It takes a community to engage youth in fostering love for a place. Not just with words, the Mele Murals team is taking action and teaching the kids of Waimea about art, cultural preservation and community building. A project of the Estria Foundation, Mele Murals’ goal is to create a series of 20 murals during a five-year period on each of the major Hawaiian islands. Designed by Waimea students for three exterior walls of the Kahilu Theatre, this mural will be the first, and sets a precedence for the remainder of the project.
“I wasn’t that into it,” said Ku’ulei Guerpo, a senior at Kanu o ka Aina Charter School. “I just sat back and watched, until we went to visit Manaua Pohaku the other day. Then I realized that I have to participate in this.”
“Mele Manaua” is a song about young boys who were bird catchers in Waimea. It speaks about their experience of preparing to catch birds, the area, the protocol they must do in order to swim in the water and losing one of their friends to Manaua, a mo’o spirit in the pohaku. At the start of the project, kupuna presented to the students five mele, or songs, about Waimea and translated the words with beautiful imagery. “Hole Waimea” and “Na Pu’u Kaulana o Waimea” were other songs they translated so students could begin to create designs to go onto the mural.
“When we set out on this process, it was difficult to capture Waimea with only one mele,” said Kanoa Castro, teacher at Kanu o ka Aina.
The students gathered on Kanu o ka Aina’s grassy field and were instructed to meditate on their surrounds. With snow-capped Mauna Kea visible and the ultra green pu’us as a backdrop, the students began forming tangible expression for their thoughts. Ultimately, imagery from four different songs was used in the creation of the mural.
“After meditating, I came up with the idea of a half moon and half sun with a fetus in the middle,” said Pualilia Dudoit, a seventh grader at Kanu. “I thought of the kumulipo when I looked at Mauna Kea, and the starting of the earth. And the idea of water coming down from the fetus is rain dropping to the earth to create our ‘aina.”
Dudoit was one of four students who, along with their kumu Castro and Chadd Paishon, presented their initial concept for the mural to members of the Kahilu Theatre board. After singing the Waimea songs that were the inspiration for their project, the students took turns explaining the various meanings of their collaborative sketches.
The first wall, facing the post office, depicts water and streams running mauka to makai, and how water connects us. Dudoit’s imagery will be placed at the top of this mural, and the words from “Na Pu’u Kaulana o Waimea” are inspiration for the artwork. The second wall portrays mo’o (lizards) and their relationship to Hawaii. Large outlines of mo’o will be the underlay for a second layer painted over it. Hole Waimea, a mele about the Kipu’upu’u warriors, their training on these grounds, their strength and clear intent, and the relationship between kanaka and the forest, will come alive on this second wall.
“On Monday night, Prime sketched out this mural, but I hadn’t seen it yet,” said one of the students. “Then I had a dream, and two parts of this sketch were in my dream!”
John “Prime” Hina is one of the mentors of Mele Murals who arrived in Waimea from Oahu for the two-week project. Creator of 808urban.org, an organization that turns youth from at-risk neighborhoods into “community minded artists and cultural workers,” Hina said dreaming is a big part of the process.
“Things fall into place when we dream, and we are trying to bring back dreaming,” said Hina.
The students explained the illustrations for the third wall and spoke of “papahanaumoku,” the beginning of life; “papakulihonua,” growth, everything within this realm; and “papahuilani,” the sky and everything above us. Three overlapping circles are the three pikos, which connect us to the present. The theme of “makawalu,” a Hawaiian concept of seeing through eight eyes, will be dominant and is about being hyperaware.
“Makawalu is to look at something with different eyes so we can make good decisions,” said Chadd Paishon. “When you look at the first wall, the second, and then the third wall, this one says go back, and look again.”
Makana Mahuna, one of the students who presented the mural concepts to Kahilu Theatre, said this is her senior project at Kanu o ka Aina.
“I think this is a really good way for the community to get involved,” Mahuna said. “It has been good for students from Waimea Middle, Parker, HPA and our school to interact. And it will be special for our kupuna who will see the mele portrayed on the wall.”
Estria Miyashiro, creative director of Estria Foundation, is recognized around the world as a “graffiti art living legend.” Acknowledged as a community leader who is helping to awaken the social and political consciousness of graffiti writing art, Miyashiro, along with Hina, is teaching Waimea students the art of being creative. He said taking the students and visiting Mauna Kea and Manaua is important to maintaining the integrity of Waimea in their art.
At one of the workshops, Miyashiro told the students, “This is your homework. Take the name Waimea and sketch out the letters. Treat your letters like people dancing. Animate and have fun with them. Then, think about the songs and how to draw them. Any ideas are welcome and every phase is important. These are foundational pieces and they need to be strong.”
Sara Mundon, a seventh grader from Parker school said she enjoyed interacting with students from other schools.
“I’ve learned a lot of stories that were explained to us, not just chanted in Hawaiian,” Mundon said. “It’s exciting that a lot of people can come together to paint something that represents where we are living.”
Dudoit added, “Auntie Pomai (Bertelmann) and Auntie Ku’ulei (Keakealani) have been helpful with the mele and oli. They should get a lot of credit.”
Hina believes that mural making is “definitely a thriving culture.”
By going out and showing kids how art is done with spray paint, he said the intention of Mele Murals is to create and manifest positivity while teaching local history, mele, cultural heritage and artistic skills.
As a “first generation graffiti artist in the early ’80s,” Hina explained that he stopped his art to become a responsible family man.
“Fast forward to 2003 and my son comes home with his friends and asks if he could paint the garage,” said Hina. “Twenty minutes later, I went out to look and they were tagging away! I was pissed, not because they were tagging, but because it was junk! I told them, ‘It’s got to have style,’ and when I touched the spray paint, I came alive.”
Hina’s passion for teaching the younger generation the art of spray paint “doesn’t pay,” but does give him the satisfaction of being a mentor, doing his art and helping youth become visual storytellers.
According to the Mele Murals Facebook page, their work honors the last commands of King David Kalakaua. “Look to the keiki, teach them, groom them, show them wonder, and inspire them,” it said. Mele Murals affords a platform to teach young people to become storytellers, painters, and community leaders.
“It has been a great process to watch Prime, Estria and all adults involved be mentors to the kids,” Paishon said. “Everyone from the community is involved.”
Mahea Akau, Mele Murals program event coordinator said, “We are going to end up learning more from the kids than them learning from us.”