student tattoo

Chavella Espinosa’s tattoo. Every level of the tattoo has meaning. At the top is an ‘iwa bird; in Hawaiian culture they symbolize direction. Underneath is the Mauna symbol: the origin story of Hawaiian people (Papahanmoku and Maukea). Next, fish (i’a) scales to represent the fishermen in the family and her family’s fishing history. At the bottom are octopus (he’e) tentacles representing her children, future generations and everyone that is to come after. (Photo courtesy of Chavella Espinosa)

With the rapid increase of people getting tattooed in recent years, students flaunting ink across a shoulder, or perhaps down a spine, has become a routine sight around campus. 

There are a range of reasons to get tattooed, from commemorating a loved one to a recognition of personal achievements. Yet, for some Indigenous students at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, tattoos are a way of preserving their cultural traditions.

Natalia Qangyuk Schneider, a sophomore from Kodiak, Alaska, proudly sports an intricate tattoo across her right thigh, composed of linework and symbols traditional to her Indigenous Sugpiaq roots. Schneider detailed the various facets of her Indigenous tattoos and said each line had meaning behind it. 

“Thigh tattoos were traditionally motherhood tattoos,” Schneider said. “I only have one of my legs done on purpose, but before I have kids, both sides will be done.” 

Schneider explained the tattoo is applied before motherhood as it is the first thing a child will see as it is born.  

“It is supposed to be a story of who the mom is, and where the baby is coming from,” Schneider said. “That is how a baby will know that they are being welcomed into a happy and safe home.” 

Schneider is actively working with community elders to teach a lost Native Alaskan language, Sugt’stun. She chose to get tattooed after receiving a college certificate for the language. Schneider said her left leg has been left blank because her journey isn’t done yet. 

In addition to her leg piece, Schneider also had her hands tattooed with traditional Sugpiaq methods, which uses three needles in the stick and poke style. There is a dot on every one of her fingers at the cuticle, which protects her joints and also represents her identity.

“They mean that I am a weaver, a beader and a carver,” Schneider said. 

Although there are active efforts within the Indigenous community to preserve traditions, Schneider said her tattoos are relatively modern because some elements of the culture have been eradicated due to colonization. While being interviewed, she specifically pointed to chin tattoos which, in Sugpiaq culture, were given to young girls after their first period to signify that they had entered womanhood. 

“That is not alive in our culture anymore,” Schneider said. “Very few people have chin tattoos today.” 

Other Indigenous students, such as sophomore Chavella Espinosa, have similar feelings. Traditional Hawaiian tattoos were received through a method involving the tapping of the ink into the skin with an albatross bone. Today however, many Hawaiians receive their tattoos at modernized tattoo studios, and when completed through this method, are considered to be contemporary. 

“Not a lot of people have traditional tattoos because so much knowledge has been lost, so it is hard for people to know where they come from,” Espinosa said. “I am trying to start my process of traditional Hawaiian tattooing with the tapping of the bone and the ink, but I find it very hard that I don’t know much about it myself.” 

While her piece contains symbols such as ‘iwa birds, heʻe (octopus) tentacles as well as iʻa (fish) scales as a nod to her family’s fishing heritage, Epsinosa explained the many other meanings that Hawaiian tattoos can carry. 

“Not only does it tell the story of your family and where you come from, but also the aliʻi (high ruling chiefs) in Hawaiʻi used them to protect themselves in battle,” Espinosa said. “Sections that their garments didn’t cover were tattooed, so they would protect them where they were not covered.”

Despite the centuries of tradition behind these tattoos, Espinosa said the perception of the public eye is still similar to that placed on other types of tattoos. 

“The military does not allow face tattoos, but in Maori culture, it is a tradition to get face tattoos,” Espinosa added. “It apprehends you from being immersed in your culture.”  

Delving into the world of cultural tattoos is a profound experience for some, such as sophomore Seven Davis, who began his tattoo journey at the age of 14. With 20 tattoos and counting, Davis is especially fond of his contemporary Hawaiian tattoo. 

“My tribal tattoo represents the story of my life, starting from when I was a kid, to every downfall I’ve had,” Davis said.  

Inked on Davis’ calf is his family’s aumakua, a turtle. 

“In Hawaiian culture, an aumakua is a family god or spirit that decided to watch over you,” Davis said. “My turtle represents endurance and protection.” 

While body art was once condemned by society as menacing or dismissed as unprofessional, tattoo work is becoming normalized and accepted as a form of self expression. Though there is an increasing number of people getting body art, Davis feels the stigma surrounding tattooed individuals persists. 

“Sometimes when people see me, they get a little scared. I’m not the smallest person and I have a lot of tattoos,” Davis said. “I know that times are changing, but there still is that stereotype that if you have tattoos, you're either in a gang or you’re not a good person.” 

Freshman Kaia Ordinario also faces criticism due to her tattoo, but from a different angle than Davis. Ordinario, who has roots in the Ilocano ethnolinguistic group, chose to combine a traditional Ilocano tattoo, which crosses her shoulder and back, with contemporary Hawaiian tribal elements. 

Speaking about when people see her tattoo, Ordinario said, “They are shocked, especially with my small stature. Some people will ask why I have such a big tattoo.” 

Ordinario predicts the trajectory of tattoo normalization will continue to progress and said that the stigma in the workplace is almost obsolete. 

“Of course, there may be concerns about professionalism, specifically from older people,” Ordinario said. “But as time goes on and they retire, and younger people replace them, I give it about ten years before this is gone.”

As an artist, Ordinario always wanted art represented on her body, especially because it is a tradition in her family to get tribal tattoos from her uncle. 

“It is so significant to my family and it represents not just me, but my family and where we come from,” Ordinario said. “We all have a piece that is specific to us but also to our family as a whole.”

Though many cultural tattooing practices have been lost to colonization and time, Ordinario and Schneider see glimmers of hope within the efforts of their communities, specifically young people, who are working to revive and renormalize ancient traditions today. 

Since she got her legs tattooed, Schneider said some of her friends have become interested in them and even helped design a tattoo for one of her friends, who is a mother.

“There is a community of people that are ready for more,” she added. 

As an individual with ethnic tattoos, Ordinario sees the influence she holds as a positive. 

“It empowers more people to get their tattoos and represent their culture,” Ordinario said. “We are marking our bodies as ours with our tattoos.”

Cultural tattoos in general are often considered to be closed practices for the groups they are specific to. However, Schneider, along with many other Indigenous people, feel their sanctity is sometimes not respected. 

For example, Schenider said her design, which is common in boho culture, has been tattooed onto non-indigenous people.

“This is a very old design in Alaska,” Schneider said. “It’s funny how trends that are modern are cultural appropriation of these designs.”

Espinosa sees a similar issue with Hawaiian tattoos being appropriated.

“I do see it as a problem when non-Pacific Islanders get contemporary traditional tattoos,” Espinosa explained. “You can get whatever you want on your body, but you have to understand the significance.  Each line, each mark, is made with a purpose.” 

The consensus is clear; it is inappropriate to get tattoos meant to be practiced by Indigenous cultures, especially if one is not educated on the meaning and tradition behind them. Tattoos represent much more than what meets the eye.