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

Maori carving showing tattoo styles.

excerpts from an interview with Kyle Nakanelua

Before the Tattoo

My name is Kyle Nakanelua, and I was born and raised on Oahu. And I now live in Haiku on Maui. First of all I think my most important thing that I do is I'm a dad. Second, I'm a husband. Third, I'm a fireman: I'm a captain at Kahului airport, and I run a shift of fire fighters and our basic duties and responsibilities are about caring for people in need of our services in the event that the airplane should have trouble or if they experience medical difficulties, we normally respond first to them. And I'm the alaka'i for the halemua. I've gone into the prison several times to just talk about Hawaiian things for the men who are in prison.

The halemua, traditionally was the first formal institute of learning in which a Hawaiian male enters, when he enters into society… approximately five, six, seven, eight years old. He's cast in to this place called the halemua — the house of men. It's where men hold council for matters of spirit, for matters of intellect, for matters of things of the physical world. The group specializes in male activities within Hawaiian life, past, present, and future.

[The halemua] does things of the earth such as planting, farming food products, farming products for material use in the culture, like koa trees, like 'ohi'a, like wauke, like 'awa. we do other physical things like dance, that people call hula. We do storytelling, we do singing or oli. We do pule. We do ceremonial welcoming of visitors to our places, to our islands, to our culture.

Kyle Nakanelua'Awa is another facet of specifically Hawaiian male society. Taro, which is turned into poi, nourishes the body. 'Awa nourishes the spirit. So we grow 'awa, we care for 'awa, we prepare 'awa, and we inu 'awa. And from beginning to end, it nourishes the spirit. It ties us into an older time, when men were more dominant within their society. So attaching ourselves to that gives us back that connection to that older masculinity.

Kyle's Decision to Receive a Tattoo

I was just doing genealogical research, finding out who you are, where you come from, et cetera, et cetera. That was in my twenties. When I turned thirty was when the idea of placing a tattoo or a tatau, became a little bit more prevalent. I was interested in putting something on that would mean something special to mark this particular time in my life, and to reach into those things that let us know who we are, therefore why we are the way we are now.

But Was He Ready?

Now, I was talking about getting a tattoo. I wanted a Hawaiian particular design. Nothing heavy, just you know a little patch. Just to show I am Hawaiian. And so my sister says, oh no, he's gonna embarrass the family again, I better get to him and make sure he doesn't put anything idiotic on. So my older sister introduces me to her friend named Keone. And so I get there, he introduces himself, and ... Keone is so different, you know. He's not like your typical person who would get tattooed. Keone was this soft-spoken, intelligent, humble, kind person. And I just never associated those traits with tattoos.

The questions he asks, just makes you question yourself so deep... All my thoughts and perceptions, there was nothing there. It was so superficial, it was painful.
But here was this guy, and he was just so full of knowledge and all of my perceptions about tattooing just got blown out of the water when I was talking to him. I was so pissed off at him, because he's telling me everything I'm doing is wrong. It's like you're talking to him, and he's going "Oh, that's interesting. Oh, hmm, where did you get that idea from?" The questions he asks, just makes you question yourself so deep. And basically, all my thoughts and perceptions, there was nothing there. It was so superficial, it was painful.

He told me that I should go read certain books and look into certain things. And so I did. And that I should do my family research in who they were and learn the language, which is important. Because when you get your family names, and you know the language, then you can associate the names with the particular kuleanas that your families were associated with. And that's the treasures that I got out of talking with Keone. And when I did that, and I came back to him with it, he said okay, now you're on the right track. So about two or three years later, I was finally ready, in his eyes, to put one on. And from that point on, everything turned.