Bringing Tradition Near

Kaweni Ibarra ’19 learned how to reinvigorate history when he apprenticed with a Hawaiian tattooist his senior year.

Bringing Tradition Near
Geometric motifs are key to the stories told in Hawaiian tattoos. / Image courtesy iStock

Close your eyes. Imagine a traditional Hawaiian tattoo. Open your eyes. You probably got that all wrong. Don’t feel defeated. Generations of researchers did, too. Some believed there wasn’t a significant tattooing tradition on the Hawaiian Islands. Through an internship more than 2,300 miles from his island home, Kaweni Ibarra ’19 learned just how wrong they were.

Native Hawaiian Ibarra may have had the most unusual internship in SCU history—skin stretcher. Working with the anthropology department, Ibarra, a first-generation college student and LEAD scholar, apprenticed with visiting Hawaiian tattooist Pa’a ’Alana to tell the stories of the Hawaiian diaspora in Northern California through ink on skin. The internship was funded by the College of Arts and Sciences REAL program.

Before meeting clients, ’Alana researched each family and designed tattoo motifs representing their ancestry. Getting to work, he’d dip a moli, or piece of wood with needles made of bone, into ink. Using a beating stick, he rhythmically tapped the moli into skin. To make sure the motif turned out just right, ‘Alana needed a skin stretcher to hold the skin steady. Enter Ibarra.

Literally etching their lineage into their bodies, Ibarra says, was hugely empowering for those unfamiliar with their familial history.

“It shows you who you are, but it also shows you who your ancestors are. You learn you have this rich history,” Ibarra says. “That’s powerful.”

Ibarra, who grew up on the southern end of the Big Island of Hawaii, sports a half-sleeve of ink celebrating the Samoan side of his family.

But it wasn’t until he was far from home as a Santa Clara anthropology student that he began to study traditional Hawaiian tattooing.

“For the first time, I wasn’t surrounded by people who come from where I come from,” Ibarra says. “But there are people here who supported me. They respect the process of anthropology and they were able to guide me in my research.”

Ibarra used Hawaiian-language documents to study the tattoos, often rows of inked shapes that denote meaning. While he didn’t discover a perfect historical record, he does believe the dearth of Hawaiian tattooing for hundreds of years was sparked by a colonial ban, not local preference.

“We lost some of the practice back then,” he says. “What we are doing now is trying to reinvigorate that, trying to learn from our ancestors and what they did.”

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