Artists behind the needle
A glimpse into Maui’s tattoo community
“Stay very still,” Samson Harp tells his client as he touches his tattoo machine to the outline of the constellation Cancer on her forearm. His wife stands behind the counter greeting people and taking phone calls. A framed picture of the Harp family at Legoland hangs among the dozens of Polynesian tattoo sketches and art on the walls at the Hawaiian-owned-and-operated Pacific Rootz at 1847 S. Kihei Road.
“Some tattoos are decorative, and some are confirmation of an accomplishment or what you are capable of,” Harp explains. “It’s a constant reminder.”
When Harp finishes the constellation, his client asks for a touch-up to the plumeria on her foot. “Sure, can I add some other stuff?” With confirmation, he eyes the flower. “This will hurt,” he says. Tattoo machines prick the skin thousands of times to create an image. Needles push ink into the lower layer of skin, the dermis, where the pigment stays permanently. The process is painful. Harp leans into the tattoo and begins drawing. Within moments, flawless fern fronds permanently surround the plumeria. No stencil or sketch necessary.
Harp explains that Hawaiians have been marked by “kakau” (the Hawaiian word for tattoo) for centuries. Kakau guarded aboriginals, keeping them in good health physically and spiritually. Families like the Harps have passed on the traditions through genealogical tattoos and oral history. Many clients come into shops with Polynesian symbols in mind, but they are at risk of appropriating Hawaiian culture if they don’t fully understand the symbol’s meaning. Harp is not afraid to say no to a family genealogy tattoo and explain why it would be inappropriate for someone outside of the family to wear.
As sailors collected tattoos from different ports, styles from other places like Japan and the U.S. spread around the world. Sailor Jerry, also known as Norman Collins, brought the trend to Hotel Street on Oahu during World War II, says James Coles, owner of Paia Tattoo Parlor at 120 Hana Highway. Next door to bars and brothels, Collins tattooed souvenirs from the Pacific on many veterans after the war. Today, the style is called American Traditional.
“If they didn’t last forever and if they didn’t hurt, they wouldn’t mean anything,” Coles explains as he dips his tattoo machine into ink. “It’s a piece of fine art people can walk out the door with. . . . You don’t even need a wall to put it on.”
American Traditional tattoos peek out beneath his T-shirt and up his neck. Like the owner, the walls of the shop are covered in illustrations from floor to ceiling with sailors, tigers, dragons and funny cartoons. It’s complex and beautiful. He concentrates on the man lying facedown — two mermaids surround a ship that stretch the length of the client’s back.
There is something special about making your body a canvas for art. “I like to think of my body as a gallery,” Cole Warren says. After a difficult period, Warren commissioned Coles to tattoo a koi fish on his back. “It reminds me to go with the flow . . . and it’s on my back because those experiences are behind me.”
To have a large tattoo done, a client must sit still through hours of pain. “Tattooing trains your mind. I like to think it’s spiritual, a little meditative. . . . It reminds you that pain is fleeting.”
Sometimes, clients come to tattoo parlors with specific symbols or illustrations in mind. In this case, the shop’s job is purely to transcribe the image onto their body.
“Some people do tattoos but aren’t artists,” Francine Walraven, an apprentice at Pacific Rootz, says.
Other times, artists have consultations to discuss the client’s idea before they do the tattoo. They can learn the client’s motivations and inspirations — whether it is an event they want to remember or concept they want to honor. Costs vary from artist to artist. Shops typically charge clients between $100 and $200 an hour depending on the size and style of the tattoo.
Miranda Rose works at Paia Tattoo Parlor with Coles. Her focus is purely her art. Instead of American Traditional, her pieces are intricate watercolor and dot designs.
“It’s very fitting that my artwork is hanging all over,” she notes in Paia Bay Coffee Shop where black-and-white sketches of turtles, whales, women and flowers line the walls.
Rose is not afraid to turn down clients and refer them to other artists if they want a tattoo outside of her repertoire.
“I’ve tattooed like all the girls that work here,” she says. The young woman at the register flashes a dot work pattern on her forearm as she speaks to a customer.
It took a while for Rose to find her place in Maui’s tattoo community.
“People kept telling me, ‘You should do color, or you should have a broader audience.’ “
Clients have even walked into the shop and mistaken her for a receptionist, not a fellow artist.
“That’s why I love Instagram. . . . My work can speak for itself,” she says.
Clientele contact Rose almost exclusively from social media. They have the chance to follow her work before they decide to be tattooed.
“I want people to only judge me by my art, nothing else,” Rose says.
Another young woman breaking into the industry is Lhena Love, Rose’s high school classmate. At 26 years old, Love owns Queen of Hearts at 2010 Main St. in Wailuku. And there’s a twist: only female artists work here. Although she did not intend to exclusively hire women, Love explains that the shop attracts badass women. Ten years ago, only a handful of female tattoos artists were on Maui. Now, Queen of Hearts stands as an example of the evolving world of tattoos.
No matter the style you choose, tattoos become part of your identity. The tattoo artists on Maui don’t take their jobs lightly. They create art for their clients so that your tattoo’s significance stays with you forever.
* Sacramento native Melanie Holst is a sophomore at Grinnell College in Iowa. She is currently taking a gap semester on Maui. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.