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The NĀ KOA Story


It all started with Derek. I met him on a drive up Haleakalā and on one of the stops he took his shirt off.

Derek is in amazing shape, but what made him look so regal were the Polynesian tattoos on his chest, lower back, shoulder and arms that had been designed for him by his Tahitian cousin.

Tahitian tattoo that inspired the NAKOA Leather prodcut line

Derek on our trip up Haleakalā

Of course you see “tribal tattoos” all over the islands, and I had loved seeing them for a long time.

Reading Tricia Allen’s famous books “The Polynesian Tattoo Today” and “Tattoo Traditions of Hawaii” had gotten me hooked on Polynesian tattoos.

And not just because of the fierce beauty of the art, but even more so because of their deep cultural roots and meanings.

And here was Derek, generous with his tattoos’ story and with being scrutinized.

I decided then and there to create every day products with Polynesian tattoo art.  

I didn’t yet know what products that would be, but I knew this:

  • The products had to be high quality that did credit to the rich and beautiful Polynesian culture.

  • It would be products that people would use proudly to express their love for their culture.

  • Giving back had to part of the day to day of the company.

That’s how a 3 year journey to create NĀKOA gear started.

But, of course, turning this idea into reality was harder than I’d ever imagined. 




Challenge 1:  The fake and the real

The first challenge was to find true Polynesian tattoo artists – people who weren’t faking the art, like what you sometimes see on mass produced “tribal tattoo” t-shirts and caps. 

At NĀKOA, I want to work only with tattoo artists who are rooted in Polynesian culture, who really know the traditions and motifs used in the Polynesian islands.

Polynesian “tribal” tattoos have become so popular worldwide, that some tattoo artists have taken to faking them.  

A good enough artist can fake the look, and even come up with something quite appealing, but he has no idea of the culture and meanings behind what he’s created. (Some people even warn of the “Bad Juju” of such fake art.)


Challenge 2:  Leather, no plastic

The decision to place the tribal tattoo art only on real leather was easy.  

It isn’t simply a matter of preference, though we love leather: genuine, high quality leather is beautiful, develops a patina with use, has the great leather touch and smell …

And it wasn’t just that real Polynesian tattoo art, created by real artists deserves better than being placed on something fake.

It’s that fake “leather” is really plastic.  

(There are many fake “leathers”, usually sold under the names “PU leather”, “PVC leather” “faux leather”, even “vegan leather”.

None of these should really be called leather. PVC “leather” is made of vinyl, PU is made from polyurethane, and so on. It’s mass produced cheaply in China.)

This fake “vegan leather” takes hundreds of years to decompose and contributes to the mountains of plastics in landfills and the huge trash “gyres” in our oceans. 

You can’t love Hawaii and all of Polynesia, the beautiful Pacific ocean and its sea life – and contribute to the mountains of plastic that are floating in it.


Challenge 3:  Preserve the art and the leather

The hard part was finding a method of placing the tattoo art on genuine leather without losing the wonderful feel of quality leather.

I scoured the world to find a method of placing the tattoo art on genuine leather.

Hand painting the art proved unreliable – though there are skilled artists who paint on leather, they were unable to copy the precise tattoo designs by hand without taking liberties with the art.

Printing the Polynesian tattoo art with standard methods on the leather could work – but printing removes the characteristic touch of good genuine leather. We knew our customers deserve better, and the art deserves better, too.

Many trials with leather types, suppliers, and processes, and long trips to India later (India is the 2nd largest producer of leather), I had – nothing.


At that point many thought I was crazy.


I had a “day job” after all, the small company Maui by Design. But giving up just isn’t in my blood.

And step by step, the pieces came together.  

Amazing artists agreed to work with me and share their knowledge of the art along the way.  (Get alerted when new designs have arrived.  Sign up here to our newsletter.)

And I figured out a unique process that applies the art to genuine, fine leather in a durable way:  The tattoo art won’t rub off, but when you touch the wallet, you also feel the soft touch of fine leather.

NĀKOA was born.

Giving back was the easy part

We are lucky to be in Hawaii, to immerse ourselves in the ancient cultures of the Pacific Islands. Lucky to be surrounded by the Pacific Ocean – but concerned about the quality of life of Pacific Islanders, and the health of the oceans, and our environment, too.

That’s why we donate regularly to Family Programs Hawaii (helping Hawaii’s children and families involved in the foster care system), to Project Hawaii for school supplies for homeless children, and to Surfrider Foundation.  I also offset our carbon footprint from travel and shipping our products.

How important is Giving Back for NĀKOA?  Important enough that I donated even before making any profit.  (That story ties to our name – you can read it here)

So here we are, still a tiny company, working with amazing artists and creating high quality products that people love. 

And I had found my kuleana.  (more about that in a blog post)  


Everything ships directly from Honolulu, HI