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My Hawaiian tattoo journey!

Around 9 years ago I read an article in Skin Deep about Keone Nunes, and how he was keeping traditional native Hawaiian tattooing alive. The majority of the photos of his work were of people's lineage. These tattoos run down the outside of your leg, right leg if you are male, left if you are female. I knew immediately that I wanted to get mine done.

Flash forward about 7 years, and I finally had the money and time off work to get to Hawai'i. My mother is half-blood, but lost touch with that side of the family when her father died and she stayed in California instead of going back to Oahu. I spent countless hours trying to track my family down, even cold calling a few folks in the phone book. That side of my family is huge; I just didn't know who would be receptive to my want to re-connect. After lots of footwork, I finally tracked down tons of folks who were excited to bring me back into the family fold.

It was also a huge ordeal to track down Keone. He did not have a website, and the email address available on the internet didn't work anymore. I called a few phone numbers to no avail. Finally, a week or two into the search, I found one that wasn't disconnected, and I actually got him on the line. It was honestly one of the most exciting phone calls of my life because I knew that connecting with Keone and his art was going to change my life dramatically.

We met up in an old church in Wai'anae. This space is awesome, cause it is used as a community space, and food giveaways happen there (Wai'anae is has probably the largest homeless native population on the island). Keone tattoos out of the back of the church. I brought him my family tree, which is about 10 feet tall and goes back a few hundred years. I was lucky, one of my cousins is obsessed with genealogy, and the more extensive the info you have, the easier it is for Keone to design the right tattoo. The shapes and their placement are all based on what part of the islands your family comes from and their history. He said that it would take him a long time to go through all the info, and that there was no way I could get the tattoo on this trip. He also thought it was important for me to talk to my family more before getting it, so that I was more connected, and the tattoo would mean more for me.

I knew I was coming back in a few months, and hoped to get it then. Come the next trip, he still did not think I was ready for it. At first I was upset, but then knew that it would happen when it was the right time.

Instead, on that trip I got another tattoo from him. I do health work, and there is a specific tattoo that you can get on your wrists that shows this. It is a series of connected triangles around your wrist that serves as protection. It filters out emotions that you don't want to pass on to the people you are trying to heal with your hands. Likewise, it protects you from bringing in any emotions that they have that could hurt you, and keep you from helping them. He also chose to tattoo continuous lines around my wrists to symbolize longevity.

Because he still tattoos in the traditional way, I brought my friend Nicole along to assist. His usual helper was busy that day. He needed someone to hand him supplies, hold down my arms, and continually wipe the blood. He tattoos people lying on the floor, since tapping tattoos into skin requires a steady surface. I have my whole back done, and wasn't worried about the pain at all. It wasn't until he started that I realized it hurt way more than getting tattooed with a machine! It was also the placement I imagine, since the inside of your wrist is so sensitive. But it was way more painful than I thought it was going to be. The pain was a good one though. I focused on it, feeling like the experience was bringing me closer to my ancestors.

All in all, it took about 1 1/2 hours for both wrists. I bled all over the place! The crazy thing about tattoos done in this way is that they don't look very good at first. Over time, the ink bleeds outward and fills in better. I was a little nervous at first that it looked kind of sloppy. But only one person ever said anything. This chick was like "did you get tattooed in prison?" Bastard. After about 6 months, they looked really good, and oddly enough, they keep getting better over time.

And I really do feel like they have helped me. At work, when I am nervous that I am not in an emotional space where I am able to take care of others, I focus on my tattoos, and tell myself that I am capable of healing though I myself am not always healed.

Last month, I went back to see Keone about the other tattoo. He said he knew exactly what the tattoo was going to look like now, and on this trip I was to get it the day before I left for home. As fate would have it, Keone pinched his sciatic nerve while taking out the trash. He was hospitalized, and only got out the morning I was to leave. He was in no condition to tattoo. I was devastated once again, but more concerned about his physical health. He couldn't feel part of his leg, and was in no condition to tattoo.

I have spoken to him since, and he has not fully recovered. When he is healed, he will be traveling to San Francisco to give me my tattoo. Until I get it, I feel as though something is missing, my body feels incomplete. But waiting for the right time makes it all worth it. This has been one of the most exciting journeys of my life.


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 28 Sept. 2008
in Tattoos

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Artist: Keone+Nunes
Studio: back+of+a+church
Location: Oahu

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