Hawaii Island to host state's first Traditional Tattoo Festival

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Hawaii's first Traditional Tattoo Festival will take place Oct. 25 to 29 on the Island of Hawaii.
Hawaii's first Traditional Tattoo Festival will take place Oct. 25 to 29 on the Island of Hawaii. Photo Credit: Heather Goodman/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

In the beginning, Joel Tan was reluctant to tell people why he was on a mission to bring together traditional tattoo practitioners from around the Pacific Rim -- he thought his story might come off as "flaky."

But Tan, event organizer and manager of the Grace Center at Kohala Institute on the Island of Hawaii, soon found that telling the story of the dreams that fueled his inspiration would help make his vision come to life. It turned out that the tattoo artists he was trying to lure across the ocean to his first-time event were reassured by the genesis of the idea.

"When I said it came to me in a dream, they said: 'That's good. We trust that,'" Tan said. "Traditional tattoos are unlike commercial tattoos in a lot of ways, but one main difference is that contemporary mechanized tattoos generally involve us picking some image off a wall or something meaningful to us. But in the traditional form, in many ways the tattoos has chosen you. The artist is a facilitator, they act like a tattoo doula, helping you to unearth from your soul, your psyche, your destiny, what your pattern is. And, much of that comes through dream work."

This made sense to Tan, who got his first tattoo after being inspired by a dream shortly after his mother's death.

After pursuing his vision, and securing support from the Hawaii Tourism Authority and Hawaii Council for the Humanities, Hawaii's first Traditional Tattoo Festival will be held Oct. 25-29. The event includes a film festival, cultural fair, demonstrations and discussions, including a panel of international master artists from the Philippines, Alaska, Taiwan and Alaska highlighting ancient artistic traditions shared by indigenous communities across the globe.

"The driving question under all of it is: What are the patterns that connect us?" Tan said. 

"At a time of deepening social and political divides, what better way to bring many different people together? A lot of times when there is a tough issue or controversial topic, if you put it in the realm of the artist and explore through creative expression, you open up the discussion and allow for more exploration." 

The panel of international traditional artists will also be joined by Oahu's Keone Nunes, who has been a pivotal figure in the reintroduction of the art of the traditional Hawaiian tattoo, called kakau or tatau, Tan said. 

"Kakau gives mana, spiritual power, to a person," Nunes said in an email. "The tools are conduits and the experience is connected to the ancestors."

Also in attendance will be Lars Krutak, tattoo anthropologist who hosted the Discovery channel documentary series "Tattoo Hunter," who will discuss his experience of researching and experiencing varied art forms of body modification around the world.

"Traditional tattoo, in so many ways, is exactly what we need to reconnect back to our present and our future," Tan said. "These are cultural practitioners who preserve and perpetuate the form moving forward." 

The festival kicks off Oct. 25 at 6 p.m. with an opening celebration including live music, local foods, and a chance to meet some of the invited master tattoo artists. The following day there will be a free cultural fair from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with traditional tattoo demonstrations, art workshops, food trucks, dancing with live music and a film festival of an international selection of tattoo-related documentaries.

Finally, for those looking for a deeper dive into the art form, its history and cultural elements, the two-day symposium runs Oct. 27-28 at the Kohala Institute's Grace (Gratitude, Respect, Accountability, Courage, Engagement) Center, where master practitioners will lead live demos, share techniques and take questions in addition to participating in Hawaiian cultural rituals and locally sourced meals.

"By studying and following the tools and customs of traditional art, it tells a different story of human migration," Tan said. "It shows us how much more connected we are than we are presented with in education when you see the history of Polynesia and narratives of colonization. It raises the question of why does that same tool or technique show up in Alaska that is so clearly also found in Maui? It pokes enough holes in what we think we know about human migration that it becomes a compelling invitation to reexamine yesterday."

Cost of the full conference package, including opening night ceremony, meals, a tote and temporary tattoos and two days' symposium entrance, is $200 before Sept. 15, $250 thereafter, and conference day rates are also available.

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