Making His Mark: Keliʻi Makua on Becoming Hawaiʻi's First Titled Kahuna Kā Uhi

Aug 2, 2017

Keliʻi Makua, the first Hawaiian in more than 200 years to receive the title of kahuna kā uhi or Hawaiian tattoo priest.
Credit Pacific Ink & Art Expo

Hawaiʻi 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 Keliʻi Makua. Makua has consistently represented Hawaiʻi at the expo since its inception six years ago, but this year is different. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has more of his story.

I met Keliʻi Makua at his house in Mākaha, in a screened-in portion of his lānai that he's set aside for tattooing, not by machine but with the traditional Hawaiian method of tapping.                             

Makua in his element at his pā uhi in Mākaha.
Credit Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

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

Makua's collection of mōlī. Mōlī, a tool used in traditional Hawaiian tattooing. The mōlī is dipped in ink and another stick is used to tap the mōlī's teeth into the client's skin.
Credit Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

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.

Makua and his client for the day, Kuʻuʻiʻini 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.
Credit Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

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."

Kahuna Kā Uhi Keliʻi Makua (left) and his kumu Keone Nunes.
Credit Pacific Ink & Art Expo

In a five-day ʻūniki or graduation ceremony that had never been done in over 200 years, Makua became the first Hawaiian to be titled a kahuna kā 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 pā uhi or tattooing practice named Ka Pā ʻO Hūnōhūnōholani. 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,ʻ says Makua, "So this practice is not to be taken lightly."