‘Melé Murals’: Show kids who they are and they will make letters dance


“EVERY time a chant is offered, you have to think of the chant as a form of praising—it is the form of prayer. That’s first because the spiritual essence, the mana gives us the power to chant. Personal mana. The concept of mana is the recognition that there is an omnipotent force that‘s the first source.” – John Lake, chanter, via MJ Harden’s “Voices of Wisdom: Hawaiian Elders Speak” (1999).

Would you have known that the production of “Melé Murals” at Kanu o ka ‘Aina, a public charter school in Waimea, Hawaii could move communities to transcend their skepticism and to trust the collaborative process, initiated by artists and teachers, so their Hawaiian community stories are told, using murals?

Would you have known that graffiti is writing, a tool for identity formation and finding one’s self?

That after writing one’s signature, the artist desires to go beyond ego and to consider doing more for his culture and helping others in their journey?

That was a revelation to me, for I have looked at graffiti as simply “wall etchings,” and for enforcement officials, vandalism.

Who would have thought that Kanoa Castro, who invited Estria Miyashiro and John “Prime” Hina, renowned for their “tagging” work in the early 1980s to the 1990s, would unleash a public art movement?

It is a movement started by 400 schoolchildren who participated at all grade levels, to now art murals throughout Hawaii using many community partners and schools’ participation.

“Melé Murals” was shown on PBS in Los Angeles on May 16, in KCET and KCLS.

At the recent Visual Communications’ 33rd Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May 2017, “Melé Murals” won the best editing award. The film was directed by Tadashi Nakamura, whose first feature film was “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings.” Tad described to the audience that he felt the challenge to use Jake’s music in editing this film, “using the beats of music to match the different scenes – a new way of presenting the traditional.”

Deconstructing a part of their creative process

Who would have known that Hawaiian storytelling could combine with hip-hop infused graffiti art?

Estria Foundation describes “Melé Murals” as “a youth development, arts education, cultural preservation, and community-building project. Local artists, youth, and other members of communities spanning the eight major islands of Hawai`i create a series of large-scale outdoor murals focusing on Hawaiian lyrics (mele) that explore mo`olelo `aina (stories of place) and cultural and historical heritage.”

The murals used songs as the foundation for telling their stories on school building walls, as songs perhaps are languages of the souls.

A chant appears in the top part of one of the panels. By chanting, “it enables our identity to thrive through language.” It kept them, “grounded in their culture.”

I learned from a Filipino-American artist based in California, Annie Nepomuceno, that “Indigenous sounds are both praise and worship, something very human and sacred — communicating with her soul, communicating her spirituality and her needs. The patterns are not fixed, but based on their emotions, with a melodic theme that is repeating. What she thinks and feels all refer to God.”

With good intentions of capturing the voices of the indigenous Hawaiian community, the students of Kanoa Castro’s class got involved in an art-inclusive process. Followed by group dynamics, meditation, a climb to the mountains with a visit to the beaches by these schoolchildren, the invited artists led to their consultation with the Native Hawaiian elders.

First, it is about finding oneself, “Me, Me, Me” and with the artists finding themselves, no longer lost, but with knowing their identities, they sing their own songs and write about their own identities. But, after that, what then?

They discovered their own culture, “making their letters dance,” and graffiti art was born. From four kids, intending simply to show them how to do it, many more kids showed interest in graffiti art, that “Prime” attracted 187 kids to join. Prime set up wood panels in his backyard, the kids started to paint art with paint cans and he mentored them on how to make paint cans reveal that letters can dance.

They had no idea about Hawaiian culture. So, “they meditated, they connected to heaven and earth, they connected to the land, and asked – how do I put that in the canvas?”

Reverence to a rock which unleashes rain: Taking care of the place

What does it mean to be one with Hawaiian culture? It is to go deeper into the culture, into spirituality, grounding one into connecting with one’s heart. It means connecting with Poli’ahu, the sacred goddess – “speaking what we see with our eyes – that our story has a visual place in our community – to take care of what is around us so it can take care of us.”

The murals depicted on three walls and a chant illustrate where the rain resounds and resonates. But more than that, it shows how a community has prioritized its own stories and centers the Hawaiian audience to notice who they truly are from within, and not from without: “main Kuliana is to take care of the place.”

Nanaua is a “sacred rock whose spirit it is believed brings the rain.” It is believed by the native Hawaiians to have stopped the drought. In 1979, there was a severe drought and a local Auntie Pua went to the rock and put her arms around it. She made a vow that if the rains come to save her people, as crops were dying and cattle did not have water to drink, she vowed that her family, including her children and their children, will protect the rock and of course, the place.

Auntie Pua Case became a bridge to what the indigenous culture has to offer and to what modern day graffiti artists had to recognize, ”if you are going to honor her, the focus should not be her, but the water, the bigger picture.”

One artist revealed that from “what you feel, you are bringing what you are, [into the] painting, you begin to know their stories.” It becomes the spirit of Manaua’s way of putting herself on the wall, as fully depicted when it rained the first day they were working on the murals.

To a 7th or 8th grader on a meditation journey in the mountains, she described her vision as a goddess holding a fetus with both hands, and this young lady’s vision became the centerpiece of the mural, as water cascades down from the goddess’ hands.

To me, it also suggested how we must know our own glory, that we too, are own goddesses in the making, to connect to Mother Earth.

As with any spiritual endeavor, a challenge comes about, unexpected and an artist’s inner conviction drives that artist to move forward, to express what is in his/her heart, to serve the Higher Being in the manner the group previously intended.

Without transcending this spiritual challenge, one’s faith remains shallow and one is yet to feel the “transcendence” or the “transformative effect” of one’s deeper connection to that Higher Universe, whether it is God, Allah or the spirit within this sacred rock.

Consider a hotel on the water, and when it is constructed, it killed the cycle of water and it killed the fish around it.

No longer is graffiti art regarded as vandalism, but instead, the focus is drawn to the vandalism of the land, how Native Hawaiians were displaced and how Hawaii continues to be occupied by the U.S. government.

By liberating these walls to speak about the Native Hawaiian stories, they too become liberated in not just elevating themselves, not deifying themselves on a pedestal, but they too become part of everyone, a part of what created the community’s landmark.

Much like the 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, which killed the flow of fishes in these areas. It was a movement initiated by Patagonia which led to the movement and the cry to remove to the dam.

By 2014, the dam was removed and the Elwha River’s circulatory system is now unblocked, free to flow where the fishes are back to propagate, unimpeded.

That is who we become, fishes that flow through Life’s rivers, unimpeded, unblocked and free to get our sustenance from Mother Earth, but do so we must with reverence.

Not just us, but other beings, including the fishes, that we may also get the rains as needed to care for the crops and the cattle or we all perish.

That is the heart-imprinted lesson I got from Melé Murals, which I considered so well-done by Tad Nakamura and his team, that we must center ourselves in a Higher Being, express ourselves through our chosen art, and in this documentary, graffiti art and murals that spoke to respecting themselves and their places in the Universe, and in particular, Hawaii.

In the process of producing this public mural, all got transformed by the democratic, inclusive process. Bravo!

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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 9 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.

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