© 2023 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Making His Mark: Keli?i Makua on Becoming Hawai?i's First Titled Kahuna K? Uhi

Pacific Ink & Art Expo

Hawai?i will be making quite a debut this weekend at the Pacific Ink and Art Expo. Among more than 100 tattoo artists from around the world will be Hawaiian tattoo artist Keli?i Makua. Makua has consistently represented Hawai?i at the expo since its inception six years ago, but this year is different. HPR’s Ku?uwehi Hiraishi has more of his story.

I met Keli?i Makua at his house in M?kaha, in a screened-in portion of his l?nai that he's set aside for tattooing, not by machine but with the traditional Hawaiian method of tapping.                             

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Makua in his element at his p? uhi in M?kaha.

Makua uses a tool called a m?l?, made of wood and bone that looks much like a miniature rake. He dips the m?l? into the ink made of kukui soot, and uses another stick to tap the m?li's teeth into his client's skin. 

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Makua's collection of m?l?. M?l?, a tool used in traditional Hawaiian tattooing. The m?l? is dipped in ink and another stick is used to tap the m?l?'s teeth into the client's skin.

The rhythmic tapping seems like it never cases. Uhi, the Hawaiian word for tattoo, can take several hours. Music plays in the background and a fan runs cool.

Tatau, the traditional Hawaiian art of tattooing is a cultural practice Makua has been studying for nearly three decades. And everything is ritual.

"We had specific pule for everything that we did," says Makua.

These pule or prayers are used to wake up the tools and call on the ancestors of the person on the mat, receiving the tattoo.

"What part of your body you’re going to recognize something on speaks on...is it your past, is it your present, is it your future? Is it a masculine thing? Is it a feminine thing?" says Makua.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Makua and his client for the day, Ku?u?i?ini Medeiros. Medeiros received a touch-up to her ala niho a striped tattoo that runs up the outside of the leg from the hip to the ankle. Medeiros' ala niho is specific to her family's genealogy and customs. The ala niho is a uniquely Hawaiian tattoo pattern.

Everything has a purpose. Actually there is a lot about it that the common person...

"…common person or common tattooist would never know, unless you sat in a space with somebody who had that ‘ike," says Makua.

That knowledge. For the past 27 years Makua sat with Keone Nunes, a man whose name has become synonymous with the revitalization of the Hawaiian tatau practice. Makua was Nunes' right-hand-man – making his tools, stretching skin for Nunes to tap, and cleaning up after all was done. But last December, Nunes said…

"I’ve come to the conclusion you need to go and start this on your own and develop this as well so that it grows and it lives," says Makua of Nunes' words to him, "I was like wait, wait, wait, whaaaaat? Pump your brakes."

Credit Pacific Ink & Art Expo
Pacific Ink & Art Expo
Kahuna K? Uhi Keli?i Makua (left) and his kumu Keone Nunes.

In a five-day ??niki or graduation ceremony that had never been done in over 200 years, Makua became the first Hawaiian to be titled a kahuna k? uhi or tattooing priest.

"You are part of it now," says Makua, "You become that catalyst for change – whether for positive or for negative – for those things to continue."

He started his own p? uhi or tattooing practice named Ka P? ?O H?n?h?n?holani. He took on students who would  learn what he learned.

"If we were the only ones that drew the blood of the ali’i and the other kahuna nui without being put to death, that’s not to be taken lightly,? says Makua, "So this practice is not to be taken lightly."

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
More from Hawai‘i Public Radio