|Photo by Maui No Ka Oi Magazine|
I read an article this morning in Maui No Ka ‘Oi about the ancient art of tattooing (which is a Polynesian art that the islands gave to the world; “tatau” in Tahitian and “kakau” in Hawaiian). The article was about two tattoo artists in
Maui: one is a master of hand-tapping (using only bone or ivory tools, a wooden mallet and an ink made of burnt kukui-nut ash) and the other was a young hotshot tattoo artist who became the master’s protégé. What struck me about the article was the respect that these two artists demand from the people who get the tribal tattoos. I won’t go into great detail here, but recipients of the traditional “kakau” must (depending on the circumstances) study their own genealogy, pray, fast, abstain from intoxicants and clear away family grievances. The master himself will perform sacred rites before the tattooing begins, including prayers and ceremonial cleansing of his tattooing tools in the ocean. The symbols matter – some motifs are free for the taking, to enhance protection or healing, while others are restricted to specific Native Hawaiian families – and the placement is also important. It is a culture, a tradition, something to be earned. It is not, as we may think from so many lame reality shows, a reminder of a drunken night in Vegas or a dare. It must be earned.
There were two quotes that resonated with me, that can apply to so much more than just tattooing:
“The more we learn, the more responsible we become.” That was the younger artist’s revelation, once he learned that he’d been appropriating ancient marks for free-wheeling early designs. Once he learned from the master, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and take the art more seriously.
“It’s not like putting on a design; it’s like clearing away the dirt to allow it to come out.” This is from a recipient of an “uhi” (mark) from the master.
One last thought about tattooing, from a conversation with my mother-in-law last week. She got a beautiful, retro-style tattoo a few years ago, a heart with a banner across it that listed the first initial of all her kids, their spouses, and her grandchildren. Since that time, two of her kids have gotten divorced and she is now left wondering what to do with the two initials. “Do I get a flower or a heart over them?” she wondered.
There is no answer for this, she will have to decided what’s right for her, but I think about my hypothesis – that these sacred marks are a snapshot of who we are and what’s significant to us at the moment we get them – and it provides a new layer to this question. Instead of feeling ashamed or embarrassed by the initials of these two people who are no longer in our family, I wonder if it’s okay to accept that they were extremely important to all of us and woven into the fabric of our family… into her skin… at that time. And then, remembering that piece of this puzzle, recognizing that it’s also okay to let them go, let that memory become a blossoming flower…