Just a girl rambling around the globe and writing about it.

Musings from around the block and farther.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Marked By Maui

Photo by Maui No Ka Oi Magazine
There are millions of people who are fascinated by tattoos.  A few years ago, for instance, our family was devoted to watching Miami Ink, then dropped off when we couldn’t handle the drama of LA Ink or the potty-mouths of NYC Ink.  My own fascination stems from the history involved in getting a tattoo.  Each recipient has a story they want to tell to the world with the ink on their skin.  Each tat is a tribute to a loved one, or a nod to the past, or a hope for the future.  Some are mistakes – names of lovers who become enemies – and need to be covered up.  But they each give a snapshot of the recipient’s life at that moment, more permanent than a photograph, reminders of the person they were when they got the tattoo.In Maui, you can’t escape the tribal tattoos of the locals.  They are on shoulders, legs, abdomens, hands, arms, backs, faces.  Those are my favorites: the ones that cover half the face.  If I were back home in Southern California, I would pull my kids to the other side of the street if I saw a dude with a bold tribal tat that looked like train tracks on the side of his face, from crown to neck.  But here, there is something intriguingly historic about it.  The person who wears it is announcing his/her heritage, the struggles of the Hawaiian nation and his/her participation in it, by marking it indelibly on his/her face.  When he or she smiles, laughs, cries, yells… it is through the veil of this heritage.

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…

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