Tap Tattoo (aka Traditional Tattooing)
I first saw my Grandpa’s tattoo when I was four or five years old. He took off his dress shirt after church and put on another one. But in those few seconds, I glimpsed the cowgirl leaning against a fence post and I wanted to see more.
For me tattoos were something forbidden, or at least something to hide, because grandpa’s was always hidden under his shirt and he never showed it off. When I asked my aunt about it she said he was embarrassed by it; which later I found out wasn’t true. But I know my love of tattoos started with my grandpa.
I moved to Hawaii when I was 10 years old. I don’t remember exactly how old I was the first time I saw a Samoan man standing on the beach with rows of tattoos arching like a rainbow out of his lava-lava—the traditional wrap-around-cloth that Samoan men wear. Again I felt that these tattoos were supposed to be hidden away. If he wasn’t at the beach I would have never seen these. I wanted to get a better look but I knew I couldn’t stare at them like I really wanted to, not without being punched in the face at least.
As I got older I learned that Samoan tattoos were called a pe’a and they cover a man from his waist to his knees. Samoans use the word tatau, which is where the English word tattoo comes from. This pe’a is very sacred in the Samoan culture. It can either be the mark of a man if it is finished or the mark of a coward if the man doesn’t finish the tattoo because of the pain. The pe’a is respected so much that men who don’t have them sit differently than men who do.
From the first time I saw that man on the beach I knew I wanted a tattoo like his. It didn’t have to be the traditional pe’a, but I wanted a design something like his and I wanted it done the traditional way—hand tapped.
Being Haole—or Caucasian, I knew getting a tattoo like this wouldn’t be an easy task. First of all you can’t just walk into a tattoo shop and get one done the traditional way. There are only a handful of artists who still do it the traditional way and most of them live scattered throughout the Pacific Islands. Secondly a Suluape—traditional tattooist, is not likely to tattoo a Caucasian unless they are married into a Polynesian family, and even then, it will be the Suluape’s call.
Most Polynesians have some sort of tattooing within their culture. It’s not exclusive to Samoans. The Maoris off New Zealand tattoo the face in intricate swirls. The Tahitians mostly tattooed people in high ranking societal status, although commoners could be tattooed as well, their tattoos were just not very big ones.
The Fijians, Hawaiians, and Tongans also tattooed. Their designs are similar to the Samoans, but not exactly the same. All the Polynesian tattoos have some similarities both in design and in technique; although in my opinion the Samoan designs are the most intricate.
Another similarity that Polynesian tattoos have with each other is that the art form was almost extinct thanks to the missionaries. The church had an effect on the entire Pacific Rim and when missionaries conquered the islands with their God, tattooing went out the window, along with the Islanders culture like traditional names and dances.
Fast forward 150 years. It’s 4:30 pm and I’m sitting in a tattoo shop called Soul Signature Tattoo in Honolulu directly across the pool hall I practically grew up in. I have a 4 o’clock appointment with a Tongan man named Suluape Aisea who’s running late. Island-time. Not just island-time, Tongan-time, which is about an hour-and-a-half later than island-time.
A big guy, as most Tongan men are, with long hair that’s tied up in a pony tail walks in the back door and introduces himself as Aisea. His arms and chest are tattooed in traditional Polynesian geometric designs and they run up his neck all the way to the bottom portion of his lower jaw. He informs me that it will be a while longer because we have to wait for the “stretchers” to get out of church.
Around 6:30 pm three giant men in black lava-lavas enter through the back door and I assume these are the guys I’m waiting on.
Tongans are some of the nicest people on the planet. They might be huge but their hearts are even bigger. They seem enthusiastic to tattoo me and they tell me that afterward we’re going to drink some kava—a root with mild hallucinogenic capabilities I’ve always heard, but it turns out, it just makes you numb and itchy.
I called my wife and told her to get down to the shop. She was still at the hotel getting a massage. We were supposed to have dinner with a friend but I knew that wasn’t going to work so I called and canceled with him. The tattoo artist had just started tapping away when my wife pulled up in a cab.
People ask me, “Does it hurt more getting it done the traditional way vs. a machine?” And my answer had been, “It’s a different kind of pain.” I didn’t mention that I gotten one tattoo done the traditional way on my leg before. The artist was from Tahiti and traveled all the way to St. Louis, MO to a shop to do ten tattoos in five days and then was flying back home. He basically charged me $500 an hour and left me with a series of seven upside down triangles that ran down my shin and an ankle-bracelet full of some more triangles. It was the tattoo I had wanted the most but I was not happy with it. I felt like I paid tourist prices and didn’t get the trip. My leg was incomplete and out of the ten or so tattoos I’ve received so far, it was the only tattoo artist that I didn’t tip.
This time things were much different. The pain I had spoken of earlier to friends was much more excruciating. Aisea was very heavy handed compared to my last traditional artist, but in these kinds of situations you’re not allowed to show pain. So I laid there and took it for an hour-and-a-half the first session. Then Aisea said, “Ok, you come back tomorrow and we’ll finish the rest. We drink some Kava now.” My wife and I then sat around on mats on the floor and drank Kava while 15-20 Tongan men sang in 4-part harmony and played the guitar and ukulele. It was a once in a life time experience that neither one of us will ever forget.
The next day when I was walking around with my wife I noticed two separate incidents where a couple of local guys were looking at my leg but they didn’t say anything. It was more of a confused look like, “What the…?” One of these incidents was in a McDonald’s bathroom and when the guy noticed it, he snapped his head around so fast to do a double take that I thought he was going to break his neck. He then went in the stall and I didn’t stick around to get his opinion whether or not he liked it.
The next day I came back to Aisea’s shop and sat through three more hours of pain. While he was tattooing me I asked Aisea if he ever caught flack for tattooing Hoales and he said, “All the time. You should see what some people say online.”
“Like what?” I said.
“Like how they already stole our culture so why you letting them have our tattoos? And you shouldn’t be doing that. Fuck those haole people,” he said.
I thought there might be some of that kind of bad feelings out there toward Caucasians getting these kind of tattoos but I wasn’t sure. Now the off-looks were confirmed.
“But I think we should share our culture,” Aisea said. “I mean if we don’t, the art will die. There’s only so many Polynesian people and a smaller amount of them want to get tattooed the traditional way. I don’t care what they think. And tomorrow you’ll be wearing shorts and you get to show yours off,” he said.
And that’s when I said, “Oh shit! At the fucking Polynesian Cultural Center!”
Aisea waved his hand around in victory as if he just won some small war. I thought there was a good chance that tomorrow I might start one, because the Polynesian Cultural Center is run by almost all Samoans. And this would be the place that I’d have to unveil my new tattoo with dozens, if not 100’s of Samoans present.
That night I had anxiety about showing off my tattoo. We had dinner with a few friends and they assured me that I was imagining everything, that there wouldn’t be a problem. One of my friends suggested I wear pants, not to cover it up so people didn’t see it, but because I was going to get burned from being out in the sun all day. The suggestion relieved my mind a bit, but later it made me feel like a pussy.
“If you’re man enough to get it, you’re man enough to wear it,” is what one of the Tongan guys had said the day before and that kept ringing in my head. I decided that I was going to wear shorts to the Polynesian Cultural Center and that I was just going to deal with whatever happens.
“Maybe they’ll think it’s cool,” my wife said. I highly doubted it.
The next day came and my wife and I laid down to take an hour nap before we headed out to the Polynesian Cultural Center. When the alarm went off, I said, “You ready to get up?”
She said, “I’m tired. We’ve been running around since we got here. I just want to sleep and hang out in Waikiki later.”
“It’s up to you,” I said.
“That’s what I want to do,” she said. I let it go at that and we slept for another hour or so and then had dinner in town.
We went to Maui the following day and for some reason I wasn’t as self-conscious of my tattoo there. I wore shorts for the next three days. On the second day my wife and I were sitting in a cabana on the beach and this haole guy and his Filipino girl- friend walked by and he said, “Are you local?”
It took me a second to answer him because people from Hawaii never ask you that, so I said, “I grew up on O’ahu.”
“Where did you get your tattoo?” he asked.
And as I explained the story, my wife said, “You gotta pretty nice one too,” and as I looked down I realized his calf was covered in a similar design as mine. It was done with a machine, but never-the-less it was there and I hadn’t even noticed it. After he left I realized that the anxiety I was feeling was made up in my head and that most people aren’t even looking down to notice a tattoo, and if they are, they probably don’t care.
When I got back to the mainland people regarded my new tattoo the way I expected them too, with, “Eww’s and Ahh’s, and How bad did that hurt,” and I suspect by the time I make it back to Hawaii, I will have completely forgot that I even have the tattoo. That is until I have some big Samoan staring at me in a McDonald’s bathroom and I’m explaining that, “It’s Tongan, not Samoan.”
(FYI-If you happened to stumble on this site and you want to see some pictures of my tap tattoo, just type in “tap tattoo” in the search bar on the right hand side of the screen and a few pictures should pop up.) Thanks for reading.
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11 years is a long time in this industry.