Kakau, The Art of Traditional Tattoo in Hawai’i
The 20th century has seen many traditional societies trying to recover their pre-colonial history, and practices that the European colonizers tried to erase are being revived and re-lived. Tattooing has been a huge signifier of returning to traditional ways of life in Polynesian countries like Hawai’i, where the practice of kakau i ka uhi (striking on the black)1 has seen a resurgence. It’s fitting that recent generations of Hawaiians are reclaiming the representations of their culture, seeing as Hawai’i is the final resting place of infamous colonizer James Cook, who in 1779 was attacked and killed by the Hawaiians when he set ashore to repair a broken mast.2 Kakau patterning is distinct, bold and asymmetrical, with the designs covering the entire body and telling the story of the wearer and his or her family and ancestors. It was done by a kahuna, a Hawaiian shaman, with flexible “combs” made from bone and attached to the rib of a palm leaf, and tapped into the skin after dipped into pigments made from soot, vegetable juices or shellfish gall.3 Check out an excerpt from PBS’ Skin Stories below, as well as some 18th and 19th century drawings of ancient Hawaiian tattoos.