808 Urban / Since the modern aerosol revolution began, graffiti artists have fiercely defended the legitimacy of their art form, and rightly so. But the artists themselves will also be the first to tell you that graffiti, by nature, isn’t always art. It’s a lesson that Jordan Arenas, a rising senior at James Campbell High School, learned the hard way.
“A few years ago I got arrested for it,” said Arenas. “I had to do community service and I had to go to counseling. Just like any other thing, there’s a good side and a bad side to graffiti. There’s a positive side of just doing art but there’s another side where people just want to destroy and destruct things. If I didn’t get involved in 808 Urban, God knows what else I’d be doing.”
808 Urban is a non-profit collective of local artists that emphasizes the importance of expression through graffiti, music and dance, and the possibility of art bringing about personal and social change. John “Prime” Hina, who was one of the trailblazers of the local graffiti scene in the 1980s, founded 808 Urban in his own backyard.
“I noticed a lot of the art side of graffiti had diminished over the years and the tagging stayed,” said Prime. “I guess it was because they had a lot of raids and it turned out that a lot of the artists were the ones getting busted for the taggers. So I built walls around my house and invited the kids to come over and just paint.”
Today, 808 Urban’s artistic reach has spread across the island. The group offers professional mural services–the most recent buzz about the group has probably been in conjunction with a mural depicting Michael Jackson on the side of Kokua Market in Moiliili–and art classes at places like Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility.
“At the correctional facility, we’re working with the inmates to teach them about culture and using art as their voice,” said Prime, who is wrapping up a facility-funded program that’s been running there since December. “Some people choose music. Some people dance. A lot of these guys are gang taggers, so what we’re trying to do is show them what’s beyond the tagging. Instead of doing gang tagging, how about painting a mural about oppression in the area you’re living in? Take the issues that come up in your day-to-day life and express it on a wall.”
Prime said it takes time for his message to sink in, especially when working with teenagers who have grown up in violent neighborhoods or have otherwise faced adversity so early and often in their lives.
“In the beginning, they kind of size you up to see where you’ve been, to see if you can handle yourself,” said Prime. “It’s kind of like the street mentality for a lot of these guys but we broke all of that down. By our fourth session, everybody came with humbleness and with respect. But, you know, in the beginning we didn’t get the respect at all. We just try to show love instead of hate, we open it with prayer, we handshake, not just with each other but with the kids as well. Now it’s to the point where the kids will come up to you and hug you.”
Jordan, too, is living proof that Prime’s approach to art can be life-changing.
“If I’m mad one day I go out and paint,” Jordan said. “It helps me keep my mind straight. When I’m painting, nothing else is bothering me, nothing else is in existence.”
808 Urban also sparked Jordan’s longtime interest in the arts. In addition to honing his graffiti skills, he went on to participate in Campbell’s Saber Media program–which incorporates and combines video, arts, communication, graphics and music–and he works on sketching and photography in his free time.
“Doing graffiti kind of opens new doors,” he said. “The medium itself, it’s just like, not anybody could pick up a paintbrush and make a masterpiece. It takes time and patience. It doesn’t come naturally.”
And while 808 Urban’s mission revolves around young people and their relationship to art, a major facet of what the group does involves bringing families together. Prime says he sees art as a way to connect those who need to learn from and rely upon one another, particularly in low-income, high-stress areas.
“We’re trying to reach the families, not just the kids,” said Prime. “It goes beyond graffiti, because that’s where you can make a difference, in the home.”
The quintessential example of this philosophy in practice is when, once a month, Prime hosts a casual gathering at the Mayor Wright housing complex.
“It’s all about connecting the generations through art,” said Prime. “The parents have to be involved, and a lot of it has to do with cultural history as well as social issues that they’re dealing with. And you can deal with those issues on a wall or on canvas.”
Learning the art of graffiti also means accepting that what you create doesn’t last forever. Murals are repainted–sometimes quickly after they are completed. The Michael Jackson piece outside of Kokua Market has even sparked a bit of a controversy (or at the very least an impassioned discussion about art) among members of the community around Moiliili.
In one online forum, which questioned whether Michael Jackson was an appropriate depiction for the wall, someone postured whether “The image is ‘inner-city gangsta art’ and promotes Michael as a ‘Smooth Criminal’ for beating the child molestation charges.”
And while some have expressed similar concerns, others have had an overwhelmingly positive response to it. Still others simply find the humor in the situation. Gregory Cuadra wrote, “Grafitti [sic] and Michael Jackson just don’t come to mind when I think of healthy/organic foods.”
But at the end of the day, Prime’s primary goal isn’t to encourage the creation of art that lasts, but to encourage a process of creating art that has a lasting impression on those who participate.
“The way people see it, they think graffiti is this forever statement,” said Jordan. “But nothing really is permanent in graffiti. Nothing is really permanent at all.”
Check out a photo gallery of 808 Urban’s work via links in the box at right.