Kamaliikupuno Hanahano, Mea Kā – traditional tattoo implements
At the age of 20, Kamali‘ikūpono Hanohano began a lifelong apprenticeship with Sulu‘ape Keone Nunes in the traditional tattoo school known as Pāuhi, where among other cultural knowledge, the primary focus is Kākau Uhi – traditional Hawaiian tattooing. Only a select few have been invited to sit, observe and learn from Keone, who is widely accredited with reviving the lost art over the past three decades; and today, fewer still maintain his blessing to practice outside of the school. After a decade of rigorous tutelage, Hanohano was one of only two students to have completed an ‘ūniki, or formal passing of knowledge, in many generations, and despite his age, he now sits at the helm of Pāuhi in Keone’s stead.
Although many may assume that a traditional tattoo can be obtained similarly to a common “commercial” tattoo, the basis of obtaining kākau uhi is foremostly rooted in the foundational knowledge of one’s genealogy. Further, the recipient does not dictate the final aesthetic of the tattoo. Rather, it is left to the kākau practitioner, armed with the lessons passed from his teacher. Trust between both parties is paramount to the success of each uhi.
A key feature of traditional tattooing that is often overlooked is the creation of the tools used to tattoo the skin. The tool-making process alone can take many years to master, and is a paramount prerequisite for a true practitioner. During the marking process, a hāhau (hitting stick) is used to strike the mōlī (tattoo needle) that has been dipped in ink, thus creating the pattern left on the skin. Only after the arduous process of gathering the materials, the tedious process of tool-making can begin. A student of the practice will first study, produce, and master this art before advancing in the learning process. To shortcut this, is to shortcut the teachings of the ancestors.
In this practice, there is no tattoo shop you can call to blindly book your next opening. The protocol for kākau uhi is an extensive and spiritual journey involving time, patience, diligence, and humility. Not everyone will make it through the process. A person is thoroughly vetted in a series of conversations to ensure they are ready for the responsibility that lay ahead. Following their own research and proven dedication, the individual receiving the tattoo then formally sets the intent to walk with their ancestors; equipping them spiritually for the tattooing ceremony – of which family and close friends are encouraged to support. Thus, proper execution of kākau uhi is the ecology between kānaka and environment- leaving a visual culmination of countless hours, sometimes years, of preparation: from the first cut of wood for a tool, to the sharpening of the bone of the mōlī, to the making of soot for the ink; from the ancestral research, to the study of patterns, to trusting the process and practitioner alike – all to finally manifest as a single and proud mark of indigenous heritage.
The exclusive and critical art of tool-making in and of itself precedes oneʻs ability to perform the traditional art of kākau uhi. I studied tool-making for years before my kumu allowed me to put them to use; and in many ways, I continue to learn from my ancestors through these tools.
—Kamali‘ikūpono Hanohano (Kanaka ‘Ōiwi)
Hanohano’s LIFT project, Garden of Tradition, focuses on the harvesting of mea kanu (plants) that are proprietary to the tools of kākau uhi. Unlike other visual artists who can go to the store or online to order supplies, like a new set of brushes, the work of a kākau uhi practitioner begins with harvesting material to hand make each tool. The artist will also travel to the outer islands for live presentations and community workshops set to further educate Native Hawaiians on the impact of kākau uhi on one’s indigenous identity. This project will have a profound impact on the practice today and a lasting benefit for generations to come.