To some, tattoo art transcends images, coloured ink and tattoo studios. For artists like Keone Nunes, tattoo is a method in which he can forever link himself to his culture and heritage.
Growing up in Wai’anae, Hawaii, Nunes now lives and tattoos in West O’ahu. There are no books filled with tattoo designs in Nunes’ tattoo room, just as there is no tattoo studio where he does his work. He has no website, no contract to have his own reality TV tattoo show. He knows 175 various motifs in the Hawaiian tattooing tradition, which are mostly based in the genealogy. He takes his work very seriously, motivated by strong links to Hawaiian culture, Nunes graduated from the University of Hawai’i Manoa with a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and certificate in Hawaiian languages. His tattoo training was earned under the watchful eyes of Hawaiian elders as well as the late tattoo master, Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo.
Done with a fine-tooth comb made from hippopotamus tusk known as a moli, Nunes taps dye from a Kakui tree into the flesh in order to create his tattoos. Hawaiian tattoos are always placed asymmetrically on the body and Nunes will tattoo anyone, though those who are interested in obtaining his work on their bodies must first justify their desires to do so to the master himself.
‘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.
It’s hard to get in touch with me if you don’t know how. 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.’
Nunes’ work is striking in its beauty and complexity. The fact that it’s completely steeped in culture, tradition as well as Hawaiian genealogy makes it all the more fascinating and impressive. So here’s to Keone Nunes: a different type of tattoo artist indeed, but a highly skilled and important one at that.