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Pineapple Tangaroa, Austin's favorite body piercer, makes cinematic mark in 'Drunk Bus'

Kelsey Bradshaw
Austin 360
Pineapple Tangaroa, an Austin body modification expert, stars in the movie "Drunk Bus," based on his own life experiences.

When I realized there was no turning back, Pineapple Tangaroa told me to breathe. He was poking a hole through my body. My left ear lobe, to be exact. 

I jumped up to check out the yellow-gold, five-point star earring I'd picked out.

"Oh my god!" I shouted. "It looks so good."

"That is why I do this," Tangaroa said.

(Full disclosure: I paid for my own piercing, not the American-Statesman.)

Tangaroa owns Shaman Modifications, a tattoo and piercing shop with two locations in Austin and one in Dallas. I was actually there to interview him about his role in "Drunk Bus," a movie that would have premiered at South by Southwest in 2020, if the festival hadn't been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

But I couldn't not get my ear pierced by the locally renowned Tangaroa, who has ear gauges, a septum piercing, a labret piercing and a piercing between his eyebrows; tattoos covering his face, head, arms and legs; and branding and scarification on parts of his face and arms. 

More than a year after it was supposed to debut, "Drunk Bus" is available to watch on demand. Long a star in the local body modification scene, Tangaroa's star is now on the rise in a more traditional sense, too.

Comfortable in his skin

Tangaroa’s journey with body modification started when he was a kid. He got his ears pierced young, and then at the end of middle school, he got his first tattoo. (He just says he got it "on his own.") It's a "ThunderCats" cartoon logo on one of his legs, and it's colored wrong and backward, but Tangaroa vows to never get rid of it.

He said that first tattoo made him feel like himself. 

"You wouldn't have a house and not decorate it, you know what I mean?" Tangaroa said. "You got to live with this. So why not make it your own, and make it what makes you happy." He compared tattoos and piercings to dyeing one's hair, or getting Botox or lip injections.

Tangaroa moved to Texas around 2000 and lived in San Marcos, where he attended Southwest Texas State University (now just Texas State). He got his first piercing job while in San Marcos. 

“And so from there, I ended up getting into the body piercing world,” he said.

Pineapple Tangaroa prepares for a piercing job. He runs Shaman Modifications, with locations in Austin and Dallas.

Body modification has given Tangaroa confidence and a community, he said. 

“My body modification helped me out through some really dark times, and it’s really allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin,” he said. “To get out of bed and look in the mirror, I feel like it’s me looking back. I feel like my body modification has played a huge role in my life and given me the confidence to do everyday tasks.”

Tangaroa is married with five children, two grandchildren, three dogs and two cats. He will be 40 this year, and he's coming up on 23 years of sobriety from drugs. He found people through the body modification community who were able to help him stay sober.

“It really has helped me a lot, just being in an alternative support group,” he said. “Instead of looking for my next fix, it was, ‘Hey, we’re doing this class together,’ or ‘Hey, we’re doing this project, do you have time to talk about it?’ It definitely kept me from having idle hands.”

Tattoos also are culturally significant for Tangaroa, who has Pacific Islander heritage. He declined to discuss their meaning, however.

From San Marcos, he moved to Ohio, where he graduated from Kent State University in spring of 2004, earning a double major in anthropology and archaeology with a focus on the significance of body modification in Mesoamerican cultures.

Ohio also is where "Drunk Bus" was born.

Bus start

"Drunk Bus" follows a character named Michael (played by actor Charlie Tahan), the driver of a bus that takes students in Ohio from dorms to bars and back. Tangaroa plays a security guard — also named Pineapple — who watches over the so-called drunk bus and persuades Michael to start living his life after his girlfriend leaves him for a job in New York City.

The movie, almost a decade in the making but inspired by two decades of personal history, is based on Tangaroa’s college experience with one of the directors, Brandon LaGanke. Tangaroa met LaGanke in his dorm. The piercer’s room was known as the place to smoke and drink, because his roommate left the second semester, leaving Tangaroa with the room all to himself.

Charlie Tahan, left, and Austin's Pineapple Tangaroa star in the indie film "Drunk Bus."

In real life, Tangaroa was actually the security guard on LaGanke’s bus at Kent State in 2002. He was working as a telemarketer when LaGanke suggested he come work on the bus.

LaGanke drove the bus at night, Tangaroa worked as a security guard, and the pair got to hang out with their friends. Tangaroa wore a security guard uniform and was covered in piercings even then. He often had a Mohawk (or even a bihawk or trihawk hairdo). 

"My friends now, when I show them old photos, they make fun of me, because I look like a Christmas tree, just piercings everywhere," he said. 

To Austin and the big screen

After graduating, Tangaroa moved to Austin in 2005. He chose the capital of Texas because he had found it to be an accepting place when he’d visited during his time at Southwest Texas State. 

“It just always felt more home than anywhere else that I’ve lived,” he said. “Austin, especially at that time, was ‘Keep Austin Weird.’” 

Meanwhile, after his time with Tangaroa in Ohio, LaGanke met "Drunk Bus" co-director John Carlucci. LaGanke would often bring up tales from his time on the drunk bus, which was actually called the Downtowner, Tangaroa said. LaGanke and Carlucci decided to make it a movie.

Once screenwriter Chris Molinaro was done with the script, the team approached Tangaroa about six or seven years ago. 

Tangaroa was first brought on as an adviser for the movie. 

"And then a week or two passes, and they're like, 'You know, we're just going to have you act in it. Yeah, you're just going to be in it,'" Tangaroa said. 

"Drunk Bus" is inspired by real-life experiences during Pineapple Tangaroa and co-director Brandon LaGanke's college days in Ohio.

He took acting lessons from Marco Perella in Austin, and the movie was filmed in 2019 in Rochester, New York.

Before “Drunk Bus,” he played a minor character in the 2011 film "Puncture," starring Chris Evans, but this is Tangaroa’s first major role.

Local legend

Even if you haven’t seen Tangaroa in "Drunk Bus" or “Puncture,” you might already know who he is, since he's a recognizable figure around town. (Maybe you spotted him at Alamo Drafthouse, where he frequents the Terror Tuesdays horror film series.)

When Tangaroa came back to Texas after graduating from college, he met his mentor in the body modification community, the late Daryl "Bear" Belmares. Like Tangaroa said, Austin was a weirder place then; local cross-dressing icon Leslie Cochran was still an omnipresent celebrity. Tangaroa enjoyed being able to go out and not get sideways glances at his piercings or tattoos. Nowadays, it wouldn't bother Tangaroa anyway if anyone gawked — he said he doesn't even notice.

“It just always felt more home than anywhere else that I’ve lived,” Pineapple Tangaroa says of Austin.

Tangaroa doesn't see himself as an icon of keeping Austin weird, like Leslie. 

“I always hold those people in such high regard, and it makes me nervous to be associated with them in that context, because it is a lot of pressure,” he said.

But still: The man's made an impression. He’s been stopped in H-E-B grocery stores by people he’s pierced, who stop to say hello.

“I had this one person approach me, and she was at Costco," Tangaroa said. "She came up and was running down the aisles like, ‘Pineapple! Pineapple!’ And it turns out that I pierced her years (ago) when she was like 6 or 7 years old. She just graduated high school.

“So, it’s cool to be part of that journey."