By Takahiro “Horitaka” Kitamura
I’m a regular guest artist at Pacific Soul Tattoo in Honolulu, Hawaii. Visiting tattooers and working at other people’s shops is a great way to see the world, meet new people, learn new things and expand your horizons. Working with Steve Looney and Paulo Manabe is a great experience, they are both amazing people, both as tattooers and as friends. Steve has a very unique history and specialty and I wanted to sit down with him and talk about the often misunderstood Polynesian tattoo.
Taki: Let’s start with your personal history…
Steve: Okay, well I was born on the mainland. My dad was in the military so we moved around a lot. My parents got divorced so me, my mom and my sister ended up in California. Went to school over there and then my last year of high school was in Samoa. Finished high school there and moved to Hawaii in 1994.
At the time I was working for the utilities company, and my mom called me to come to Hawaii and help the family. She convinced me to stay, help with my sisters and the bills. She raised us by ourselves from when I was nine years old, and she was always working. She had two jobs, in our culture it’s a must that when you get done with school and get older you should help take care of your parents. They took care of you so you should take care of them. Every Samoan family is like that.
So I stayed here and tried to make a living, working whatever jobs I could get. At the same time I was tattooing at home to make extra money. We were pretty poor growing up, living off the system, I think it was always my nature to find ways to make extra money. Even though I had a regular job, I was always passionate about tattooing and I always wanted to do that as a career.
But I was intimidated to go into a shop and ask for a job, I didn’t think I was good enough. At the time I had met Danni, my wife now, and we discussed me trying to work at a shop. She always encouraged me, my mom too, my mother played a strong role in where I am at today as far as encouraging me to pursue my drawing and my dreams, achieve my goals.
Whatever I wanted to do she was always supportive, even with tattooing, she didn’t like that I was tattooing myself but she always supported me. You know when you’re young and you tattoo yourself and you end up with a ton of shitty tattoos you have to cover up. So with that, I had a new goal I wanted to pursue, to actually work at a shop. I just gave it a shot and I went to this one shop in Waipahu, I took my portfolio, I wouldn’t even call it a portfolio… It was a folder with some photos and drawings. The owner looked at it and hired me on the spot. It was a street shop… flash all over the walls.
I started working at the shop in the year 2000, the guy gave me a chance and I was happy. I stayed there for about three years and it gave me a great deal of confidence in my work, and I wanted to move forward with my tattooing, do more custom. I parted ways with him and I explained my reasons, he wasn’t too happy but it was something I felt like I had to do. After that I ended up working with “Q” at Uso Tattoo and I worked with him for a couple of months.
Then I moved to Waikiki, I went to this one shop in particular, there was this Hawaiian guy who was working there, Seymour Kaniho, and he was doing Polynesian tattoos. He was from the Big Island and that was a place I felt I could work and feel comfortable. Eventually, with the help of family and friends, I opened up Pacific Soul.
T: Tell me about Petelo Sulu’ape
S: He is known also as Petelo but his real name is Alaiva’a. He has three brothers named Petelo, Paulo and Lafaele. Paulo is deceased but the other three brothers all tattoo. I met him when I was working in Waipahu. I had heard of him and had always admired his work since high school. I heard that he was in town and found out that he was tattooing in Waipahu.
I had asked my friend Aisea if he knew anything about it and he had just started going over there. So I asked him to take me to the house and I showed up there one night after work. Went down there with my wife and took some beer and they introduced me to him. We hung out that evening and had a few drinks.
I had a million questions for him but I didn’t want to ask. I was really nervous. I asked him if it was ok if I could watch and hang out, Aisea was already stretching for him at the time. He said Ok, so I went back the next morning and I just hung out there and watched. I’d be there early in the morning when they started, it was usually like 7:30-8:00 a.m.
I asked if I could help out and he had me jump in and sat there with Aisea and he had me help stretch for pe’a (that’s a traditional Samoan tattoo) the proper word for it is tatau. Pe’a is a more common word for it, in Samoa there are two languages, one that is common and one that is for addressing elders and people of rank. I did that every day while he was in town. He’d come to town, stay for a month, month-and-a-half.
Aisea and myself we would go and stretch for him. That was a real humbling experience. I did the stretching for maybe a year and a half before I got my pe’a done, during the time, everybody was asking when are you gonna get yours? Aisea had already started his and I helped stretch for his. The same year Aisea got his, I did mine. Man, that shit hurt. Probably the worst pain I had ever felt at the time, I don’t know what to compare it to.
It was something I always wanted and I always looked up to that man. Before I had met him, he was my inspiration for doing Samoan based tattoos. I decided to get it done and I had to get permission from my mom and my grandma, get their blessing to go through the whole ritual. In our culture if you don’t get the blessing of the family, a lot of times people have a bad experience with it.
People get sick, some people have died. In Samoa, people are very superstitious, I think all island cultures are like that and that is one thing associated with it, people dying. I got the support of my family and my wife. She was my biggest supporter. She’d come and sit over there, pregnant and all and be there for support as well as my friends, the host family, and every one else involved in the process. The whole process took about ten days in total, it was a life changing experience for me. It was something I always wanted and I’ve always been proud of my culture. From when I got sent away, living in Samoa, that changed my life, learning more about my culture and appreciating it and everything we have. I was proud to get it done and finish it. It’s a really big thing in Samoan culture, people who are brave enough to go through the process and finish it.
If you don’t you are branded a coward and bring shame to your family, the worst thing you can do in our culture is bring shame to your family. When I was done, I was relieved that it was over, the minute you finish, he does your belly button, blacks it out, the minute you finish it’s like a pressure release and you get real emotional. I gave the old man a big hug and kept thanking him over and over.
He was a bit emotional too. I thanked him for everything, same thing for Aisea I thanked him for stretching and his support. This influenced my tattoos, how I structured them, doing the pattern work, giving it a more traditional look. During that time, me and Aisea were blessed with the Sulu’ape title. Which basically is like an induction to his family of artists, that you now have permission from the family to do tatau, and you have his blessings.
T: Did he or does he give you guidance beyond the tattooing ritual?
S: I think during the years when we were stretching for him, that’s when you learn. When you are stretching he guides you on how to lay it out, explains the patterns, what they meant, the proper patterns to use, where to place them. Outside of that, we both had our jobs at the shops so I would run my drawings by him, and he would tell you. There was a lot of guidance outside of the actual tattoo.
I learned a lot about my culture and how tattooing ties into it, the history of it, how he made the tools… He actually named my first-born of the twins, Antonio, he gave him the name Logotaeolelei, that’s his middle name. When I finished my pe’a my wife had just given birth to the twins. A lot happened that year, finished my pe’a, had twins, opened the shop and got married all in six months. I was really touched, he asked to name my son, the meaning behind the name has to do with how tattooing came to Samoa and is connected to the Sulu’ape family name.
T: Do you do strictly Samoan tattooing and is this only for Samoans?
S: No, I don’t only do Samoan tattooing. I’ll do whatever somebody brings me, if I think I can do it I will, if not I will refer it to someone who can. Any style of Polynesian tattooing I will do.
T: Well, speaking of Polynesian styles, what are the major styles and how have you learned about them?
S: I guess, it would be Samoan, Hawaiian, Tahitian/ Marquesan, Maori, Tongan, that’s pretty much it. There is Filipino tattooing as well, not necessarily Polynesian but being that Hawaii is a melting pot, you take something from each and make something that applies to them.
T: Are there some sort of guidelines or rules when mixing styles?
S: No, I don’t think so, you’re creating a new tattoo. It’s personalized for the client, like I said Hawaii is a melting pot of different island races, almost everyone here is mixed with something. It makes it easier when trying to design something.
T: Was it hard sitting on the floor and stretching?
S: Hell yeah! We had to sit like that when we were kids in Samoa, but sitting for that many hours. You are there for at least 10 hours a day, sometimes longer. I helped to stretch for around four years.
T: It seems like a real community/family oriented ritual…
S: Yeah definitely. Most definitely.
T: Do you think that gets lost with modern tattooing?
S: I think with Polynesian tattooing… no, most tattoos that Polynesians get include patterns for the family. It’s a way of life here, always connected to the family, no matter what. Even at the shop, there’s always people there. I haven’t worked on the mainland at many shops, just with Orly and Si’I, at their shops there is always people around and family members with the clients.
T: What are the most important things for you in regards to Polynesian tattooing?
S: I definitely think, the story behind the tattoo and its connection to their family.
T: I think it’s definitely a unique cultural thing, where you have families giving their blessing and being involved. I think a lot of people I’ve seen that get tattooed do it against their family’s wishes.
S: Yeah, I think just because of my own beliefs you should always get your family’s blessing. That’s how I was raised. I think it is important, even outside of tattooing, your family’s blessing is important in everything in life.
Steve Looney can be found at:
Horitaka (Taki) can be found at:
State of Grace Tattoo
221 Jackson Street
San Jose, CA 95112
Phone: (408) 441-7770
Hours: 11am – 7pm
Closed on Tuesday