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The History Boy
Luke Winn
March 19, 2007
Derrick Low's elaborate tattoo speaks of his Hawaiian heritage
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March 19, 2007

The History Boy

Derrick Low's elaborate tattoo speaks of his Hawaiian heritage

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THE BASKETBALL gods have been kind to Washington State lately—the Cougars, who won just 11 games last season, were 25--7 headed into Thursday's matchup against Oral Roberts—but their star player bears ink honoring more personal deities.

HONOLULU-BORN GUARD DERRICK LOW (averaging a team-high 13.6 points) returned for his junior year this season with a look that his high school coach, Mark Mugiishi, describes as "Polynesian revival"—long surfer's hair and a traditional Hawaiian tattoo running from his left ankle to his hip. At its base is a design representing the Low family guardian, Na-maka-o-kaha'i, the Hawaiian goddess of the ocean. ("We are water-loving people," Low says of his father and two brothers.) The teeth that frame the diamondlike leg pattern represent his family's other protector, Ka-moho-ali'i, the king shark who guides lost vessels to safety. Low's ancestor's were navigators who emigrated from Tahiti, and the waterlines flowing up his leg represent the eight ocean channels that run through the Hawaiian islands.

THE TATTOO WAS APPLIED by a unique process called kakau. An expert artist in Oahu, Keone Nunes, researched the family's history, chose the design, then drew it on with finely sharpened hippopotamus tusks, which had been dipped in ink and which he tapped into the skin using a wooden stick. Low's tattooing took four hours, but the experience began months earlier when his father, Kenneth, made him agree to complete three assignments before giving his blessing: Read three books on Hawaiian history and culture, write a report on what it means to be a Hawaiian and dance a hula 'auana—a modern version of the hula—for his Wazzu teammates. (The first two are done; the third, which involves a lot of hip swiveling, was put off to the off-season, per request of the Cougars' coaches.)

LOW'S FATHER, Kenneth, a mechanic for the Honolulu bus system, is proud of his middle son's look. "I tried to reach deeper into Derrick's soul and make him think about how he feels about who he is," says the elder Low. "Basketball will come and go. He'll always be a Hawaiian."

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