Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Reviving the Art of Kā Uhi for a New Generation

Keone Nunes says that the sound of the hahau tapping the mōlī is a song left to us by our ancestors – one that was mostly forgotten, but is being remembered, through the practice of kākau uhi, or tattooing.

“That rhythm, that sound of traditional tattooing, was lost in our environment, in our reality, for several generations. And its a joyful sound! It’s a song from our ancestors that we’d forgotten. Sometimes the best way to know who we are, and who our connections are with, is by understanding this song.”

Deeply spiritual and unaffectedly humble, the soft-spoken Nunes, whose formal title is “Kahuna Kā Uhi,” is known in Hawaiʻi, and elsewhere, not just as a master of the art of traditional Hawaiian kākau, but as the force behind its revival.

For the past two decades, Nunes has created visually stunning masterpieces on the most precious canvas available – human skin. Using traditional patterns and motifs, each design is as unique as the person receiving the tattoo. Key to the design process is the person’s genealogy and their reason for wanting a tattoo.

“There are a plethora of designs available. You have to have knowledge of that palette of designs in order to choose what is appropriate,” Nunes explains. “Composing a design is no different than composing a song.”

Photos: Ala niho
Ala niho is a traditional Hawaiian way of tattooing the leg, from hip to ankle. Every uhi is unique to the individual receiving it, as Nunes bases each design on the genealogy and purposes of the recipient.

Before taking up the tools of kā uhi, Nunes was a kumu hula and kumu ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. He has worked for the Bishop Museum, and was a cultural specialist at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in the 1980s.

In 1990, Nunes began working for the federal government as a consultant, and for the next 30 years provided an Indigenous perspective to federal programs focused on preventing substance abuse and AIDS. He retired from consulting last year.

With his consulting work providing steady income, Nunes began to explore the art of tattooing, encouraged by a shop tattooist named Kandy Everett. Initially he worked with machines, but in the mid-90s he met Suʻa Suluʻape Paulo, a renowned master of traditional Samoan tattooing. That meeting was transformative.

In 1996, Nunes began apprenticing under Paulo, who lived in Aotearoa. It was Paulo who taught Nunes to first make, then use, traditional tools. It was in this process that Nunes came to understand that the loss of this art form was not just an issue affecting Hawaiʻi, but one that transcended Pacific cultures.

At a gathering in Nānākuli in 1998, Paulo gave Nunes a set of traditional tools, telling Nunes that he would be the caretaker of the tools and of the ʻike that Paulo had shared with him. “I was very, very honored by that,” said Nunes.

When Paulo died tragically the following year, Nunes withdrew.

Grieving the loss of his mentor, Nunes did not work for several months until the night that Paulo visited him in his sleep. “He saw that I was really sad about his passing, but he told me, ʻKeone, I didn’t teach you for nothing.’ The next day I started tattooing again; and I never touched machine tools after that.”

While Paulo taught Nunes how to make tools and the actual technique of kā uhi, Nunes’ understanding of Hawaiian protocol, genealogy and motifs pertaining to tattoo was priceless ʻike passed down to him from revered kūpuna like Auntie Muriel Lupenui, Papa Kalahikiola Naliʻielua, Auntie Emma De Fries, Auntie Martha Lum Ho and Arthur Cathcart.

From these kūpuna, Nunes learned the protocols, pule, oli and design motifs used in traditional Hawaiian kākau. And from Auntie Muriel, Nunes also learned genealogy and how to make paʻu (tattoo ink).

“I am fortunate to have been chosen by my teachers to be able to sit at their feet and listen to their stories. And fortunate to have been chosen by Paulo, because in Samoa you generally do not teach anyone outside your family. He saw something in me that he felt was good, and I am very appreciative of that.”

Nunes learned from all of his kumu until each passed away. “It was a wonderful time because these people were bridges from a time past to the present.”

In this same vein, Nunes views himself as a conduit through which this tradition from the past is being reintroduced into contemporary Hawaiian culture.

“I’m not important,” Nunes insists. “Paulo made me realize it’s not about you. It’s about the culture. It’s about the process. It’s about the people. I’ve taken that approach ever since.”

In addition to learning the patterns, motifs, protocols and techniques for traditional tattoo, Nunes says that being grounded in Hawaiian language and culture is foundational.

“The pule for your family is not the same pule offered for someone else’s. It’s not rote; the pule aren’t memorized. You need to know ʻōlelo to do that, to respond, to actually create as you go. Moʻolelo is also important because it gives you a structural foundation of knowledge. The other thing is moʻokūʻauhau, genealogy. You don’t necessarily need to know everyone’s genealogy, but you need to remember.”

After decades of practice, when someone comes to Nunes with their genealogy he is able to look at a name and know where it belongs. For ʻŌiwi who seek his expertise, their genealogy will be foundational to the motifs and patterns that Nunes will choose to create their uhi.

As Kahuna Kā Uhi, Nunes receives many requests from those seeking a traditional Hawaiian uhi. Once he agrees to work on a person, Nunes talks story with them because understanding their genealogy, and the reason they want the tattoo, will inspire the design. Those receiving an uhi from Nunes will not see the design until it is on their skin.

The actual process of kā uhi also requires preparation.

Before he begins, Nunes cleanses himself spiritually and physically, and requires those he will work on to do the same. The night before, Nunes rises a few hours after midnight, and takes his tools to the kai to wake them up, offering pule so they will be ready. “This is an important part of what I do. It is tradition.”

Nunes normally works with one or two of his apprentices who help to stretch the skin of the person who is being worked on. And often there are observers or ʻohana of the person to kākoʻo them through the process, as it may become a little uncomfortable, although it is not as painful as people imagine.

“One of several myths of traditional tattooing is that it hurts a lot more than a machine tattoo. The reality is that, in the right hands, it hurts a lot less. The other thing that people think is that it takes forever. Again, in the right hands, it can go very quickly.”

Now in his 60s, Nunes has been training the next generation of kā uhi to carry the tradition forward.

“It’s important to teach the next generation. We’ve taught them to survive in this contemporary world, but we haven’t taught them how to listen to our ancestors in an appropriate way.”

Already, Nunes has trained two Kanaka Maoli men who have gone on to ʻuniki (graduate) and earn the title of Kā Uhi. He is currently training three other ʻŌiwi.

“It’s important that I finish training these three men to help people understand that reestablishment of the practice is important. Paulo was probably the best traditional tattooist I’ve ever met. He really influenced me in understanding my responsibility, not only to the people that I’m working on, but to the culture itself. Understanding that changed me quite a bit.”

That this process of creating, giving and receiving kākau uhi is transformational goes without saying. Even as Nunes reflects on the way that his training has changed him, those who have received an uhi designed by Nunes are also changed by the experience, and by the art they wear on their bodies.

Mehanaokalā Hind is one such person. “The designs that Keone put on me reaffirm my purpose and shape how I see myself. They’ve served to remind me where I need to be moving myself as a Kanaka. Keone’s work is shifting the paradigm of how we perceive ourselves, our bodies, our symbology, our ancestors – and how we choose to carry that into the future.”

At this point in his life, Nunes, himself, has become a bridge connecting the past to the future.

“I’ve been allowed to follow this path because of all of my teachers. And I continue to learn. To understand that song, and to sing it to people who still know how to compose with those lyrics, is to make a connection to our ancestors. I think that is really, really important.”

Nā Loea: The Masters | Keone Nunes: Ancestral Ink

ʻŌiwiTV story of traditional Hawaiian kākau (tattoo) artist, Keone Nunes, and the journey of cultural re-discovery inherent in kākau uhi (tattooing).