribal tattoos” isn’t the same level of thought.”

That is the salient notion. “Thought.” An understanding of what the Hawaiian culture endured for their body art.

Missionaries followed hot on the heels of Captain Cook, leaving scorched earth in their wake after arriving on the islands in the late 1700s. The missionaries denounced tattoo as “the devils art” and acted swiftly with a heavy hand to abolish it. They condemned tattoos as a symbol of sorcery and superstition. The innate human response to hate that which you do not understand. The body art form which had developed over thousands of years was nearly destroyed in but a few decades, preserved only in old paintings and photographs.

Cameron Joseph Na’alikali Boucher, a self-described “hapa-Hawaiian” born and raised on the Big Island of Hilo, Hawaiʻi paused when asked, “What do you think about non-locals with Polynesian tribal tattoos?” He smiled and said, “leave it to Bob Marley. ‘Only a fool leads upon his own misunderstanding.’”

“I’m opposed to non locals getting our tribal tattoos. Those that get them simply because they like the shape and don’t necessarily know the meaning behind it. I think it’s very fake, people indulging a culture they know very little about.” He continued.

“How can you get a tattoo without really understanding it? You haven’t even been here a year, Mr. LookingMoreSunburntThanHawaiian,” Boucher joked.

Of this, Priennas also said, “the local side of me is like, why did you get that? But I understand there’s a level of cultural appreciation there that can exist but at the same time, if my local people think of kekau in a certain way then the same reverence should be taken from people who aren’t from here, an understanding of what people went through.”

Of this endurance, in this land before foreign invaders, skin was inked with tools from nature; Cactus barbs, bird beaks, fish bones, urchin spines and sharp animal claws. The tattoo tool would be hit with a stick to make the punctures while assistants stretched skin and wiped away blood.

It is apparent that the marks left on a person after they get a tattoo go further than the tattoo itself, they tell the tale of endurance and pain for the sake of culture and heritage.

Of the old kekau Jake Galves, originally of Oahu and living his last nine years in Hilo, said, “It’s okay for non-locals to have the traditional Polynesian tattoo, so long as they have an understanding of what they have on their body. That they’re not just putting it on to be a part of a fad. You know, “I want something Hawai’ian”? It has got to mean something to you, has to have a relevance to your life, something within yourself and what you’re all about.”

Take Shauna Keilani Gaylord for example, a native of Hawaiʻi Hilo. Gaylord says, “My tattoo is for my son. His middle name is Naupaka and that’s the flower it is. Their is a legend behind the naupaka flower and we tied that into me and his father. The legend goes that their are these two lovers, the woman from the ocean and the man from the mountain.”

“Like Romeo and Juliet, they weren’t supposed to be together. Their families forbid them from being together and killed them both. There’s two naupaka flower, one by the ocean and one by the mountain, you put the two together and it forms the perfect flower,“ she said pointing at her half of a perfect flower.

Now, it seems, the art of tattoos has come full circle. Around the Pacific, indigenous people are reclaiming their heritage by permanently decorating their bodies. To them the kekau are not mere scribbles of black ink, rather, they are hieroglyphics singing the song of life, lineage and a lasting culture.

“Polynesian tattoos are meant to define and decorate the self, different symbols mean different things. My petroglyphs represent my children. No matter how far away they go they will always be near my heart,” Galves said, pointing at the enata stick figures on his chest.

The legacy of Polynesian tattoo began over two thousand years ago and is as diverse as those that where them. Natives across the Pacific Islands would be marked with the symbols of life's struggles and triumphs. A sign to show who they where. The sacred images they portrayed told their life's story, from beginning to end. The tattoos became a part of their lives, forever telling a story known only to the individual bearing its scars.

Let your tattoo tell your story, let it call to your culture and sing the hymns of your heritage. Why would you want to steal another’s?