Revealing one's inner self by covering one's skin.
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Samson Harp has the unlikely guise of a tattooed cherub. Five thick lines, like jagged shark’s teeth, darken the left side of the young Hawaiian’s face. But any semblance of fierceness evaporates when he grins ear-to-ear, welcoming guests into Pacific Rootz, his new Wailuku tattoo shop.
Polynesia gave the world the tattoo—both the art and the word, derived from “tatau” in Tahitian, and “kakau” in Hawaiian. In 1769, Captain James Cook’s crew returned from the Pacific with tales of half-blacked warriors and inked women wearing designs as delicate as lace.
The Pacific Island nations each possess unique tattooing customs. Filipino warriors of old earned symmetrical chest patterns after a successful headhunt. Samoan chiefs still cover their torsos with designs that reveal their rank, while Maori women permanently paint their lips and chin with swirls. But in Hawai‘i, even as modern tattoos surge in popularity, the authentic practice of kakau lay dormant.
With the opening of Samson Harp’s small storefront on Lower Main Street—his second Maui location—this thousand-year-old art form has fresh life.
Contemporary tattoos bear only superficial resemblance to their source. Traditional tattoos are hand-tapped, applied with the cadence of a heartbeat, rather than the buzz of an electric tattoo gun. Kakau is an active verb: ka, “to strike,” and kau, “to place upon.” It mimics the sound of the wooden mallet hitting the moli, the needle that inks the skin. The resulting mark, or uhi, is sacred. More than mere ornamentation, each symbol and pattern has spiritual significance and identifies its wearer within his or her community.
Harp is a bridge between contemporary and traditional tattooing, as his decorated body bears witness. He got his first tattoo at age nine. The former ward of the state discovered sketching as an outlet for self-expression. His friends, fascinated by tattoos, turned to the natural artist in their midst. By seventeen, Harp was a trendsetting apprentice at a tattoo parlor on Maui’s north shore; skin was his canvas. Riffing off tribal themes he’d seen, growing up in the Islands, he developed a following for his fanciful, Polynesian-style body art.
But when Harp approached Keone Nunes in 1999, it wasn’t to learn from the master Hawaiian tattooist; the hotshot teenager had a bone to pick.
“Mr. Nunes saw a tattoo I gave my nephew and made some remarks that were offensive to me,” says Harp. “I didn’t know anything. I was young, fiery. I looked up his number and chewed him out.”
If Nunes had been an egotist, or Hawaiian kakau were about being macho, the story might’ve ended in a brawl. Instead, Nunes shared his wisdom with Harp. He urged the young Hawaiian to learn his native tongue, which Harp did, over time.
He also learned the meanings beneath the marks he’d been appropriating. For example, the maka ihe, or point of the spear, symbolizes a man’s duty to protect and provide. Canoe builders, farmers, and fishermen honor their kuleana, or responsibility, with particular plant or tool motifs. Animals, such as owls or sharks, might evoke ‘aumakua, or ancestral guardian spirits.
While some motifs are noa, free for anyone seeking protection or healing, many are kapu, restricted to specific Native Hawaiian families. Adopting the mark of the great Maui chief Pi‘ilani, for example, isn’t wise unless you happen to be his great-great-great-great-grandson.
Placement matters, too. Historically, tattoos were placed asymmetrically on the body to emulate the gods and balance male and female energy. As the legs are a person’s foundation, they are the first to be adorned—men on the outside, from ankle to hip, and women on the inside.
“The more we learn, the more responsible we become,” says Harp, who revised his freewheeling approach to ancient symbology. “I started to ask, not can I, but should I?”
For years, Harp pleaded with Nunes for a maka, or face tattoo, but the elder tattooist questioned his motive. Harp got the message. “These marks are for pillars of the community,” he says. “If you wear a maka and you go out drinking and make an ass of yourself, it reflects poorly on all of us. You have to be really humble.”
Simply being Hawaiian was not enough; he had to earn the right to wear it. How? By delving into the rich, cloaked world of kakau and allowing it to transform him from the inside out.