Set against the backdrop of a small rural town on the Island of Hawaii, Mele Murals chronicles how modern graffiti and ancient Hawaiian culture have come to find common ground in a movement that is vastly greater than the sum of its parts. An Asian-American Heritage Month Initiative, the film was screened on March 12 in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance.
The documentary follows Estria Miyashiro and John Hina (aka Prime), two iconic street artists who found themselves drawn to the potential of visual storytelling. They formed Mele Murals, an ambitious project that allowed Hawaii’s youth to confront the effects of modernization and environmental change on their native culture and land. Through the language of public art, a group of students from Waimea found themselves in conversation with their Hawaiian identities and left a lasting and tangible impact not only on their community, but also on Prime and Estria themselves.
During the early days of Hawaii’s emerging local hip-hop culture, Prime made a name for himself as one of the dominating forces of the Honolulu graffiti scene. As Prime grew in fame, Estria was also breaking out onto the scene, establishing a street reputation while studying art at the University of San Francisco. Following different paths, both discovered that graffiti could be the answer to questions they had been grappling with – questions about their history, identity and responsibilities as Hawaiian people. The pair unexpectedly found themselves working together when their personal journeys led them to a native Hawaiian charter school in Waimea.
Mele Murals is an art project born of necessity and curiosity – a longing to understand the modern Hawaiian identity by looking at native lands and mele, Hawaiian songs and lyrics. In collaboration with the Kanu o ka ʻĀina New Century Public Charter School, the project culminated in students and community members creating three murals. Students worked on conceptualizing their compositions with various community members, focusing all the while on understanding the spirituality and history of the stories they would be telling on the walls. With the spiritual guidance of Auntie Pua Case, the artistic mentorship of Prime and Estria and the immense dedication of each student, the murals brought to life the stories of the Waimea community.
To give more insight into the process of filming the documentary, a question-and-answer session with director Tad Nakamura followed the screening of Mele Murals at the College. The event was hosted by Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies Anthony Kim and Postdoctoral Fellow in Art History Kailani Polzak. After brief introductions, Nakamura explained his involvement with Mele Murals. The documentary was co-produced with ‘Ōiwi TV, a Hawaiian-run production company. As this was his first time working in an indigenous community, Nakamura recalled that his role as an outsider made him attentive of accurately presenting a story that was not his.
When asked about what was left unsaid in the film, Nakamura spoke about the conscious effort to present a view of modern Hawaii and depict a lifestyle that is alive and evolving. To avoid falling into the trope of “museumization,” decisions were made to leave out subtitles and certain context about Hawaiian culture. In Nakamura’s words, “If you don’t know, you don’t know.”
Structuring the narrative around Prime and Estria was another important directorial decision. The hope was that introducing a diversity of experiences in a modern context would counter the usual one-dimensional representation of native Hawaiians in films. The modern Hawaiian identity, in all of its layered complexity, is explored through Prime, Estria and the Waimea community. Their story is one with intergenerational and intercultural resonance. It acknowledges the perpetual waves of consequence from colonial exploitation but firmly reasserts what it means to be native Hawaiian. As Nakamura put it, Mele Murals offers a window into modern Hawaii that allows “stories [to] be told from within.”