In 1773 British explorer James Cook visited the Tongan islands and described them as the “friendly islands.” Settled by Polynesian mariners long before Cook landed on their shores, Tongans are indeed friendly but the warrior spirit that enabled them to defend their land against invaders lives on, a tradition carried on by former Gator offensive guard Jon Halapio.
A proud Tongan who grew up in the United States, Halapio didn’t embrace his Tongan spirit as a child because his parents were more concerned with raising their family as Americans. Still, the Tongan culture was always in the background.
“It’s something that was always around when I was younger, growing up,” Halapio said. “My parents didn’t really harp on it until we were a little older and we began to realize what our culture was.”
Halapio focused on learning English and doing well in the classroom but as he grew older his family began to immerse him in their culture. As he grew older and learned more about Tongan culture, Halapio wanted to honor it in the most permanent way possible — with a tattoo.
Halapio had already gotten tattoos on the inside of his biceps and his chest but wanted to get a bigger, more meaningful piece honoring his heritage.
“I talked to my parents and I talked to my uncle who’s a tattoo artist in Tampa, he owns a shop,” Halapio said of the process that led up to him getting the tattoo. “I just asked them what I should get and just sat down with them and decided to get some Tongan culture symbols for my arm.”
After consulting with his parents and his uncle. Halapio laid out a plan to decorate his arm in Tongan culture. The symbols are traditional Tongan art, patterns that are worn for big events like weddings or funerals. Like in Samoan culture, the patterns are often tattooed on the body to broadcast ones heritage and worn as a symbol of pride.
The traditional method is a long, painstaking process of tapping a single needle repeatedly over and over, adding ink to the body. The big 6-3, 320-pound Halapio opted for the more modern method and had his uncle sped over 13 hours tattooing his entire left arm in traditional patterns.
The tattoo, coupled with his long hair and beard give Halapio a distinguishing look, but the story behind the hair is less about culture and more about love
Halapio began growing his hair in high school but it wasn’t until he committed and signed his letter of intent that he made a decision to continue growing his hair. That decision was made due to his mother and grandmother
“When I committed to Florida, my mom came to me one day and said ‘please don’t cut your hair while you’re playing at Florida. I need to spot you when you’re on the field.’ Ever since then it’s been helping them, especially my grandmother,” he explained. “She can’t really see that well but she can see me on TV because of my hair.”
With his playing days at Florida done and a wedding less than two weeks away, Halapio is thinking about finally cutting off the hair that helped not only his family but Gator fans across the country identify him the last five years.
“I’ve been talking to my fiancé a lot,” he said. “I don’t know I’ve been thinking about cutting my hair when my daughter comes. I’m not too sure.”
While the hair may stay for his upcoming nuptials, he will be shaving his beard before the wedding.
“She’s a fan of the long hair but not the beard,” Halapio said. “I haven’t seen her since I left home so that’s why I’m growing it out. I’m pretty sure when I go back for the wedding I’m going to have to shave.”
He’s a man beyond his years. He already knows the old axiom “a happy wife is a happy life.”
“I wanna keep her happy so I can be happy,” he said with a chuckle.