Inaugural Tattoo festival celebrates tradition that connects body art to indigenous past

  • Paiwan artist Cudjuy Patjidres (center) is reviving traditional tattooing for men and women in Taiwan, and designed and applied the tattoos on Paiwan nobleman Kuljelje Kalivuan (right) and future Paiwan chief Cangal of Taiwan (left). (Courtesy photo Lars Krutak /

  • Paiwan artist Cudjuy Patjidres.
  • Hawaii’s first Traditional Tattoo Festival, being held on the Big Island Oct. 25-28, is the brainchild of Joel Tan, general manager of the Kohala Institute’s GRACE Center. Tan says the idea to organize and hold a festival honoring the cultural and spiritual significance of tattoo came to him in a dream. (Courtesy photo Debra Behrendt).
  • Keone Nunes of Waianae, Oahu, was taught the art and spirit of traditional tattooing and how to make his own tools and ink by the late Paulo Suluape of Samoa. Nunes was the first in Hawaii to perform hand tapping using traditional tools starting in 1996. (Courtesy photo Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman @hbgoodie)
  • Instruments of the traditional, long revered trade. (Courtesy photo)

  • Those who come for tattoos must have a mindful answer as to why they want a traditional tattoo and they must go through a thoughtful process arriving at the right conclusions before Nunes will agree to do the work.
  • Due to cultural suppression, traditional tattoo was once nearly lost but is now experiencing a sincere revival. (Courtesy photo Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman @hbgoodie)

NORTH KOHALA — Curiously, there has never been a traditional tattoo festival on the Big Island or even in the state of Hawaii.

Never, that is, until now.


Hawaii’s inaugural Traditional Tattoo Festival will be held Oct. 25-28 in North Hawaii’s Kohala District, a celebration that will feature demonstrations by eight master indigenous tattooists and artists from throughout the Pacific, Arctic and First Nation Regions of Canada.

An opening celebration will be Friday evening at the Blue Dragon Tavern &Cosmic Musiquarium in Kawaihae, followed by a free all-day cultural fair Saturday in Hawi. The festivities will culminate with a two-day symposium for traditional tattoo artists and practitioners Sunday and Monday at the Kohala Institute’s GRACE Center in Kapaau.

Given the deep cultural and spiritual significance of traditional tattoo, it seems appropriate that the idea to hold a festival came to the organizer, GRACE Center Manager Joel Tan, in a dream.

“In my mind, I’ve thought about it as a kind of calling together or gathering of the cousins,” Tan said. “The festival is about bringing together indigenous culture bearers and indigenous artists to share their manao, or knowledge about current practices that tie us to the past, present and future.”

Traditional tattoo provides an entry point into something that’s much older than us, Tan explained.

“A lot of our kupuna have walked before so I think reconnecting to that is so important for the future.”

An impressive list of cultural practitioners and master artists have bought in to his vision, agreeing to travel long distances to Hawaii to participate.

“These are people who as culture bearers are really leading the way in light of today’s deepening divides, both socially and politically,” Tan said. “They are great artists; people who not only do tattoo but who start education programs for their communities and train other cultural practitioners.

“They have something important to show us around reconnecting to our own native self. It’s a good reminder of what we need right now.”

Featured practitioner Keone Nunes from Oahu is well-known not only for his work in reintroducing the art of the traditional Hawaiian tattoo, called kakau or tatau, but also for his work in hooponopono, or the process of aligning one’s genealogy.

“Kakau gives mana (spiritual power) to a person,” Nunes said. “The tools (I use) are conduits and the experience is connected to the ancestors. This gathering is an extension of spirit and all who join in will be able to receive mana and transform.”

The festival is sponsored by the Kohala Institute and supported by grants from the Hawaii Tourism Authority Community Enrichment Program and the Hawaii Council for the Humanities.

It also seems well timed to capitalize on the current extreme popularity of tattoo, especially among younger generations.

“Tattoo is one of those things that can bridge,” Tan said. “For younger people, it’s exciting. It’s a body thing, it’s kinda forbidden and it’s also trendy. My thought was to take that excitement and pair it with the deeper meaning of tattoo.”

And with traditional tattoo, that deeper meaning is far more than skin level.

Traditional, as opposed to contemporary or mechanized tattooing is a long, thought-out and inherently painful process. Using a mallet and tattoo comb dipped in ink, a trained tattoo artist taps designs into the skin following simple marks as a guide. Different types of traditional body marking include hand tapping, hand poking and skin threading.

Meeting with a trained practitioner is a critical, first step, Tan explained, as that is when and how you learn about your family lineage and lineage is one factor that informs what the tattoo will be.

“The tattoo becomes the symbol or the visual communication of what your life mission is and what you are all about. Just like an organization has a mission statement, your tattoo is your mission statement,” Tan said.

“In the end, it’s coming to that deeper understanding of who you are and your connection to the aina and your ohana that creates the design. The tattoo you end up with is in some ways a byproduct of the process you go through — a painful process both literally and figuratively — to connect more deeply with yourself and your kupuna.”

Considering the nature of the process, actual traditional tattooing will not be available at the festival.

“It’s not a sideshow and there won’t be a sign-up list,” Tan said.

However, people can make a connection with a practitioner to start the process.

“This festival is for folks who are interested in native design and indigenous art and whether or not you actually want a tattoo, you’re going to learn and it’s going to be interesting.”

While the symbols of cultural art differ and vary across cultures, the underlying theme is learning about and making a connection with the patterns that connect us.


“Indigenous art is unique in that it’s an art practice across genres directly tied to spirit,” Tan said. “That’s its power.”

The opening day fair is free, while one-day pass for Sunday is $30. An all inclusive package with meals and every event is $275 until Oct. 1. For more information: or call 889-5151.

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