If a traditional Hawaiian tattoo is right for you, you’ll know where to find him.
Years tattooing: 10
Style: Traditional Hawaiian tattoo
Waiting list: 8 to 10 months
Keone Nunes did not have a typical apprenticeship, and that’s because he’s not your typical tattoo artist. His clients rest on a bamboo mat on the floor of a small room. There is no power source, no rattling of the needles in the tube, only the mesmerizing tap tap of the moli–a traditional instrument used for Hawaiian tattooing. An assistant pulls the customer’s skin tight as Nunes taps dye made from a kukui tree into the skin with a fine-tooth comb made from hippopotamus tusk. His West O’ahu tattooing room is as far removed from the tattoo shop experience as possible.
Growing up in Wai’anae, he was instructed in the ways of traditional native Hawaiian tattooing. He also studied under tattoo master Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo. Today, Nunes is the foremost revivalist of ancient Hawaiian tattoo traditions.
Of the 175 motifs he knows of, many run along the lines of genealogical designs specific to family origins. Noa, designs free from genealogical affiliation, are used for adornment, protection and other purposes.
Nunes does not discriminate against his clientele by race, but rather judges the motives and character of the individual seeking a traditional motif.
‘If I meet with them and they are good people and they’re doing it for the right reasons, then, yeah. I don’t want to tattoo everybody in the world. I want to tattoo people that appreciate the art form,’ Nunes says.
Nunes is relatively unaffected by the explosion of the tattoo scene on O’ahu and the widespread popularity of tattoos across the world. And he likes to keep it that way. ‘It’s hard to get in touch with me if you don’t know how,’ Nunes says. ‘It’s a different type of person that comes to me. The people that I see are not really interested in having that particular type of tattoo done with a machine.’
Have you ever made a mistake?
What’s the craziest, weirdest, most absurd request you’ve had?
Tapping a name of someone. That’s absurd.
What is your most meaningful tattoo on your body?
All my work has meaning. The one on my leg done by Paulo a year before he died is one that I remember. It was tapped on. The designs are Hawaiian and Samoan.
If you couldn’t tattoo anymore, what would you be doing?
Teach anything within Hawaiian culture. To me, all Hawaiians are related.
Are there any special rules for getting a traditional Hawaiian tattoo?
If I agree to do the work, we set up a date and time. You shouldn’t drink alcohol for a certain amount of days before or smoke. Also cut down on your salt intake. Then, clean the air with any part of your family that’s not good.