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Keone Nunes: Traditional Hawaiian Tattoo Artist

For many people seeking a Hawaiian tattoo, Keone Nunes is their only option.


May 14, 2013

Web Exclusive

Keone Nunes (seen left) tattooing.

Photo: Miriam Landru

Off Nanakuli Avenue, in a tiny, abandoned 1920s Mormon church, one of the most sought-after traditional Hawaiian tatau artists practices his art on subjects who don't just want any tattoo. They want tattoos that will connect them to the Native Hawaiians of long ago, to their own unique heritage.

For many people seeking a Hawaiian tattoo, Keone Nunes is their only option. He insists on interviewing everyone who seeks him out. There are no set questions, Nunes says it just "depends on the individual".  Nunes began tattooing using the traditional Polynesian of "tapping" over twenty years ago. "Very significant, profound things happen when people get tattooed in this way," Nunes said.

The art of tapping is special since there are very few artists left in the world who tattoo in this ancient way. Instead of relying on an electric machine and a steel needle, Nunes makes his own tools and even his own ink. "Basically I dip the moli (tattoo tool) in the pa'u (ink), place it on the skin and tap, but in its simplicity lies its complexity," he says. “It looks fairly simple, but it is difficult to do well.”

Kawika Au, who has been getting tattooed by Nunes since 2003, agrees, "People see visions, they have dreams, they make connections... It's not just getting inked." And don't think you can go into just any tattoo shop on the island and get tattoos like the ones Nunes practices and perfects. They are shared with him by trusting kupuna who he affectionately calls "Hawaiian informants.” The designs are passed down through the generations, and are genealogical and gender specific. "Sometimes men who are into tattoos, don't know… and will wear female designs on their face," Nunes says, shaking his head.

Of course, Au knows there will be absolutely no female designs going on his face. "He is my kumu, so I trust him absolutely,” he says. “I will always be grateful for his allowing me to sit at his feet. I would go to the ends of the earth for him, as I know he would for me." Au continues, "There are very few things in this world a Hawaiian can do that will take you back to what your ancestors felt, heard, and the designs... are what is left."

Photo: courtesy roy uno

On other styles

While Nunes has a passion for Hawaiian tattooing, he also has an appreciation for other kinds of tattoo styles, naming Red Diamond Tattoo's Roy Uno as one of his favorite tattoo artists on the island. The 26-year-old, Japan-born, Oahu-raised Uno is known in the inked world for being extremely gifted—and decidedly so if Nunes gives him a nod.

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