Ancestral Marks: Resurrecting the Art of the Kahuna Ka Uhi

Updated on July 31, 2018
Chris Pinard profile image

My primary interests center around the folklore, customs, history, and mythology of the Celts, the Germanic speaking peoples, and the Slavs.

Facial Tattoo of a Resident of Easter Island

Otzi the Iceman

Tattooing is one of the earliest art forms known to man. Due to the archaic nature of this craft, and the shared nature of the human condition, the prevalence of this worldwide custom is understandable. Indeed, historical examples can be located from the Tarim basin in China to the Alps in Europe, and amongst the islands of the South Pacific. It is here in Polynesia where we find the origin of the word tattoo, being derived from the Tahitian “Tatau” rendered “Ka’kau” in the Hawaiian language.

Discovered in the Alps in September of 1991, Otzi the iceman is amongst the earliest examples of tattooing. The harsh frozen elements of the mountains helped preserve not only the body of Otzi, but also the tattoos that were rendered in his skin. Scholars have dated Otzi to a period between 3400-3100 BCE. Little can be gathered from his 61 markings. Yet, it has been noted that most of the dots correspond to known acupuncture points. Therefore, it is possible that they may in fact represent a type of medical tattoo. Supporting this fact, the lines and dots tend to cluster around the area of the lower back and joints. Examiners have determined that Otzi was suffering from joint and spinal problems, so it is reasonable to conclude that these tattoos may have been marking areas that helped alleviate his pain. While the evidence is circumstantial that these tattoos represent a medical diagnosis or treatment for his ailments, no other plausible theories have been given.

Much further East in the Tarim basin in China, figures with tattoos have emerged from the windswept desert. Although, these mummies have found themselves caught in political turmoil. The region where they were found is unstable politically, which led to the Chinese government withholding study on the mummies for many years. This agitation was exacerbated by the fact that the mummies appeared to be Caucasoid in nature, often exhibiting red hair. In 2007 and 2009 the government allowed for further testing to be conducted, which corroborated the long-held belief that the mummies were in part Caucasoid, as well as Siberian. The tattoos covering the mummies were varied. Animals are among the most prominent forms recognized, a deer being the most iconic. The style in which they were constructed is reminiscent of later Scythian design. Moon tattoos are found on the face of a female and sun tattoos on a male mummy. It is possible that these designs may be religious in nature, as in many cultures the moon is seen as a feminine divinity and the sun as masculine, so this designation could make sense. Yet, it isn’t certain. While the Indo-Europeans of southern extraction tended to see the moon as feminine and sun as masculine, the circumpolar peoples (Including Germanic speaking people) tended to view the exact opposite to be true. However, irrespective of this designation a religious component to these tattoos is likely.

Tattoo Marks on Otzi

Journey to Hawaii

While the world isn’t the same as it was thousands of years ago when Ozi the Iceman and the people of the Tarim basin were alive, the art of tattooing has endured. Tattooing has evolved with the centuries, and most artists now use tattoo guns, yet the traditional methods still survive in various parts of the globe. In a quiet corner of Oahu (the busy island) of Hawaii, is a refuge of this tradition and ceremony. Cradled in a cocoon of fruit bearing trees and plants, is the home of Keli’iokalani (Keli’i) Makua, a traditional tattooing practitioner. Here, customs of the Hawaiian past live on through the sacred art of tattooing. Had he lived in Scandinavia one thousand years ago he might have been mistaken for an Odinic figure, (a representation of the one-eyed god). A large dark tattoo adorns the area around his left eye, giving an appearance not dissimilar from historic depictions of Odin, which is not unwarranted considering part of his ancestry hails from Europe. Keli’i received this tattoo to ensure that his Hawaiian ancestors would recognize him, as this was a traditional marking. Makua studied under his cousin Keone Nunes (another man synonymous with the indigenous Hawaiian tattooing tradition) for 20 years. Under Keone’s tutelage, Keli’i perfected his craft. After years of dedication, Keli’i was inducted in an ūniki (graduate) ceremony as the first Kahuna Ka Uhi (priest/practitioner of the tattooing art) in 200 years. This family has singlehandedly helped to revive the ancient art of tattooing which like a dry riverbed remained dormant for some time.

The journey here was not taken lightly. While the main reason in coming to Hawaii was to visit family, a strong secondary reason was to seek out Keli’i or Keone to potentially receive a tattoo in a traditional style. I consider the tattoos I receive as being a testimony of my life, my experiences, and the relationship I have with the divine. Therefore, the tattoo itself and the process of being tattooed is a spiritual experience. This was something that I found mirrored in the art that Keli’i practices. Within his ancestral tradition everything has a ritual. Keli’i wakes early in the morning to say pule (prayers) to awaken his tools when preparing to tattoo someone. Additionally, he calls upon the ancestors of the individual receiving the tattoo to be present. All of the actions he takes to prepare for the tattooing process have a meaning and purpose.

Vintage Map of Hawaii

Constructing a Tattoo

The process of tattooing is called Kakau in Hawaiian, which breaks down into two separate words, Ka “to strike” and Kau “to place upon”. This word is etymologically related to the Tahitian word Tatau from which the English word tattoo is derived. The Uhi, (the tattoo itself) is seen as an identifier or mark that can delineate status, rank, family origin, constitution, aumakua (ancestral guardian spirits in animal form), etc. Uhi may also mean covering or veil, which is an appropriate term considering that early colonizers often mistook the tattoos for stockings of fine fabric. Many designs are traditionally reserved for specific family lines (Kapu), therefore studying one’s genealogy (mo’o kū’auhau) is imperative. The tools he uses are a far cry from the electric guns that populate most tattooing studios in this modern world. Rather, Keli’i uses traditional handcrafted instruments, which he has made himself. Each of which has been constructed from wood and bone. They resemble a gardening rake, or small comb affixed to a stick. They are called mōlī. This apparatus is dipped in ink (pa’u) made from Kukui-nut ash and tapped with a hahau (rod or tapping tool) in order to pierce the skin and create the uhi.

Keli’i is most familiar with the imagery and patterns used in the tattooing practices of his ethnic ancestors (Hawaiian/Polynesians). However, in coming here I was hoping that he might consider tattooing a traditional Norse design on me. This motif was well known from Scandinavian mythology and archaeology, and would have been familiar to my ethnic forbearers. However, this was a tattoo that I have been dreaming about for quite some time. It incorporated other patterns common in Norwegian weaving traditions. Tattooing was not unknown amongst the Norse. An Arab chronicler by the name of Ibn Fadlan wrote of the Rus (Norse Settlers and traders) that they had bodies as tall as date palms, and they were tattooed from “fingernails to neck” with designs of trees and figures in a dark blue or green ink. There has been some speculation on what this tattoo description could mean. Many advocate for the notion that the tree designs are in fact knot patterns that the Norse became famous for. Another possibility is that these trees were in fact modeled off of Yggdrasil (the Norse tree of life). I don’t see either theory as being mutually exclusive, as the knot patterns could easily have been derived from early depictions of Yggdrasil. Additionally, the other figures that Ibn Fadlan attests to could potentially be similar to designs found on rune-stones throughout Scandinavia.

Norse Tapestry

Meeting Keli'i

Our first meeting with Keli’i took place in his yard where we “talked story” (a local term for discussion or chatting). We had the benefit of being greeted by Li’i (a name that means small), a white terrier mix who while elderly still has spunk. Once we approached Keli’i he reached forward touching noses and exchanging breath with both of us. This traditional Hawaiian custom was unknown to Captain Cook and his crew when they first came to these islands, so they often spurned the affection being given to them freely. Hence, they were called Ha’ole (a word meaning “without breath”, a term which eventually evolved into a somewhat derogatory name that exists today). We were also introduced to several daughters, and the parents of Keli’i, all of whom were warm and welcoming. We spent several hours talking with Keli’i’s father about cars, genealogy, and his memories of him growing up in Colorado. The conversation returned to Keli’i in time.

I did not simply assume that Keli’i would tattoo me, although I was hoping he would consider it. He and his cousin Keone are selective on who they tattoo and the subject matter that they will tattoo. During this first meeting we never broached the topic of tattooing. Rather, we conversed on topics ranging from current events, ancestry, religion, and customs. I was amazed at the similarities between traditional Norse culture and the customs of the indigenous Hawaiians. Quickly the sun faded and the moon rose as we continued to talk. But the night weighed heavy upon our eyelids and it came time to leave. Over the next week, we were able to sit down and talk with Keli’i on several occasions. One of the first qualities I noticed was that he is an exceedingly humble man, but full of wisdom and profound insight. In this manner, he truly extends advice and knowledge to those in need, much like a priest. Meeting with him was akin to sitting with an erudite sage. We could spend years talking with him and barely scratch the surface of his scholarship and innate philosophical astuteness. I was fortunate enough to be able to glance through his extensive library of books on traditional Polynesian religion, customs, and art. It was a treasure trove for those scholastically inclined.

Polynesian (Maori) Facial Tattoo

Death of the Art

Captain Cook was among the first to bring word from the Polynesian Islands, telling of the native tattooing traditions, which were seen by the Christian elite of Europe as a form of barbarism. However, it was the sketches of John Webber that vividly captured the tattoos and transmitted the knowledge of these patterns to the world. Later references to these markings can be found in the Ke Au Okoa (a Hawaiian language newspaper active in the late 1800’s). In the April 1870’s newspaper one finds mention of a Maui chief and warrior Kahekili who had covered his body on one side from head to toe in markings (kākau pa‘ele). Such was the great reverence that Hawaiians had for their tattooing customs, that they used them to openly display their emotions. In the 1820’s Queen Kamamalu had her tongue tattooed as an act of devotion and mourning when her mother-in-law passed away. When interviewed by missionary William Ellis on the pain she was receiving from being tattooed she stated: “He eha nui no, he nui roa ra ku’u aroha” translated as “my pain is great, but greater is my affection”. However, while the tradition was strong, this art came close to dying out completely. Christian missionaries effectively outlawed the practice by 1900, so too was the Hawaiian language and religion. In some part of the islands, tattooing likely lived on through into the 1920’s before it fell into disuse. However, Keli’i and his cousin Keone Nunes were listening to their relatives and teachers who had firsthand accounts with those who had been tattooed in the traditional way. It is through listening to their ancestors and community elders that knowledge of the practice was preserved. Ultimately it was this knowledge that was used to revitalize the tradition.

Captain Cook Illustration

Learning From Keli'i

Tattooing was an art that had a sacred component. Often the tattoos that someone would receive had Kaona (hidden meanings). Kaona as a term which also means to conceal and often used to denote the hidden meaning of poetry. This reminded me of the Norse custom of using kennings in poetry (an art form highly developed by the skalds which would hide several layers of meaning in a poem). True to form, the tattoo I had seen in my dreams contained meaning in the patterns that others would not recognize, patterns that my ancestors would have known and created. If I had received a tattoo with subject matter of any other culture it would only have been superficial for me as it would not have had the depth of meaning and the cultural continuity.

Keli’i went on to describe how a traditional purification ceremony may be conducted, including elements such as the salt of Konoloa (sea salt), the life-giving waters of Kane (fresh water), and the tea leaf (a plant associated with renewal and life-force). He further explained that if a Kahuna traveled inland, he would take sea-salt with him, so that he might be able to conduct the ceremony wherever he went.

Keli’i is a testimony to the fact that Hawaiian culture is not dead, rather, it lives on through its people, who are alive and well. However, they cling to survival, just as all indigenous people do. Which reminds me that everyone is indigenous to somewhere and that with increased levels of globalization we all face a similar threat with respects to preserving traditional customs. The appropriation of cultural elements is an ongoing problem in this fast paced world. Many individuals eager for connection to something, anything, will grasp at Polynesian design tightly without even knowing what the design is or where it originates. Sometimes tattoos are gender specific, and those quick to acquire a tattoo may later find that it was not appropriate for them. Hence why Keli’i is selective with his clients and what he chooses to tattoo. Being that this is such a nuanced endeavor the tattoos that one receives from Keli’i cannot be obtained elsewhere.

Keli’i invited us to witness another person receiving their uhi (mark) the following day. This was truly an honor, as it enabled us to get a firm grasp on what would be happening if and when we too might receive our tattoos. The next morning, we arrived, and the tools quickly came out. After quickly having lines drawn upon him the recipient laid down on a mat. Music danced in the background while Keli’i prepared. Soon the tattooing process began. The rhythmic nature of the tapping was enough to put one in a meditative state. Time seemed to pass quickly while watching this procedure, and soon it was completed. The tattoo was large, extending from hip to ankle, and it emitted a sense of authority.

Man From the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii)

John Webber Illustration 1784
John Webber Illustration 1784

Discussions on Placement and Meaning

After the tattoo was completed, an Ava (otherwise known as Kava) ceremony was conducted. Ava is a root that comes from a plant in the pepper family. An infusion is made by taking the root powder and filtering water through it. The drink is a milky consistency with a strong earthy flavor. Kamea, (an apprentice of Keli’i’s) began making the ava. In this lineage, apprentices often assist in making tools, stretching the skin, and of course making the ava. Soon the drink was consumed by those present. Quickly it began to numb the interior of my mouth and imparted a sense of relaxation. Afterwards, while talking with Keli’i, he discussed how different parts of the body were traditionally reserved for special meaning with respects to tattooing. A leg tattoo was usually the first tattoo an individual would receive, as this was an individual’s foundation. It would speak to the ancestry of the client. Whether it was placed on the left or right leg depended on whether it was “a masculine or feminine thing” in his words. The patterns used would tell a story, often giving a visual representation of which island that the ancestors of the individual receiving the tattoo came from. Ancestral names may also impart fodder for the design of the tattoo. However, the construction of a tattoo is an art form. There was no one size fits all scenario for a tattoo recipient. The years of training that Keli’i received allows him to interpret the information gained in genealogical research with skill. To illustrate this point, two siblings would not receive the same leg tattoo design even if they were twins and share the same genetics. This is due to the fact that one’s constitution also plays a considerable role in how Keli’i interprets the information and subsequently constructs the tattoo design. Context is everything. Something as simple as a triangle pattern may have two or three different meanings based upon its construction. Other tattoos are earned, with some being bestowed as a rite of passage. In a world where nearly everything can be bought with enough money, I appreciate the fact that Keli’i and Keone still hold certain truths to be worth more than a monetary figure. Certain tattoos are only appropriate to be worn by the families they were originally designated for. The role of the tattooing priest (Kahuna kā uhi) is not a position Keli’i takes lightly, he says “we were the only ones who could draw blood from the ali’i (hereditary rulers) without the consequence of being put to death.” Therefore, Keli’i reasons that the position he holds is sacred, in which there is a sense of duty, honor, and obligation. The implications of this conversation still lingering in my mind were temporarily halted by the offer of a meal from Keli’i’s wife. His family was warm and inviting, truly personifying the aloha spirit. The food was traditional, consisting of many local delicacies. All of which were delicious

Early Illustration of Tattoos on a Hawaiian Woman's Arms

Jacques Arago 1819
Jacques Arago 1819

Importance of Genealogy

Those receiving a tattoo from Keli’i will likely have different prescriptions on acts to perform before they can receive a tattoo. Often this may include genealogical study if one is not already familiar with their ancestry. Fasting or abstaining from alcohol and salty food is often required (as they were in my case). Other requirements may come in the form of praying, internal work on resolving emotional trauma or forgiving misdeeds. Additionally, some knowledge of one’s traditional customs and culture are strongly encouraged. This is all understandable when one recognizes that receiving the Uhi (mark) is a sacred affair. As with most things sacred, they must be cultivated and earned. Working for and towards such an endeavor bolsters the mana which animates the tattoo, and brings one into greater connection with family, community, and ultimately the divine. These ancestral connections have been important to me since my youth. At the age of 12 I started my lifelong love affair with genealogy, eventually doing work for others, helping them find their own ancestral connections. Keli’i could easily have turned down my request to tattoo me. I simply did not know if the work I had undertaken had prepared me enough to be considered. Keli’i hadn’t known me long, so I didn’t know if the effort I had placed into the study of my own ancestry and heritage was something that he would see evidenced in the little time we got to know one another. To receive an Uhi is to have a bond forged between one’s past, present, and future. It is not unlike a map guiding us through the dimensions of who we are, where we come from, and ultimately our destiny. This connection is not only secured through the physical manifestation of the uhi, but is rather an aggregate of spiritual dedication and development, as well as deliberate contemplation on ancestral connection and the fortitude to evolve into one’s potential. Ultimately, I asked Keli’i if he would consider tattooing me, and I presented him with a rudimentary design that manifested in my dreams months prior. Additionally, I showed him many traditional Norse patterns from where ancestors originated, potentially giving him options from which to construct the larger design. My request was received favorably and he agreed to it. In the spirit of the traditional custom of how a tattoo was given, I gave him as much freedom as possible in which to construct it.

Tattooed Hawaiian Chief

Jacques Arago (ND)
Jacques Arago (ND)

Receiving the Tattoo

The day soon came for me to be marked. Unfortunately, we were greeted with sad news, Li’i had passed away. I silently said a prayer for him, remembering the terrier that just a few days ago showed so much life. I am sure he patiently awaits Keli’i in the great beyond.

I am not a newcomer to tattoos, having received four others already. However, this tattooing experience was special. We arrived early to the tattooing studio behind Keli’i’s house. Having come at such an hour, he had not yet finished his morning offerings. We were able to witness him feeding the ava to the designated stones in his yard. Again, this reminded me of similar customs among the Norse, both cultures being animistic had an understanding that everything has an indwelling spirit. Soon he returned and the tattooing process could begin. The whole ceremony of receiving the tattoo not only made me think of my ancestors, but I felt a greater sense of connection to them through the process. Keli’i drew a few simple lines upon my back as a guideline, the pattern already having been imbedded in his mind where he intuitively knew where to place the pattern. I soon rested on the lauhala mat and my consciousness drifted to thoughts on how this was a tradition that has existed for millennia, with multitudes having undertaken this exact experience in years gone by. The tapping soon began, and while the pain was noticeable, it was far less than what one feels with a tattoo gun. Each tap seemed to have softness and yet an intensity to it, made with purpose. I wasn’t sure how long my tattoo would take to construct, as it was large and detailed. However, the day quickly flew by and I was surprised to have dozed off for a few minutes in the middle of receiving my mark. The sound had indeed echoed in my mind, eventually giving way to whispers from ancestral spirits. While I will not divulge the contents of said dream, it was powerful and strong with emotion. I admit that tears welled up as I awoke. It was as if the tattoo called to long deceased family. It brought latent emotion to the surface. I am unsure if this is a traditional custom, but when receiving the tattoo, I offered my pain up to my ancestors as a sacrifice. It was fitting then that the design too contained elements of ancestral connection. So, it was not surprising what I experienced. The Uhi itself requires pain as payment for its creation. Keli’i had mentioned in conversation that mana (energy) is imbued into the tattoo through the traditional method. This is an element of the custom where he empowers (ho’omana) the individual receiving the tattoo. While it might be psychosomatic, there were times, especially when being tapped on the spine when I was sure I could feel that I was receiving it. Further, Keli’i had stated that the mana that he applies assists in evoking forth meaning and purpose in the tattoo. After finishing the mark, he once again made the Ava. This time I could hear Keli’i chant while making it. The words flowed forth with conviction. The ava numbed and relaxed me.

Awa (Kava)

Ending Reflections

Our time with Keli’i and his family eventually drew to a close. I sat in reflection. In many ways, this journey was one of self-discovery and transformation. I bear a mark that changed me physically, however the internal change was more profound. Every day since receiving this uhi, I stop and think about my ancestors just a little bit more and consider myself honored that Keli’i was willing to make it. Thousands of my ancestors remained determined to provide a better life for me as one of their descendants. I am humbled to carry such a mark that they would recognize. I owe them a debt to become better than what I am. In the end, the tattoo is me, it is my ancestry, and my experience in life.

In the weeks since the tattooing, I feel calmer and more at peace with life. In a way, the process made me long to revive a tradition which surely once existed among my ancestors (the Norse) at one time, but sadly faded after the Christianization process. I know of many patterns and designs that would be fitting of such a tradition. However, such native tools and processes have long since died out. Yet, visions of using yew (a strong yet slightly flexible wood seems to call from the recesses of my mind, asking to be made into a tapping instrument not too different from the mōli Keli’i used). Instead of the lauhala mat, a reindeer hide, with walrus or boar tusk serving as the ivory for the teeth of the mōli like instrument. Unfortunately, thousands of miles separate us from Oahu. Otherwise it truly would be a privilege to study under Keli’I if such an option were available.

Albeit such a short stay, our knowledge of tattooing customs and Polynesian culture was extended tenfold. Keli’i is truly a master of his art. More than just receiving tattoos we also feel as if we made a friend.

If you are interested in getting a traditional tattoo and wish to contact Keli’i, you can locate him most easily on Instagram under the name kelii_makua.

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