On Ink: Hawai‘i’s Tattoo Scene Becomes Mainstream

On Ink: Hawai‘i's Tattoo Scene Becomes Mainstream

Originally Appearing in "Hardcore Honolulu" (Abstract 2)
Text by Alicia Devoll & Images by Cheyne Gallarde


Hawaiʻi is one of the few places where misfits, gangsters, sailors, missionaries, mothers, and doctors can work and live together—and proudly show off their tattoos. The shock factor of tattoos is fading but the art is not, and getting a tattoo is no longer solely associated with social outcasts and criminals. With the tattoo boom in pop culture in recent years, more and more people are proud to show off their ink—especially in this fair-weather state that allows more physical exposure. And like so many other elements of Hawaiʻi culture, tattooing here is unique.

Local tattooing veteran Mike Ledger originally hails from New York City. Known for his large Asian-influenced tattoo bodysuits, he’s been tattooing for 28 years, 14 of them in Hawaiʻi. “Back then, if you had tattoos you were marked a scumbag, people assumed you were in a gang or just got out of prison,” he says. “It was guys like Sailor Jerry, Hardy and Malone who were making changes to the scene.”

Culturally significant images and processes of tattooing have been a part of island culture for centuries, but Honolulu has also been a hub for contemporary tattooing as well. Since the 1960s, legend Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins started tattooing in then-shady Chinatown. After traveling the world, Collins was one of the first artists to bring Asian influence into western tattooing. He was known for his flash art style of clean images—usually pinup girls, roses, anchors, tigers and daggers.

Clientele at the time were the stereotypical gangsters, eccentrics, and fellow sailors. He started legitimizing the profession by spearheading sterilization standards among the community and raising awareness of the progressive art form. Collins had two main protégés: the late Mike Malone and Don “Ed” Hardy. Hardy helped continue his style and legacy after Collins’ passing in the 1970s and helped popularize it for the past 30 years.

There were two types of tattoo shops in Hawaiʻi, according to Ledger: the shops for the stereotypes and for the tourists. Tourists would come in and get souvenir flash tattoos for the novelty of being on the island. But for tattooists like Collins, Hardy, Ledger and many others, it was an art form. They tried to show the public that they could be taken seriously.

“We had to constantly prove ourselves. I don’t ride a motorcycle, I’m not in a gang, and I never went to prison. I’m an artist,” Ledger says.

Billy Whitney of 808 Tattoo in Kaneohe, has also witnessed a similar progression of tattooing in Hawaiʻi over the past 15 years. “When I started, it was underground. People would see my tattoos and run the other way,” Whitney says. “I noticed a real change when tattoos started showing up in popular media. Regular people were getting tattooed. Today some old lady will grab my arm at the store and start asking about my ink.”

There is no doubt that Hawaiʻi’s warm weather climate, long-standing cultural tattoo history, and liberal attitudes have helped make it a common day form of art and expression. More and more people are learning and experiencing tattooing every day.

Last summer, after the merger between the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Contemporary Art Museum, the newly formed Honolulu Museum of Art wanted to organize an exhibit that could combine the diverse work of all the curators. Deputy Director Allison Wong explains the goal of the tattoo exhibit—to gain a new audience, open people’s minds, and feature alternative forms of art.

“At first some of our older members were shocked at the idea, but once they were able to see how beautiful the pieces were that only the medium was different, they saw the tattoos as true pieces of art,” Wong says.

The Tattoo Honolulu exhibit featured works from 10 different influential artists in Hawaiʻi and highlighted the rich and diverse cultural traditions found on the island today—Hawaiian, American, Japanese and Polynesian cultures. It also showed 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints, military and mariner tattoo traditions, 18th-century western drawings depicting Pacific Islanders bearing tattoos, textiles and their rich link to Polynesian tattoos, and the specialized, beautiful tools used by the artists.

“It’s our job to show our visitors and local members that art is a whole gamut; there really is something for everybody,” Wong says. “The tattoo exhibit helped people really think through what type of art they like and don’t like. Some say they didn’t like contemporary art, but all art was considered contemporary at one time.”

The exhibit ran for six months and received positive reviews and helped strengthen the connection between the role the Museum already plays in tattoo culture—Japanese iconography tattoos created by Oʻahu artists are often based on works that can be found at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

“Art transcends culture and time,” Wong says. “It’s meant to be inspiration and informative.”

Though tattooing itself is not new, the rise in the public awareness and opinion has also lead to an increased amount of people getting into the industry. With 817 licensed tattoo artists and 164 permitted tattoo shops in the state of Hawaiʻi alone, it sometimes feels like there’s one on nearly every block.

“Everything goes in cycles,” Ledger says. “Those who got involved for money or fame will be disappointed. If they do it for the love, then those things might come to them but it won’t make a difference because they love tattooing. They have a greater respect for what they’re doing and a greater respect for the guys who paved the way for them.”

Though the saturation of artists might be high, so is the talent. Whitney explains that the tattoo community in Hawaiʻi is very close. So much so that artists are able to develop strong niches and are able to refer clients looking for specific art to their fellow artists. “It’s the best place in the world to tattoo and be tattooed,” Whitney said.

So what does the future look like for the tattoos in the rainbow state? Ledger argues that tattooing will never be completely acceptable in every situation and will most likely still encounter discrimination.

“Hawaiʻi has the luxury of the cultural influence—people can have their faces tattooed and still work in customer service,” Whitney said. “I work on a lot of professionals like doctors, who can afford larger pieces.”

The permanent art of tattooing will not fade anytime soon, not with each new generation redefining the culture and vision. And thanks to tattoo artists and enthusiasts helping to promote and bring their work to a wider audience, the future has never looked brighter.