Kakau (Hawaiian Tattoo) originally served as adornment, ancestry, social rank distinction and spiritual/physical protection. This artform was administered strictly by a Kahuna (Hawaiian Shaman). Both men and women received kakau. The patterns are often intricate and based off of triangular and square motifs that represent objects found in nature.
In ancient times, before the loss of this spectacular artform, deeper meaning was assigned to each individual design. There was no one meaning for each pattern. The meaning was different depending on your family origins, the island, the artist, an even the part of the island could alter the meaning of a specific symbol. A lot of the Hawaiian tattoo patterns were similar to their tapa cloth.
In the 1800’s, when European missionaries and settlers began to colonize Hawaii, kakau was discouraged. Many of the traditions, patterns, meanings, and other secrets of kakau have been lost.
Unique to the Hawaiian tattoo is the asymmetrical placements of the patterns on the body. Traditionally, the kakau was performed using needles made from birds beaks and claws, carved bone or tortoise shell, or sharp spines from certain kinds of fish. A tool was created by attaching one or more of these needles to a wooden handle. Finally, the needles were dipped in ink and hit with a wooden malet to puncture the skin and leave a permanent marking. The ink was made from fixing the ash of burnt candlenut with the juices of coconut or sugarcane.