Posted: Wednesday January 17, 2007 9:37AM; Updated: Wednesday January 17, 2007 3:36PM
Above: The hippopotamus tusk tools used to produce the tattoo. Below: Keone Nunes uses his old-school tecnique to tattoo a client.
Photos courtesy of Keone Nunes
Early last year, when Derrick stated his intention to get a tattoo on his leg -- eventually choosing Keone Nunes, the traditional Hawaiian "kakau" expert, as the artist -- Kenneth didn't immediately give the go-ahead. "The way my dad is," Derrick said. "He's not just going to give me something. I have to earn it. That's the way it's been my whole life with me and my brothers."
Instead, Kenneth gave Derrick an assignment. His son may be the only islander to have risen to Division I hoops prominence on the mainland, but Kenneth wasn't about to let him represent his roots without understanding them first.
Derrick was given three, pre-tattoo projects: First, Kenneth made him read a trio of books on past, present and future of Hawaiian culture. Then he had to write a 500-word essay addressing what it meant for him to be a Hawaiian and how the tattoo represented his heritage. Finally, he had to agree to dance a modern "hula auana" for the Washington State team. (Kenneth later informed Cougars coaches of this requirement, which Derrick plans to meet after the season.)
"I tried to reach deeper into Derrick's soul," Kenneth said, "and make him think about how he feels about who he is. Basketball will come and go, but he'll always be a Hawaiian."
After he read the books and had the essay approved by his father, Derrick and Kenneth met with Nunes last summer. Kakau is based on genealogy, and while the recipient must study the subject, he cannot dictate the final look. "It's what I come up with," said Nunes, who ensures the designs appropriately reflect different island regions and family histories.
Kenneth and Chase were witnesses to Derrick's four-hour tattooing, which was a painful experience, largely because Nunes doesn't have a common needle. Instead, he employs a mallet, or tapping stick, to pound thinly-cut hippopotamus tusks, dipped in ink, into the skin. With this old-school process, Low's history was hammered into leg, and in addition to the body art he also grew out his black hair to express his heritage. "What he's doing," Mugiishi said of his former star, "is all kind of a Polynesian revival."
It was a roots-rediscovery that Low timed well -- right along with the awakening of his long-dormant basketball program on the mainland.