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.

Kyle's Designs and How They Were Chosen

Kakau or uhi, is again another facet of Hawaiian society. And a facet that is significant towards males. There was a time in male Hawaiian society, where only the best of us were chosen to wear specific designs because of the kuleana that was ours to keep. Therefore, if I was an important canoe person it would be my privilege, my honor, to wear certain canoe designs, depending what I did on the canoe, for the canoe, with the canoe. The things that grow — the taro, the mai'a — the banana — because I care for these things, I wear the specific designs that I wear. And so it's indicative of who I am and what I do.

'Ama'u is a fern that grows up in the uplands, normally away from people in the wao kele region, and is used for many different things. And generally, it's a sign of perpetual growth. So I wear this sign to remind me to grow perpetually, like the taro. Taro has been around since the beginning of time, so it's perpetual growth. Mai'a is a fruit that has seeds, but doesn't grow from seeds. So again, it's another [plant] that continuously grows.

Kyle at workThe hulu pueo is what I wear on my back, the feathers of the owl. And it's an 'aumakua design. We have pueo 'aumakua in our family from this region, which is from my father's mother's side. And we also have pueo in our family from the Hamakua regions of the moku o keawe, from my father's father's side. I wear this one on the right because it's the male side, my father's side. Therefore, indicating that this is of my father and of his father, and of his mother's side also.

[On my arm] are halau designs. This particular design was given to me by Keone. I never chose these. But then I don't know if I chose any of these others too, you know. He gave these to me because he felt that I had earned the privilege of wearing them. They represent halau (schools), and of three particular halau that I've been involved with.

How a Tattoo Can Change You

I could give you the theoretics of it, because of the needles piercing the body, and striking at the depth of what it's striking, and the reason that the mind knows that this particular sign is going on for [and so] taps into the genetic code of the DNA molecules that will open up and allow us that avenue into that particular kuleana. Now, this is based upon the fact that if the DNA molecules can give us the blue eyes of our European ancestors, can give us the dark skin of our Hawaiian ancestors, the DNA molecules dictate these characteristics, these features that we have. Then if we can tap into this literally, tap into that particular DNA molecule that says you are the farmer, you are the healer, you are the fisherman, you are the long-distance voyager, then that's how it happens. So if this tattoo or these tattoos signify a deeper meaning or a longer reach into those things that are an older knowledge, then I believe that this one way of opening that door. Especially in our lives today as Westerners, as colonially raised children.

So if these tattoos signify a deeper meaning or a longer reach into those things that are an older knowledge, then I believe that this one way of opening that door.
If we understand these things academically, when it goes on physically it reaches deep within to the core of your being. Because when you're going through that pain, you're actually reaching into the core of yourself — how much you can handle and how much particular core that it's actually striking in you. Then I believe it releases these things, these long held back thoughts, dreams, inspirations, about whatever it is that you're really tied into.

Tattoo and Responsibility

Then this old design, for example, is the Maui design. It belongs to the Pi'ilani lines. And the Pi'ilani's were the ruling families on Maui — very high born ali'i. And I have connections to those families. And my wife has connections to those families. And therefore, you could say that I'm from the House of Pi'ilani. Or from the House of Maui. So wherever I go, if there are people who understand these things, then they would know, oh, that's one of Pi'ilani's. So that leads to the responsibility part. You know, you gotta be really careful about what you do and how you hold yourself up now in public. Especially if you're taking off your shirt or you're taking off your pants, and you're presenting yourself. Because like those chosen ones from two hundred years ago, you know, they were the representatives of those particular clans. The best that those clans had to offer. So if you're wearing these designs — and let's say they're your family designs, because you've traced it all the way back to your family, and now you're acting like a damn drunk fool in public. Well, so what, this is the best of the Pi'ilani clans? That's what we have to offer today? So I gotta be really careful about what I do nowadays.

So, on the same token, it works in that other direction. If you're presenting yourself in a very proper form, in a very dignified manner would the people that you represent turn to the person next to them and say, this one is mine. And would they feel good about what you're doing. So that's the question that I also ask myself. And those are the questions that I pose to my children. Would your tupuna be proud of the way that you're behaving right now?