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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tradition of tattoo lives on

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

Let's talk today about an ancient Polynesian art being practiced amid the streams of tourists in Waikiki, where Steve Looney tattoos the genealogies of his clients.

Like the paintings of Paul Gauguin, Looney's tattoos are individual, inspired by the person he's tattooing.

Looney didn't start with traditional Polynesian tattoos. His haole father was in the U.S. Army. His mother was Samoan and his grandmother insisted that the family speak Samoan.

"I got started at age 16 in California when my friends taught me how to make a tattooing machine out of ... a radio, the tube out of a ballpoint pen, a guitar string and a battery," he said.

The designs his friends taught him reflected gang culture like a skull in a baseball cap smoking a cigar. Looney doesn't look down on that, because "it's all art, man." When he returned to Samoa in 1991, he found that kids were using the same homemade machines but doing traditional Polynesian designs.

Looney has been a professional tattoo artist for about two years. He said the going price for a small, easy-to-do tattoo say, a turtle is $50. For extensive tattoos, artists charge $100 to $150 an hour. There are about 30 tattoo shops on O'ahu.

He said a tattoo starts with a consultation. The client tells Looney what kind of tattoo he has in mind. Looney asks questions about family. "As for the design, the motif, that's up to me," he said. He fits the tattoo to the client.

His little shop on the second floor at Ka'iulani and Kuhio avenues has a leather recliner in which clients sit while being tattooed. Looney uses a machine. He said that he knows how to tattoo the traditional way by tapping a needle with a wooden baton but that it's complicated.

To show why, he explained how traditional tattooing is done in Samoa. When a boy is old enough to be a man and wants a tattoo, the family decides on the artists and sends him gifts. They set a date for the tattooing, usually for a group of boys at the same time.

The boys gather at the host's house and take turns getting tattooed. It can take 10 to 14 days. The tattoo artist lives with the host and is fed, as are his two or three assistants who stretch the skin. When the tattooing is completed, there's a big feast, the tattoos are blessed and the artist receives gifts.

The tattoos cover much of the body and are very painful. But anesthesia would destroy the meaning of the ritual.

Looney got his traditional tattoo it covers him from knees to waist in Hawai'i two years ago. It took 10 days, three to four hours a day, and the finish was the happiest moment of his life because his wife gave birth to twins at the same time.

Reach Bob Krauss at 525-8073.