After raising two children as a single mother and working as an animal control officer in Clackamas County, Oregon for most of her adult life, Dow Hokoana decided to pack up and move to Miami, following her dream of becoming a tattoo artist: "As soon as my youngest hit seventeen, poof! I knew what I had to do."
Still a relative newcomer to the business at 45, you wouldn't expect that she would have seamlessly become the go-to artist for the famously inked record label Young Money and its tatted-up founder Lil Wayne. But Hokoana, headquartered at Rockstar Tattoo in Miami Beach, has been with Young Money for the past two years, leaving her mark on everyone from Wayne right down to stylists, managers, assistants—you name it. The relationship between tattoo artist and recipient has allowed her to grow familiar with various members of the label in a particularly intimate way, and, through her eyes, its culture is revealed as intensely creative and nurturing, an inspiration for her art. "I feel really blessed to be in the position I'm in, and that they put their trust in me the way they do," she says. We chatted with Hokoana to hear about tattooing, Tabasco sauce, and one peculiarly placed ladybug.
KATIE MENDELSON: How are you doing?
DOW HOKOANA: I'm doing very well, how are you?
MENDELSON: I'm good. There's a scary thunderstorm going on right now outside my house.
MENDELSON: Yes, but it's kind of awesome, it's a great spring thunderstorm.
HOKOANA: I was going to say, that's what I loved about moving to the east coast. I love the thunder and lightning.
MENDELSON: Where are you originally from?
HOKOANA: I was born and raised in Cali—Bay Area.
MENDELSON: And how long have you been in Miami?
HOKOANA: Since June of '07.
MENDELSON: How long have you been tattooing?
HOKOANA: For a little over five years. And I've been with Young Money for two years this month.
MENDELSON: How did you get hooked up with them?
HOKOANA: Wayne was looking for a female to take care of some more personal spots on his body. He didn't have any tattoos at all from his waist to his knees, and was trying to complete a body suit. Someone who had been working on him said that we had a very similar style. They gave him my name, and they sent him into the shop I was working in at the time on South Beach, and he came in and gave me this line. He looks at me and he gives me this up-and-down, like, suave look, and he's all, "You're exactly what we're looking for." [laughs] I'm sure he was told, "Look for the giant, 5'9" white girl with dreads." I stand out like a sore thumb.
MENDELSON: Why did they think that you would be good for doing his more personal areas?
HOKOANA: Well, he just wanted a female, and my style was matching to the tattooers that had worked on him prior. You know, to keep the styles on his body similar.
MENDELSON: How would you describe that style?
HOKOANA: A more modern style. Bold outlines; I'm doing a lot of layering on Wayne, so, nice, thick, black lines so it shows up good even on top of some other work. It's like a modern detail work.
MENDELSON: How many tattoos have you given him?
HOKOANA: Oh, man. A lot. His body suit, except for one primary area, is complete.
MENDELSON: What is that area that it's missing?
HOKOANA: Nah! Come on now! [laughs]
MENDELSON: [laughs] So really, there's no tattooing in that region of his body?
HOKOANA: Nope! No. And we have discussed it. We'll just see how long it takes him to decide yea or nay on that. I know my boy, and I have a feeling it will happen, but I give it two years.
MENDELSON: So you're going to be the one to do that, then.
HOKOANA: Of course.
MENDELSON: And you're totally comfortable doing that?
HOKOANA: Sure. Yeah. It wouldn't have been the first time.
MENDELSON: Really? What have been some tattoos you've done on that area of the body?
HOKOANA: Oh man, you're making me blush here. I've done a ladybug on the entire head. Like, made the head be the shell of the ladybug.
MENDELSON: Oh my god.
HOKOANA: I did a pair of handcuffs, one cuff from one testicle up and over to the other testicle. And it actually, as odd as I thought that one was, 'cause it was on an elderly man, he actually was doing it symbolic to his life being saved, but having lost the ability to use his member through testicular cancer.
MENDELSON: Oh, wow.
HOKOANA: So, he was saying his shit was shackled, but he's alive. Sometimes things aren't always quite as deviant or twisted as they seem. But it's strange nonetheless.
MENDELSON: I though that sounded like some sort of S&M kind of thing.
HOKOANA: See? That's what I thought, too. I'm like, "You want handcuffs around your nuts. All right." And then he's like, "No, ma'am, let me explain." I felt bad that I even for a moment paused to judge that. [laughs]
MENDELSON: What is your favorite or most memorable tattoo that you've given Wayne?
HOKOANA: My favorite would be a collage of burlesque dancers that I did across his hips. There are about 12 showgirls, and it's hot. I love the UV work, too, but that's simple, pretty obvious stuff.
MENDELSON: Can you talk a little bit about the UV?
HOKOANA: That's one of my specialty items, and it is trickier than it appears. A lot of experienced—more experienced than myself—artists go wrong with that. I think girls kind of naturally are more cognizant that we're working with skin, that it's not paper or canvas. And I think guys focus so much on their art, sometimes they can forget that there's something live under there. Well, in the UV, you have to trust your touch more than your eye, because you're not gonna see the ink. You can wear a headlamp, and glow it up as you're working it, but I find it easier to just feel—you know, you're working within certain layers. The first three layers of skin, where you safely wanna be to get the cleanest, best work. So you're pretty much just watching how your needle is interacting with the skin. But the product itself, I only use Chameleon. That's the product name. The actual scientific name is like Biometrix-1000 Phototronic Marking System. [laughs] It's actually an ink that was developed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife to mark salmon. We use it currently, even, in Oregon, so when the salmon spawn and go up the ladders, they can see the markings that they made on the fish. So it's the only ink in the world that's FDA-approved, technically. How's that for an earful?
MENDELSON: That was a good explanation! So, how did you start doing that with Wayne? What in general is your process when you work with him?
HOKOANA: I've had one on me for ten years and it's gorgeous. In California and Oregon, we tattoo with UV regularly. When I came to South Beach in '07, I was the first tattoo artist on the beach using it. It's just really fresh out here.
MENDELSON: So he saw it, and he was like, "I want that."
HOKOANA: Actually, he was really leery. He thought the ink was dangerous. There are products that I'm sure have been used, that contain phosphorus, and that's really really unsafe, uncool, unprofessional, all of it. I think that was what was in his head when he saw it glowing. No. It's not glow-in-the-dark, it glows under a black light.
MENDELSON: What's your general process of working with him, or working with any of Young Money, really—do you have suggestions?
HOKOANA: I've been with them for a while now, so my job gets easier and easier because I'm familiar with them all and what they have. I know their style individually, and they all have a little bit different tastes. I know what spaces they have available. But typically, I'm really just absolutely on-call. And that can go anywhere from three days a week to, I'll get called once and then I don't see them for a month, or they'll have me on tour with them for two weeks in a row. It just depends who's feeling the itch. Whenever the itch happens, they call me and I'm either at their house, in the studio, or on a plane.
MENDELSON: What is the oddest time that you've been called?
HOKOANA: "Odd" is a perspective, because we've lived like vampires and to me, it's not odd. But yes, my schedule with them is through their creative time. It's midnight to eight in the morning. That's when they're really doing their thing and feeling really artistic, and I feel really blessed to be able to do my art in the midst of their art. It's very inspiring.
MENDELSON: You've been there for a lot of their breakthroughs, I'm sure, or for a lot of big moments for them.
HOKOANA: Yeah, some fun stuff.
MENDELSON: Any wild tour stories?
HOKOANA: Oh man, tour stories. [laughs] Okay. Well, everybody knows what a workaholic Wayne is. That's how he's made himself who he is. I'm almost double his age, and he has a work ethic that is—I didn't listen to rap, really, before I met them, and I have absolute respect for these guys. How hard they work, how genuinely they care, and what they put into it. But, in turn, anybody on their payroll is expected to have the same level of motivation. And on more than one occasion, I have witnessed Tabasco being poured into the mouth of a sleeping victim. [laughs]
HOKOANA: And one of them—my homeboy, who also did some tattoos—almost had skin melted off his mouth. Wayne gently and politely tried to wake him. He walked in and was like, "Yo. Dude. Wake up." Jewel just kind of looked at him with one eye cocked, and nodded right back off with this roaring snore. He's a huge man. He starts snoring, and Wayne turns around and grabs that bottle of Tabasco, and it was all over. But yeah, you're supposed to stay vigilant. Fair enough. He takes very good care of us, and I will never fall asleep on his watch.
MENDELSON: Can Wayne always handle the pain of the tattoos?
HOKOANA: He does great. He's a trooper. Tattooing is very intimate. It's going in your skin. If you're very stressed out, if you've been working really hard, if you're super-tired, it does get more tender, it gets more frustrating, and your sessions get shorter. That's hard for everybody. He does awesome. He takes it great. He enjoys it, and he's really nice to me, so it's cool.
MENDELSON: You were talking about that man before and how his tattoos were really representative of personal experience. I would imagine that quite a few of Wayne's are as well, and so it must get kind of emotional and pretty intimate at some points.
HOKOANA: Of course, sure. I think it does make it feel like there's a special bond there. When you've dug into somebody and watched them tell the story as to what that tattoo meant to them. So, yeah, it builds a good connection. And I think it opens the artistic portal even larger, just lets more energy come.
MENDELSON: Are you in the midst of any tattoos now, on any of Young Money or on Wayne?
HOKOANA: Yeah, you bet! Actually, I am finishing up some work with Cortez. We're doing some really stunning male leopard print on the insides of his biceps, all the way from his elbow to his armpit, and it just looks awesome. They're so cool about letting me be creative, cause not often would a guy allow you to put leopard print. They traditionally see that as female. I was like, no, there's male and female print, and if I do male leopard print on you, it will look very masculine. And it's awesome.
MENDELSON: I was actually in Miami a few weeks ago, but if I come back and want a new tattoo, I know where I'll come.
HOKOANA: I got you! I got you.