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Traditional Tattoo Festival Brings Indigenous Cultures Together in Kohala

The first annual Traditional Tattoo Festival wrapped up on Monday after four days of cultural exchange shared between traditional arts practitioners from Pacific and Arctic cultures. The event, produced and co-curated by Joël Barraquiel Tan, along with co-curator Lars Krutak, brought a variety of featured presenters from different Indigenous communities to Hawai’i. Traditional tattoo artists came from Oahu, Alaska, Taiwan, the Philippines, Nova Scotia, Papua New Guinea, and more to share their different styles (including Hawaiian kākau and Inuit skin stitching) and mana’o.

These various artists and their diverse cultures were brought together by Tan after he had a dream to “gather the cousins.” In his printed festival introduction, Tan tells the story of how this dream inspired him to convene and organize “the cousins” (the peoples of the Pacific) around culture, arts, and innovative ideas “to restore balance back to a world in dire need of Aloha.” 

The weekend’s events, held at three different locations in Kohala, kicked off with a Grand Opening evening of music, drinks, and talking story on Friday night at the recently reopened Blue Dragon Tavern in Kawaihae. That was followed by an arts and culture fair and family day on Saturday at The Hub in Hawi — the event featured a small film festival throughout the day, food trucks, an opening hula performance, and opportunities for guests to learn about traditional Hawaiian arts like making kapa and weaving lauhala. Finally, two days of symposium activities at the Kohala Institute gave participants the opportunity to learn about different types of traditional tattoo, watch demonstrations, and talk story with practitioners. 

Traditional kākau from the host island of Hawaii was represented by Keone Nunes, Hawaiian Master Artist, a vital part of the revitalization of Hawaiian tattoo as an art form. Nunes shared his mana’o about his art, cultural practices, his lengthy apprenticeship process, and the importance of intensely connecting to your culture and language before even considering getting into traditional tattooing. His time in front of symposium-goers also included a demonstration of his tap tatau process using a mōlī (tattoo tool) on a tutu who had never had a tattoo before. Naturally, she was very honored and overjoyed to be receiving her first ink from such a revered practitioner.

The festival was not just about sharing art and traditional practices; it had a deeper purpose. As Tan wrote, the Traditional Tattoo Festival is … “coming into the world amid the high stakes struggle for sovereignty at Mauna Kea. The festival’s theme of illuminating patterns that connect us is in response to this time of deepening social divide and great ecological suffering. Via demonstrations and discussion with other Indigenous culture bearers and activists from around the world, we aim to identify strategies and inspiration to address the complexities and tensions of our changing world.” 

Hopefully, this first year of the Traditional Tattoo Festival is not the last, as there is plenty more work to be done that’s not just skin deep.