A statue of Hawaii's first king, Kamehameha, who united the islands, watches over the town of Hilo
© Malte Jäger

Aloha and beyond


Nearly nine million tourists visited Hawaii last year, and most of them came for the eternal cliché of sun, sea and palm trees. But that image is out of sync with the way many Hawaiians feel about their home state.

Hawaii is a place almost everyone has imagined, and the portrait we paint in our minds is nearly always the same: hula girls, floral wreaths and bronzed surfer dudes, accompanied by the roar of the ocean and perfect blue-green waves. Oh, and someone plucking a ukulele. It’s all about aloha, right?

Deal with the mystery.
Do it now

Hunter S. Thompson, legendary reporter

I decided to investigate how much of this was true and asked photographer Malte Jäger to join me. We followed the advice once given by legendary journalist Hunter S. Thompson (“Deal with the mystery. Do it now. Anything that can create itself by erupting out of the bowels of the Pacific Ocean is worth looking at”) and set out in search of the spirit behind the traditions, crafts and old arts of the Hawaiian islands. We wanted to meet the heroes of the Hawaiian renaissance, which was given an extra impulse in 1975 when a group of enthusiasts built the voyaging canoe Hokule‘a to sail to Tahiti in the wake of their ancestors.

Girl with surfboard in Hawaii
© Colin Andersson/Gallery Stock



  We set off from Big Island, the largest of Hawaii’s eight main islands. In the small town of Hilo, palm trees sway in the breeze, banyan fig trees dangle their aerial roots and provide shade for picnickers. The cultures that inform the face of Hawaii to this day are reflected at the farmers’ market in the kimchi cabbage from Korea, Californian cookies and Japanese bento boxes. This would be paradise if not for two pale-skinned Germans roaring through in their Mustang convertible, but none of the marketgoers raises as much as an eyebrow. This is the 50th U.S. state, so big, noisy automobiles are perfectly okay.

It’s not just our rental car that’s loud. All hell has broken loose outside Sig Zane’s store for designer Hawaiian shirts. Drums make the ground quiver and fire crackers explode. A dancing dragon appears, gleaming golden in the sunshine. It’s Chinese New Year and people are celebrating. Zane, a wiry man in a red aloha shirt, laughs and hands around red envelopes containing dollar bills. “Feed the dragon – and good fortune will be yours,” he says. Ten minutes later, it’s all over. The monster has eaten from my hand and moved on with its entourage. When can I expect my good fortune to arrive?

The skyline of downtown Honolulu bordering Waikiki Beac

Legendary idyll with lots of concrete: the skyline of downtown Honolulu bordering Waikiki Beach

© Malte Jäger

  Inside the store, Zane looks out of the window. “We need to do this interview fast,” he says. “I want to go surfing.” Back in the 1970s, Zane taught himself to make traditional clothing. “I did it for love. I wanted to impress the girl of my dreams.” It worked, and she married him. Years later, she suggested he try his hand at men’s shirts. At that time, the Hawaiian shirt was just a parody, a stag party costume, a cheap polyester souvenir. Zane bucked the trend by using quality materials, traditional patterns and producing pure cotton shirts with coconut-shell buttons in small quantities: to hand down, not eventually throw out. Today, at 64, Zane, the son of Chinese immigrants, is hailed as the world’s best designer of aloha shirts. He collaborates with small, luxury brands, such as the Japanese label Forest Cloud, but also with Nike. On the islands, businessmen wear his shirts to meetings; the Hawaiian renaissance has reached the boardroom.

People here still respect Nature. The ocean makes us humble

Kuaho Zane, fashion designer

In his bright studio above the flagship store, Zane cuts flower motifs from foil. Big veins run down his arms. Zane is a craftsman, not a laptop designer. “This flower is called ‘liko,’” he says, “it’s a symbol of childhood.” In Hawaiian culture, different plants stand for different words. String them together and they tell stories. The road from cutting out foil to the finished shirt is a long one, and Zane designs about six new patterns every year. “I transfer any mistakes my hands make to the computer because imperfection is authentic.”

His son Kuaho, 34, joins us. Kuaho studied graphic design in L.A., lived for a while in California and sowed his wild oats. Then he came home to work in the family business. His close-cropped hair is as gray as his father’s. How does he define the spirit of the islands? “People here still respect Nature. The ocean makes us humble.” Then he, too, looks out the window restlessly. “Working is tough when there are good waves out there.”

Sig Zane designs traditional Hawaiian shirts

Sig Zane designs traditional Hawaiian shirts ...

© Malte Jäger
Classic flower motifs for Hawaiian shirts

... for which the main design elements are classic flower motifs

© Malte Jäger

  Hawaii is made up of 137 Islands and atolls. Big Island is the youngest of the eight inhabited islands. You can tell because it isn’t finished; volcanoes keep erupting here, engulfing the streets in boiling lava. Entire villages have to be evacuated when this happens. Hilo has been torn away by a tsunami twice. Maybe that’s why the pace of life is so casual. It will all end one day, so why hurry? We drive to the Grand Naniloa Hotel, where Japanese teens are snapping selfies on the terrace. Men in sports shirts drink themselves into the mood for the live Super Bowl broadcast later on. Suddenly, the door swings open and hula master Meleana Manuel, 57, enters in a red velvet dress with a silk sash. On her head, a floral wreath known as a “lei,” and under her arm an ipu heke, a kind of drum carved from a calabash. Strutting behind her is Karly Lopez, 19, a curvaceous Latina type. Red skirt, white blouse, green fern brow band. The football fans crane their necks like meerkats.

“The image of hula is still a caricature,” says Manuel, immediately on the offensive. “In the 1960s, tourists flocked to Hawaii to see pretty girls in skimpy costumes. And because the traditional chants were not immediately appealing, the music was adapted – to pop music from the mainland.” Chants are the melodious verse sequences to which hula is danced. The dancers’ movements tell a story. “Our ancestors knew nothing of literature. For them, a hula performance was like a visit to the library.”

Map of Hawaii and its 137 islands

Hawaii is made up of 137 islands and atolls. Oahu and Big Island are the most densely populated of the eight main islands

© Cristóbal Schmal

  Manuel was born on the island of Oahu in 1960. Her mother was young and overwhelmed, so she gave her baby daughter up for adoption. The adoptive parents enrolled her at a hula school when she was only four, but she didn’t make a vocation of her hobby until after finishing school. “Really understanding hula is like going to college, but with one difference: You cannot earn a degree. Only your master can designate you a ‘kumu hula’ – if she feels it is right to do so.” “Kumu” means “source,” and just as a source provides water, so a kumu should pass on her knowledge to the next generation.

It took Manuel 28 years to become a master. She has held the title for ten years and has 46 students, six of them men, and that trend is upward. As a kumu, she flies around the world, visiting schools in the USA, Europe and Japan. “The Hawaiian renaissance has brought the authentic hula back to us. But we further developed and exported it,” she says proudly. Then master and student walk down the steps toward the ocean. The waves slap dramatically against the black rocks as Manuel sinks into the grass, starts plucking her ipu heke and begins to sing a chant for Lili‘uokalani, the last queen of Hawaii. Lopez’s movements are slow and flowing. Two days ago, I would have dismissed the scene as kitsch, but now it’s a history lesson.

Karly Lopez during her hula dance

Performance beneath the palms: Karly Lopez dances the hula, while her master, Meleana Manuel, provides the musical accompaniment

© Malte Jäger

  We leave Big Island and fly to Oahu. Honolulu is the urban center of the entire archipelago, but once you leave the city limits, you find yourself moving to the rhythm of the wind and waves. Our pickup rumbles westward, our satnav directing us toward a settlement of houses near the small town of Wai‘anae. “You have arrived at your destination!” We stare at each other in disbelief. This is where the world’s most famous tattoo artist lives? Keone Nunes, 60, opens the door. Hard chin, soft smile, a grip like a vice. “Go around through the garden!” Few words, clear message. Behind the house, there’s a pavilion with raffia matting on the roof, cushions and the master’s tools: dozens of small hammers and bowls of black ink. “I am no saint. I bang the ink into your skin,” says Nunes. There’s a certain spirituality to what he does. “But I think it’s silly when people turn up with crystals.”

Ashlyn Weaver, 24, has arrived from California with a story instead: Her Hawaiian grandmother died and she has come for the funeral and wants to preserve the memory with a tattoo. Nunes spent an hour and a half finding out exactly what she wanted. “He even asked me to draw up my family tree,” the student said. Why? “I turn down a good 80 percent of people who inquire; they simply don’t interest me,” says Nunes, who is known as “Tufunga” in the island language. He draws a line pattern in red felt-tip onto Weaver’s naked skin, from hip to ankle. She has no say regarding the motif.

Having a tattoo tapped is a painful experience and even supposed to trigger visions. But tapping has one advantage over injecting ink with an electric needle: speed. And so we watch, mesmerized, as a black road of arrow symbols takes shape on Weaver’s right side. From time to time, a faint moan pierces the monotonous hammering. “The pain is good,” says Nunes with a smile, “it tells you you’re alive.”

In the Polynesian Triangle between New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island, these dark symbols have a long tradition. Their precise origin is unclear, but some of the hammers discovered date back to before 3500. Nunes learned this dying art on Samoa nearly 30 years ago. After his master’s death in 1999, he rose to the highest ranks. “But you remain a student all your life,” he says earnestly. Kneeling beside him is Kaipo, 26, one of his apprentices. Aside from his backyard tattoo business, he works as a fire fighter. Kaipo pulls Weaver’s skin taut and watches. How did he get interested in this? “Many young men have lost their connection to their roots.” Television and the Internet, rap music and fastfood – “They’re not my thing,” he says. The Hawaiian population is as colorful as a rainbow; only a quarter of the people still has Polynesian ancestors. Kaipo is a member of this group, which takes pride in preserving traditions. Why? Perhaps because they have always been here.

Master tattoo artist Keone Nunes at work, closely observed by his students

Master tattoo artist Keone Nunes at work, closely observed by his students

© Malte Jäger
Woman getting her leg tapped tattooed

A tapped tattoo takes shape in a single session lasting several hours

© Malte Jäger
Kilauea Volcano on Big Island spews lava into the Pacific

Primeval scene: Kilauea Volcano on Big Island spews lava into the Pacific

© Malte Jäger
A barren coastline north of Wai‘anae

A barren coastline north of Wai‘anae

© Malte Jäger
Former district attorney and ex-mayor of Honolulu Peter Carlisle on his surfboard

Late starter: Former district attorney and ex-mayor of Honolulu, Peter Carlisle started surfing at age 52

© Malte Jäger
Fence art at the hippy village of Pahoa saying “Aloha“

Green welcome: fence art at the hippy village of Pahoa

© Malte Jäger

  The story of masters and students, of ancient customs and young talent ends on Waikiki Beach, where Olympic victor Duke “The Big Kahuna” Kahanomoku created the modern sport of surfing; where TV detective Thomas Magnum winked at the bikini girls; where culture and cliché collide. At 6 am, when the city and particularly the tourists are still sleeping, a group of old men – islanders, Asians and mainland Americans – start waxing their longboards and head for the water. Peter Carlisle, 64, stays put a moment longer. A former district attorney, he was tough on crime and later became mayor. Today he is an advisor to the city. An outsider, he came for love, but you can still hear the New Jersey streets buzz beneath his mustache. He feels more at home here than anywhere else. “This bay was where I first stepped on a board.” He caresses his surfboard. “At 52.” He swallowed a lot of white water that day. Falling off the board and getting back up – a tough role for a man with his tough reputation. “But it was worth it.” He looks at me calmly, his eyes reflecting the rising sun. “Believe me, son, Hawaii doesn’t change that fast, but these islands change you.” Then he runs down to the ocean.