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Tattoo Traditions of Hawaii

January 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Posted by Phin Upham

The Hawaiian tradition of kakau, or tattooing, seems to have little rhyme or reason yet the tradition is widely recognized. We can find uhi tattoos spread out amongst the different islands, villages, and families and across the social sphere. Hawaiians are also known for marking almost every part of the body. There are instances where warriors from the Pahupu companies got solid black tattoos that covered every part of their body but their teeth and eyeballs.

Kakau traditions also seem related to various points in one’s life, much like our usage of tattoos to marka  fallen family member. Uhi has been used to commemorate major life events, as a show of loyalty to a chief, and as a kind of living lesson to others within the village. In essence, every tattoo tells a story, or establishes a connection to some significant place, person or god.

Kakau seems closely related to an expression of grief or sorrow. With the death of a loved one, especially a popular public figure like chief Kamehameha, an individual might mark or scar their own the body in some symbolic fashion. This is the most documented use of kakau, and so it seems the most plausible explanation for their usage.

We also know that Hawaiians used kakau to mark a class of outcasts called the kauä. It is unclear if this caste was the only one to have this distinction, but it is important in its symbolism. Uhi is also a simple adornment, the equivalent of getting a bracelet for one’s wrist but it’s permanent. It was the coming of European traditions that changed the usage of tattoos and brought them into the modern age. This new style flipped tradition through the incorporation of text and visual motifs.


About the Author: Phin Upham is an investor at a family office/ hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phin Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media & Technology group. You may contact Phin on his Phin Upham website or Facebook page.

Interested in a Hawaii trip?

April 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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