Maori man with full moko tattoo
Maori man with full moko tattoo
Role of Tattoo
Tattoo Stories

Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo

A hula dancer who appears dressed in a kappa skirt.

Tattoo and Taboo: Kakau in Hawai`i

I had this yearning, this desire, to be like my ancestors — to connect. But I wanted to kind of do it in the traditional style. Not one exactly as my ancestors but one that I thought was close enough because in truth I don't know. So I created.

Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett speaking about his kakau
A decade after visiting New Zealand, Captain James Cook sailed to the Hawaiian islands, anchoring off the coast of the island of Kaua'i in January 1778. Venturing ashore, he was greeted with surprising reverence by the Polynesian people who had been living on the island for over a thousand years.

Their society, like all Polynesia, was governed by a strict kapu, or taboos, that regulated every aspect of their behavior. They dutifully worshiped a multitude of deities, including Lono, the god of peace and agriculture. The people Cook encountered may have mistaken him for the physical embodiment of Lono since his ship's masts and sails resembled the emblem of the god. Cook sailed on toward North America, but he had set the stage for the future of Hawai'i and its people.

Hawaiian tattoo often mimics natural forms.
Hawaiian tattoo often mimics natural forms.

Like other Polynesians, the Hawaiian people imported their traditional tattoo art, known as kakau, to the islands. It served them not only for ornamentation and distinction, but to guard their health and spiritual well-being. Images of lizards, which were greatly respected and feared, and of the Hawaiian crescent fan (Peahi niu) for the highest-ranking members of society, dominated Hawaiian kakau. Intricate patterns, mimicking woven reeds or other natural forms, graced men's arms, legs, torso and face. Women were generally tattooed on the hand, fingers, wrists and sometimes on their tongue.

The designs were applied by specially trained kahuna, experts in one or more critical tasks, who applied pigment to the skin with a needle made from bone, tied to a stick and struck by a mallet. Traditional designs varied widely, according to available records, but many memorialized fallen chiefs, leaders or family members. The process was guarded with great secrecy and all implements were destroyed after use, according to the dictates of kapu.

Returning to the Hawaiian islands in 1779 to repair a broken mast, Cook, no longer considered a god, was attacked and killed on the shore. But European settlers and missionaries arrived soon afterwards to colonize the islands. With the death of the great chief Kamehameha I on May 8, 1819, the kapu system — ignored by the Europeans to no apparent ill effect — began to collapse. His son Kamehameha II openly violated one of the most important taboos by publicly eating at a table prepared for women. The ancient ways soon began to vanish. Kakau was discouraged and suppressed and links to the past eroded with time.

The closely guarded secrets of kakau died along with the kahuna who applied the designs. The historical records that remain from European explorers, settlers and missionaries are largely incomplete or inaccurate and offer only a glimpse into Hawaii's history. As the people of Hawai'i strive to rediscover their ancient culture and heritage, they have to reinvent what they can't verify to maintain the spirit of the past.