Collective Soul


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One day in 2003, john “prime” hina’s son came home asking if he and his friends could paint the garage. Twenty minutes later, Hina could smell the spray paint.

“What the hell are you guys doing?” he recalls asking, learning that it was a new thing called “tagging.”

Hina was unhappy—but not because they decided to try it out on his garage, or even that they had done it in the first place. He just didn’t like the way it looked.

“I was upset because it sucked,” he says with a laugh. “It was ugly.”

It’s an art form Hina had long been familiar with—though he had only known of it as “writing.” “Tagging,” he says, is a term the media adopted.

In the early ’80s—and a hundred pounds ago, he jokes—Hina was a dancer in Hawai‘i’s nightclub scene. It was on an album cover that he first saw it, and eventually, a friend introduced him to spray paint.

There, in his tagged garage, he proceeded to explain to the kids the art of writing—which isn’t just something to do with spray paint.

“Each letter carries this energy,” he says. “It’s like boy meets girl, and then there’s chemistry; your letters are the same.”

The kids couldn’t understand what Hina was saying so he picked up a bottle of spray paint and added his own writing to the wall. It had been more than a decade since the graffiti artist had given all of that up to start a family. But right in that instant, Hina discovered he had never really left it behind.

“I felt a sense of freedom,” he says. “Something inside of me woke up again. “And then I got super excited, because for once in my life, I could pass something on to my son,” he adds.

But as soon as he found out it was something Hina had done, his son lost interest in it, and Hina dropped it.

Then, a couple of years later, an old writer contacted Hina, asking him to come out of retirement. He was hosting an event and wanted Hina to show the kids how writing was done. Hina declined, but he ended up there anyway and, as he puts it, “was shocked.”

“I felt like a stranger in a familiar place,” he says. “Th ey didn’t do things the way we did it in the ’80s, and for me, I struggled with that because we did our time on the streets, and we did what we’re supposed to do. But the way the kids were just doing it [at that point, it] was like there was no sense of direction.”

In 2006, he decided to do something about it. What if, he thought, money being used for anti-graffiti campaigns was instead used to support the art form? It’s an idea he took to the State Capitol, and one that quickly was shut down.

Not to be deterred, he set up shop in his backyard, inviting kids over to socialize and share stories with one another.

“I saw the connection between the different generations, and it was awesome,” Hina says. “It grew so much that it outgrew my house in six months.”

All of this was only the beginning of what eventually would become 808 Urban, a nonprofit organization that works with artists and the community to encourage storytelling through the arts while affecting social change.

Since its inception, the program has created more than 50 large-scale murals across the state, and has offered more than 100 free workshops, like its POW! WOW! x 808 Urban Art Workshop and the Mai‘a Project. It also was the first group to complete a mural project in Kaka‘ako, a near prototype to test the concept.

Currently, The Refuge in Kaka‘ako serves as a headquarters of sorts for 808 Urban. Beyond workshops, The Refuge is also a place where youth skills building, mentor-ships and events take place—something not unlike the environment Hina created in his own backyard. The organization also works with high school students through its Junior Board Initiative, offers internships and is continuously looking for ways to collaborate with local businesses and organizations.

The goal, says Hina—and what he envisioned as part of a 10-year plan—always was to create something to pass on to its participants. So, in a few of years, Hina’s time will be up, and he will be passing the torch to the younger set.

“Whether it fails or succeeds, it’s up to them,” he says.

These days, it isn’t so much about hoping that the public sees writing as a valuable art form. “That was a few years ago,” Hina says. “Now, it’s about writing as a form of storytelling and a way to preserve stories.

“Everybody talks about art like it’s a form of self-expression, and I feel it’s a very Eurocentric approach to art, whereas what we do today is more like selfless expression, because we become the tools for the community to use. It’s their story, and all we’re doing is we’re painting their story; their interpretation with our hands—we become their translators.”

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