Evolutions in Ink: Keone Nunes and the Art of Indigenous Tattooing

| © Jenny Sathngam / Culture Trip

Commissioning Editor

Keone Nunes spent more than 30 years reviving the ancient Polynesian practice of tattooing, offering his services both to local people and visitors. Now, he is among the driving forces behind the revival of indigenous tattoo practices around the world.

At 2am, the Waianae shore is idle. No one is around to hear the cadence of the Pacific waves lapping the sand on this empty beach on Oahu, Hawaii. Well, almost no one. Through the darkness, a man walks towards the ocean holding a sharpened bone in one hand and a wooden mallet in the other. He stands in the water, dipping each in, slowly taking in the midnight sea.

Keone Nunes repeats this morning ritual on the days he plans to use his moli (the bone) and hahau (the mallet). The early hour holds spiritual significance, he says. “I wake them up in the ocean. Those are things nobody will see me do.”

Nunes’s moli and hahau

For Nunes, the art of tattooing transcends the aesthetic aspect of body adornment – instead, it’s a gateway to a person’s ancestry. “It’s difficult to express to those who have never been through the process,” he says, “but when I tattoo someone, they change in a very profound way. As they lie on the mat getting work done, they’re connecting to their ancestors. It’s an unfiltered way of getting in touch with who you are as an individual.”

Nunes, who was raised on Oahu, is thought of as the godfather of traditional Hawaiian tattooing – though he would never refer to himself that way. Instead, he sees himself as a practitioner of the ancient art and a champion of indigenous Polynesian crafts. While the artist doesn’t restrict himself to tattooing only people of Hawaiian descent, he is selective about his subjects, imposing something of a spiritual test on all those he works with. “I’m interested in tattooing people who are committed to the culture [from] which they come,” he says. “I’m interested in people who have a genuine appreciation of the process because it is, in many cases, a leap of faith.”

Nunes in his home studio

Unusually, Nunes’s subjects do not pick out their own designs – in fact, they don’t even see the work on their body until it is complete. Nunes is ardent in his practice, starting with a meeting at which he asks his subject about their life, desires and ancestry, often calling on an apprentice to do the same. Based on this conversation, Nunes or his apprentice will compose a design. His work features everything from symbolic patterns to long, detailed strips that stretch from the hip to the ankle. Nunes always has the final say on what markings will be rendered, but in testing his pupils’ ability to read a person, he strives to pass down his tattooing traditions. “Compositions need to be done well, and that’s very difficult to teach someone,” he says. “I want to see how close they come to a design that I think would be appropriate for each individual.”

There is then a second encounter, during which Nunes applies the tattoo using his handmade tools of wood and bone that have been “woken up” in the ocean. For him, the tools are as significant to the tattooing process as the design – some are 30 years old.

One of Nunes’s compositions

As Nunes describes it, the rhythms of his practice are visceral – he is delineated by his Hawaiian culture, galvanized by its rich ancestral history. He has studied the culture of these islands in one way or another for his entire life, and has taught indigenous practices such as hula and wood carving. But before 1990, he had never considered tattooing, perceiving the ancient Polynesian technique as more commonly practiced than it actually was until elder practitioners of Hawaiian art introduced him to it. “I realized I was wrong,” he says. “I was given a gift from the elders I spoke with. I was asked to try tattoos, because at that time, no one was doing strictly traditional tattooing.” It became Nunes’s calling.

Ajarn Neng, a practitioner of sak yant tattoos in Thailand

Nearly three decades later, his work is something of a cultural commodity – he now travels around the world to help others revive their own local tattooing traditions. “[Many] indigenous cultures have a form of tattooing that is endemic within their culture,” he explains. Among these is Thailand’s sak yant, the application of sacred geometric symbols to skin using sharpened metal or bamboo. Sak yant stems from Southeast Asia’s yantra tattooing, commonly practiced in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, though its principles strongly resemble those of Polynesia, from which the word ‘tattoo’ is derived. In original sak yant tradition, Buddhist monks or ‘magic practitioners’ would pass down tattoo symbols by applying them to recipients who they called ‘students.’ The marks are believed to bring magic, protection and luck to their recipients, and the endemic tradition was passed down over generations of practitioners and students along with a set of written rules for each tattoo, illustrating life-long vows such as kindness and prosperity.

In recent years, sak yant has gone from being an exclusive exchange between Thai monks and their students to being open to all local people and, eventually, to travelers and visitors too. As the practice expanded, the rules were diluted. “The reclamation of this is very important because, in contemporary times, you have people trying to culturally appropriate designs for their own interpretations,” Nunes says. He puts part of the blame for the popularized appropriation of Thai tattooing on the celebrity factor. “After Angelina Jolie went to that monk and got tattooed [in 2016], it blew up,” he says. “You can go to any city in Thailand now and see shop signs that say, ‘Bamboo tattooing done here.’” Today, sak yant is imitated throughout the world, spreading via online tutorials and how-to guides. And in that process, Nunes fears that the art is losing its meaning.

Jenny Sathngam / © Culture Trip

“I think that it’s [done] more harm than good, to be honest, because the tattoos that the monks do are sacred tattoos. And every single aspect of it is sacred,” he says. Although Hawaiian tattooing isn’t nearly as commercialized as sak yant is today, Nunes has noticed a level of appropriation of his practice, too. When he began tattooing, Hawaiian elders bestowed upon him a series of previously unseen designs that he began marking on his subjects. He was later entrusted with creating his own markings and selected as the practitioner who could choose who would carry these ancient Polynesian symbols. Now, nearly 30 years later, he estimates that eight in every 10 pseudo-Polynesian tattoos incorporate his original work, with many being conducted by regular tattoo shops using needles and machines. “It’s frustrating to see that kind of appropriation of designs and not see the meaning behind them or the sacredness,” he says. “[In Hawaii] we have a rising awareness, but we still suffer the same type of indignities.”

Ajarn Neng bestows a sak yant tattoo in Bangkok

Nunes sees a middle ground between appropriation and preservation – what he refers to as “normalization.” “The normalization of the culture within the culture ensures preservation, because if it’s just preserved, it doesn’t have the chance to grow, to expand, to breathe – all you’re doing is continuing the practice on that singular continuum,” he says. “If you normalize the practice, then you bring with it that breath of life so that it can grow and change if necessary, you can create new motifs.”

He sees no past tense to his practice, running through waves of new apprentices who he hopes will modernize designs, apply them to current climates and disperse them within Polynesian culture. And to the non-Polynesians whom he paints, he offers unbounded gratitude. “Because wherever you go, you have to defend my culture,” he says. “And I appreciate that to all extents.”

Nunes and his apprentice create an ancient Polynesian design on a woman’s arm

It was a cold day nearly eight years ago when Nunes traveled to just outside of Arcadia in California to tattoo an intergenerational group of women from three indigenous tribes: Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Tolowa. In the journey from Hawaii to the desert of California, he wondered why he was asked to come there.

One by one, generations of women from the same families and tribes took turns lying still beneath his tools. He had marked dozens of them before one of the eldest sat down in front of him for her chin to be drawn on. Her hesitance was palpable; when Nunes asked what she was afraid of, she leaned close and confessed that she had suffered a stroke. Though not immediately obvious, her face was uneven, and she had lost feeling in one half of it. Nunes reassured her that, when his work was done, she would feel happy.

Nunes’s work uses stretches of the body to hold sacred symbols as discussed in previous meetings with his subjects

Nunes brought his mallet to the woman’s chin and began to draw, but halfway through, she stopped him. Sitting up, she called for her daughter, on whom Nunes had already completed work earlier that day. She whispered in her daughter’s ear, and they both began to cry. The older woman lay back down and asked Nunes to continue.

When he finished, he brought a mirror to the woman’s face and she hugged him and beamed with joy. Later, her daughter pulled Nunes aside and said: “She stopped because she could feel her face again. For the first time, she could feel her face again.”

Nunes exhales, recalling the moment. That feeling of bringing a woman back to herself, of letting her connect her face to her body again – it’s the reason behind his work. He pauses for a long while, then recites a mantra: “If I have the courage, it’s because I have the trust and the knowledge of my ancestors.”

A collection of symbols on a man’s face at the famous Wat Bang Phra temple
Nunes’s tools kept in the comfort of his own home

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