The dream came to Joel Tan in the summer of 1994, shortly after his mother died. In it, he was instructed to wear on his skin all the values she had taught him — what he regarded as her true legacy.
Tan was living in Los Angeles at the time. “I found a tattoo artist on Melrose Boulevard that day and started the months-long process of applying the words ‘Love’ and ‘Respect’ on my forearms and ‘God’ and ‘Hope’ on my calves in Alibata, the ancient Filipino script,” he said. “The design on my forearms affirms my intention to align my actions and relationships with love and respect. The design on my calves represents motion — that as I travel, I take God and hope with me everywhere, in all ways.”
Most of the ideas for the arts and cultural events that Tan, now the general manager of the nonprofit Kohala Institute, has produced since 1991 have also come to him in dreams.So it was with the Traditional Tattoo Festival, a new four-day Hawaii island event that will launch on Friday.
As Tan slept a few years ago, he received a message to “gather the cousins,” which led him to several practitioners of traditional tattooing. They introduced him to other artists and ideas for a celebration gelled. Plans for the Traditional Tattoo Festival began in earnest early last year with the Kohala Institute as the sponsor and Tan as co-curator.
“The festival is a gathering of venerated culture bearers and tattoo masters from Hawaii, Alaska, Taiwan, Nova Scotia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines,” he said. “In light of our increasingly divided world, it seemed appropriate to focus on tattooing as a bridge between indigenous peoples. We hope our event draws visitors and local residents of all ages and walks of life to learn about this compelling cultural practice.”
Lars Krutak, a renowned tattoo anthropologist, is the event’s co-curator and a research associate at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. In addition to writing five books about body modification, he produced and hosted a 10-part documentary series, “The Tattoo Hunter,” which aired on the Discovery channel in 2009.
According to Krutak, tattooing likely evolved in several parts of the world; there is no single source of origin. The oldest tattooed mummy, dating back 5,300 years, was found in a melting glacier in the Central Eastern Alps in 1991.
He notes traditional tattoo artists had to be knowledgeable about rituals, ink preparation and tool manufacture. And although inserting pigment under the skin was the basic process, the techniques used were diverse.
They included drawing pigment-laden thread through the skin with a bone needle; hand-tapping with comb-like tools of hard natural materials; cutting the skin with stone blades and rubbing pigment into it; and pricking the skin with thorns, sharp stones or animal bones. Every traditional method was tedious.
“Traditional patterns are one-of-a-kind visual representations of one’s identity, beliefs, accomplishments, aspirations or life’s calling,” Tan said. “In short, they reflect the vast spectrum of the human experience, with all of its emotions, desires and complexities. Also, traditional tattoo practitioners are not artists for hire; rather, they are highly trained and ordained ceremonialists. There is much more to the designs they create than just aesthetics.”
Festival highlights include screenings of 14 documentaries, selected by Krutak for their powerful stories about the resiliency of indigenous tattooing practices in many communities. Ranging from nine to 56 minutes in length, they will be shown continuously at the Arts & Culture Fair on Saturday. Among them is a 25-minute film about Waianae resident Keone Nunes, who has devoted 30 years to reviving Hawaii’s tattooing traditions. He is one of six master tattoo artists who will be speaking, doing demonstrations and participating in panels at the festival.
In the days leading up to the three-day symposium, each artist will work with a preselected volunteer from envisioning a traditional tattoo pattern to the actual creation of it on the body.
During the symposium, the artists will provide insights about traditional tattooing in their culture and join their volunteer in a discussion about the experience they shared. To honor the practice as personal, intimate and ceremonial, attendees will not be able to observe the artists at work, but they will see the finished tattoos at the presentations, at the very least as photos projected on a large screen.
“Tattoos predate written language; they’re among the oldest forms of visual communication,” Tan said. “People wear them with pride; those relatively small works of art reveal much about who the individuals are, what they value and who they hope to become. While there are places in the world where tattooing has been preserved and is flourishing, there are many others where it’s on the verge of extinction. The Traditional Tattoo Festival reminds us that for such an important cultural practice to endure, there must be no secrets: It must be openly shared, appreciated, taught and practiced.”
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won several Society of American Travel Writers awards.