The Skin We're In

Can you guess the most popular tattoos in Honolulu?

Legendary tattoo artist Mike B. would be thrilled if we asked for a tattoo that is not of a plumeria.

Photo: Olivier Koning


Truman capote, who became an expert on death-row inmates following publication of In Cold Blood, said the one common denominator among the several hundred killers he met was that they all had tattoos. That was a chilling forensic observation at the time.

But times, to say the least, have changed. Now everybody has gotten inked: men, women, boys, girls, babies and, no doubt, dogs and cats. So what are the most popular tattoos in Honolulu? We contacted several local tattoo shops to find out.

“It’s like turtle, fish, turtle, plumeria, turtle, plumeria, turtle,” tattoo artist Cody Zeek of Sacred Art Tattoo in Waikiki says of the daily lineup.

Legendary tattooist Mike B, who has been coloring skin in Honolulu for 32 years since beginning at the equally legendary China Sea tattoo shop on Smith Street, now works at Skin Deep Tattoo in Waikiki, where most of Honolulu’s tattoo shops are located. Female tourists tend to like plumeria and hibiscus because they want to take a piece of Hawaii home with them, he says. Male tourists favor koi, the overgrown, decorative Japanese goldfish.

But when the fleet is in at Pearl Harbor, says Mike B, sailors still go for the more traditional, old-timey tattoos like skulls, crosses and cartoon characters. He even does the occasional “Mom” on a bicep.

The biggest change since Capote’s day is all the young women getting tattoos. And where they get them. “Arms, legs, backs … the same places men get them,” he says. They also like little flowers and Asian characters in the small of their backs.

Kandi Everett is an artist who also got her start at China Sea but now works by herself by appointment only on the edge of Chinatown. “My specialties are pinups,” she says. She also does fine art, nudes and figure drawings, the kind that hangs on walls. But tattoos still bring in the most money.

Tattooists, especially the ones who have been around for a while, are iconoclasts by nature and speak wistfully of the days when tattooists considered themselves part of a secret society. “There used to be about five tattooists and now there are over 1,500 registered” in Hawaii, Everett says. She calls herself a stealth tattooist and “international woman of mystery,” and is best known for tattooing a guy’s face on his bald head  so when he bows, it looks like he’s still looking at you.

At Pacific Soul Tattoo on Ward Avenue, owner Suluape Steve Looney specializes in traditional Samoan tattoos. Resident tattooist Paulo (no last name, he says) does mostly Polynesian tattoos there. “The Polynesian tattoo movement is going really strong,” he says.

 The cost for tattoos varies, but usually starts at about $50 for little ones and go into the thousands of dollars for full back art that takes several sessions.

Tattoos are forever. But what happens when you get a tattoo you no longer want? You go to see someone like Dr. Curtis Takemoto-Gentile at Abracadabra Tattoo Removal. He’s actually a family physician who bought a laser machine that allows him to remove unwanted ink. The most popular tattoos removed? Names—those of former girlfriends, wives, husbands or boyfriends.

“The laser is really great,” says Takemoto-Gentile. “There are no side effects, scarring or infection.” Still, the most encouraging thing about his business is that he’s never had to remove a tattoo that said “Mom.”