Star-Bulletin Features

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
P.F. Kwiatkowski uses his body as a tattoo canvas,
doing some of the work himself, and turning to his wife
for parts of the body he can't reach

Tattoos -- Links to Hawaii's past
By Burl Burlingame

One night, while driving home along Mamalahoa Highway on the Big Island, P.F. "Ski" Kwiatkowski found a dense fog shrouding the road ahead. He slowed when a pair of glowing eyes appeared in the mist ahead of his pickup truck, but it was too late. A disoriented Hawaiian owl rocketed out of the mist and slammed headlong into the truck.

Pueo, the owl, is one of Kwiatkowski's 'aumakua, a kind of family spirit or totem, and it pained him that the animal died. He pulled over, and in the darkness and mist, Kwiatkowski buried the owl with a small cairn of stones. He apologized to the owl's spirit and continued on his journey.

A short distance down the highway, Kwiatkowski came upon a nasty accident at the Waikoloa Intersection. Had he not paused to bury the owl, he could have slammed headlong into the crumpled cars, much as his 'aumakua had done to him.

Kwiatkowski pulls up his pants leg to show an elaborate tattoo riding up his right thigh: a mosaic of triangles, dots and diamonds, and above it all, the outline of a stocky bird in flight. "Pueo," he said. "My 'aumakua. Thanks to the owl, I'm still here."

The Hawaiian Tattoo P.F. Kwiatkowski, Halona Inc. $12.95

The Hawaiian Tattoo book The point of this is the tattoos. Kwiatkowski's privately published book, "The Hawaiian Tattoo," remains the sole work on this neglected subject, and is also something of a local home-publishing success. It's gone through several editions -- all printed in Hawaii -- just by word of mouth -- and recently was picked up by distributor Native Books and is available in Oahu bookstores.

It is illustrated in great detail by Tom O'o Mehau, also of the Big Island.

Kwiatkowski lives on a farm in Kohala, a "true mountain goat," he laughs. His previous book was about Hawaiian petroglyphs, and while working on it, "got this incredible urge to put tattoos on myself -- this design was in my head, like a daydream, like a waking vision," he said. The pattern was the triangle motif, like sharks' teeth, another family 'aumakua. The pattern on his leg will eventually cover the whole thigh.

He began to research Hawaiian tattooing, and discovered that there wasn't much to turn to. "Everything on Hawaiian tattoos at Bishop Museum was in a very skinny three-ring binder," said Kwiatkowski.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Tom O'o Mehau's sketches of traditional tattoo patterns
were drawn from mummified remains held at Bishop Museum,
above, and from works of art produced in the period just after
Hawaiians first encountered Europeans, below.

The work "tattoo" itself is a corruption of the Tahitian "tatau," and the Hawaiian word is "kakau." Pre-contact geometric designs marking 'aumakua and clan loyalties and personal tastes were quickly replaced post-Cook with designs reflecting animals such as goats, or writing the names of loved ones in English.

Kwiatkowski's primary sources were the drawings of first-contact artists such as Webber, Choris and Arago -- "The original drawings, not the later lithographs, which had fanciful details added" -- the surviving skin of mummified ancient Hawaiians and, by inference, designs on kapa and totem images.

Hawaiians used tattoos to signify 'aumakua, to show warriorly strength, to express grief -- often by tattooing on the tongue -- or to brand slaves, or kauwa. These brands were placed on the face, around the eyes, and signified this caste as chiefly property. Defeated warriors were sometimes tattooed on the inside of their eyelids as an additional insult.

Early missionaries were of course horrified by all this needling and, citing Scripture, (Leviticus 19:28 -- "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you...") made sure tattooing pretty much vanished by the late 1830s.

An exception was a saw-toothed or dotted design around the ankles of women, signifying shark bites, and protecting the wearer from real sharks.

Kwiatkowski began to work on his body canvas, tattooing designs on himself and with the help of wife Darlene, "who does the areas I can't reach." He makes his own needles, some of which are sewing needles, some ivory, some albatross bones. "Unlike chicken bones, albatross bones are water- and ink-proof and hold their edge," said Kwiatkowski. "And they're much less painful than an electric needle."

Tom O'o Mehau studied a sketch titled "Hawaiian Warrior"
to produce this detail of a chest tattoo in the checkerboard,
or papa konane, pattern. The original sketch, in the Hawaii
State Archives, is by Jacques Arago, who
visited Hawaii in 1819.

The design is drawn on with a pen, the outline hacked in and then slowly filled, at least until Kwiatkowski has had enough pain. The ink is carbon black, soot from burning kukui nuts mixed with sugar cane juice and coconut milk. "It makes a dark blue color; there's no evidence Hawaiians used anything else," said Kwiatkowski.

There is growing interest in cultural tattoos, far beyond kids making gang ciphers on their hands. "I'm seeing more and more of it these days," said Norman Goldstein, a Honolulu dermatologist whose clinical interest in tattoos has led to an archive of more than 50,000 images. "People of Hawaiian culture are not only getting tattoos in the ancient patterns, people from the mainland, from Europe -- they're getting them too."

"In all of Polynesia, Hawaii is the only place where the practice of tattooing died out," said Kwiatkowski. "Hawaii was also de-culturized more so than those other communities as well. So there's a lot of catching up to do."

Thinking of getting tattooed, but worried it might be incorrect? Kwiatkowski says that while pre-contact Hawaiians did have obedience and clan markings, tattooing was primarily done for aesthetic reasons. "If you want a turkey on your forehead, hey, that's OK," he said. "And it's always to safe to check out the family genealogy for your 'aumakua."

But if you want to be absolutely authentic, do your homework first. Tattooing can't be erased. Case in point -- Kwiatkowski's upper left arm, which has a mo'o (lizard) design as part of a partially completed geometric band encircling the biceps.

"I started this one before I was complete with research," laughed Kwiatkowski. "Turns out that Hawaiians never had bands going all the way around the biceps. That's a Samoan thing!"

He paused. "Looks good, though, doesn't it?"

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