Keoki from Extreme Ink
From Beach Front to Store Front by Jamie J. Umanzor
When most people think about Hawaii, they envision a tropical paradise of exotic flowers, hula dancers, a life full of sunny beaches, and not a care in the world. What most people don't see is the other side of reality that plagues many of our beloved people; a harsh existence encumbered by poverty, homelessness, drugs and violence. The exact opposite of what life in Hawaii calls to mind.
This is the story of one remarkable man who had everything and then lost it all to this pervasive reality. George Davis, AKA Keoki, has roots that stretch deep into the cultural richness of the Wai`anae Coast. However, at the age of 1, Keoki was whisked abroad to the life of a military brat. Sadly, when his family left the islands, they also left behind most of their heritage. The only connection to culture that Keoki had was when his father listened to music from Hawaiian groups like Kalapana, C&K, and Olomana.
For the majority of his childhood, Keoki lived in various parts of the world, including Germany and Panama. Living the transient life of a military child, there were not many opportunities to create lasting relationships; but living abroad provided Keoki and his family with many adventures. He fondly remembers his mother packing up all the kids to explore the various countries surrounding Germany, as well as locations throughout Panama.
Around the age of 12, Keoki and his family returned to the islands, at the heels of his father's early retirement from the military. On the doorstep of his new life, Keoki was. greeted by the other side of life in paradise. His first few years home were marked by a far more transient life than Keoki has ever experienced. Moving from one house to the next, from one family to another, Keoki was thrown into the tumultuous life of homelessness. Witnessing the downfall of his precious family, Keoki could only hope to survive as his parents succumbed to the impoverished life. They were finally "home", and yet his family had no house to call their own. By the time Keoki reached high school, his entire family of 8 was living on the beach. Life was a far cry from paradise.
As a homeless teen living on the shores of the Wai`anae Coast, Keoki faced a whole different reality. A reality where his stomach was usually empty. A life where his bedroom was a small tent shared by three boys. An existence where they lived at the mercy of the weather. There was nothing normal about Keoki's teenage years.
Being labeled as the "homeless kids," Keoki and his siblings lived with a different kind of scarlet letter. As outcast members of teenage society where friends were hard to come by, Keoki sought a sense of belonging. As is common in the them of how life unravels for those who are ostracized by society, Keoki gravitated toward the marginalized teens at his high school. These were kids who smoked, drank, and did drugs.
Under those circumstances, most would have embraced the drugs and alcohol in an attempt to drown the hardships of living as a homeless teenager, but Keoki was determined not to surrender himself to the hopelessness. Instead, he turned to art and music. Although his friends were of a delinquent sort, they were talented musicians, and Keoki found a deep connection to music. It was his escape along with his art. Keoki was always drawing and doodling. Keoki drew so often that when a friend began tattooing in high school, he would draw the designs onto his customers. At this point in his life, Keoki never gave a thought to tattooing. It was so far removed from his mind, that was never an option.
Living in the squalor of his family's despondent existence of homelessness, Keoki ached to break free and forge a better life. By his senior year of high school, he was determined to do just that. With a son on the way, it was even more crucial for his new family. Ten days after he graduated from high school, Keoki left for the military with high hopes for an improved life.
It was during this time that Keoki met other Native Hawaiians who were grounded in culture. They helped him to see what it actually meant to be Hawaiian, both as a people and a heritage. As he began to find the roots of his culture, he also started to lose bits of himself. He began losing his family. Keoki found himself faced with a decision, save his family or continue his military career. In a last ditch attempt to salvage his fragile family, Keoki returned home. But it was too late. He lost his family and ended up homeless once again.
In the midst of losing everything for a second time in his life at 22 years old, Keoki reconnected with some old friends from high school. One night while hanging out with the friend who was still tattooing, he was asked to draw a design. Then, he was asked to draw it on his friend.
Suddenly, in a pivotal moment, Keoki was asked to actually tattoo the design. Keoki's mind went reeling. He was nervous yet excited at the prospect. Keoki recalled, "March 5, 2005...my friend asked me to tattoo him...my adrenaline was rushing...I didn't know what to do or how to do it, but my friend was walking me through the process...I enjoyed it. It was a cool feeling. But even after tattooing him, it was not something I planned to do again. It wasn't until a couple of weeks later when my friend was trying to convince me that I would be a good tattoo artist that I actually considered it. At the time, I was working for a security company, and so I took my next paycheck and bought my first tattoo machine."
It was a huge risk to take especially without anyone to guide him. But Keoki found someone who changed the way he looked at tattooing, Akiu Sale. "I wanted to start an apprenticeship under his tutelage. At the time, he was at Queen of Pain Tattoo in town. I hopped on the bus and set out to find Akiu. During our conversation about possibly starting an apprenticeship, I asked him about the [Polynesian] designs, about what they mean, and about everyone using similar designs. What he said changed me. 'Everybody uses the triangle, but it's how you use the triangle that makes you who you are.' Not too long after that, I lost my security job, and being homeless, I needed a cash flow to buy my bus passes. With no job, I had no way of getting out of town and I lost touch with Akiu."
In spite of this setback and with nothing but the clothes on his back and a tent on the beach, Keoki began tattooing. He started out tattooing one or two people a week but his reputation grew. At first Keoki was tattooing just to survive. He hoped to make ends meet and to get off the beach. But then tattooing became something much more to him. He shared, "Looking at the lives I was touching, the people...they enjoyed getting tattoos from me. It wasn't just the tattoo; it was the experience that they loved. And that was what I came to love more. The tattooing is like a side dish, a condiment to the main dish which was the experience of meeting and getting to know these people. And that is when I kept going, when I realized it wasn't just tattooing a design. I realized that I was touching people's lives... I was helping people...that is when I started to take tattooing seriously...It's a way to meet people from many different pathways in life...seeing them all come together for one commonality; a representation of who we are, which is what our tattoos are – a physical display of who we portray ourselves to be."
In the spring of 2007, Keoki decided to hire a secretary to help him handle the administrative side of tattooing. Approximately one year after hiring his secretary, Keoki began getting more and more referrals. Business picked up and he made every effort to meet the ever increasing demand. Soon he found his clientele growing to over 70 a month! On the advice of his secretary, he had to cut back and pace himself to avoid burning out. Keoki recalls, "At that point she became more than a simple secretary. Now, she is more like a business partner, which is my excuse for always forgetting secretary's day!" But to keep himself balanced, Keoki plays volleyball, dances hula, plays music, sings and recently took up airsoft. Even so, Keoki has kept busy with a solid customer base on O`ahu as well as a strong clientele base in California that includes two Bay Area coordinators.
Keoki had come a long way. He had his tattoo license and a shop to work out of in Kalihi. But in spite of his success, he expressed that he still looks for ways to improve himself. "I still feel that I have a lot of growth that I need to do. I had to teach myself everything. My high school friend introduced me to tattooing, but I didn't have anyone to help me take it to the next level. There was no one to push me, no one to even show me if I did wrong. I jumped into the deep end and was sink or swim. So I pushed myself to learn... but I still feel like I have a long way to go. I only had a short apprenticeship at Island Ink on Maui when I first started, and only within the last year and a half have I had the opportunity to learn from Joe Skramstad. Joe is from Portland. He is an amazingly talented artist with a gift for the art. He comes to Hawaii a few times out of the year and works out of the shop. I am very lucky to have learned some coloring techniques from him."
Keoki related that he also looks up to many of the established tattoo artists of Hawaii such as: Su`a Suluape Aisea Toetu`u, Akiu Sale, Ricci Boy, Suluape Steve Looney, Bong and others. In addition to these tattoo icons, he found motivation to grow from his customers, God, and his business associates. "I get inspired by the people that I meet, and I attribute my success to God, my customers, and the three people who help me run my business. Without the combination of these three elements, there would be no business. Without my faith in God, I would have lost the battle a long time ago. Without my customers, I wouldn't have anyone to tattoo. Jamie, Dana, and Zeus, are my foundation in life and for my business. Dana and Zeus, even though they live in the Bay Area, are like brothers to me. Jamie is my best friend and business partner. I wouldn't have gone far in this business without them."
Many people have remarked how free hand Polynesian tattoos are Keoki's specialty. At first, it was for him a response to what his customers wanted but that changed. He said, "Here, it's a culture, and such a demand for a representation of our culture, it in turn brought me closer to my culture and who I am. It has forced me to get deeper into who I am as a person of an ancestry and a race that is diminishing with every generation."
Although Keoki was taken away from his native land and ancestral culture as a young child and twice stripped of his family, he rediscovered his cultural roots. Some would be tempted to say he re-established his connection to his culture through music, tattooing and hula. But Keoki disagrees. "I would say that circumstance helped me to find who I am. I think that hula, the music, and the tattooing are just a product of my search. I think me going homeless helped me to find myself... they say that when you lose everything, you find out who you are. You go back to your origins, to your ancestry and traditions. I am Hawaiian, and that is who I came back to be."