Editorial | Name in the News John Hina: The founder of 808 Urban helps youth build life skills through art By Maureen OConnell email@example.com Dec. 16, 2016 Mahalo for supporting Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Enjoy this free story! DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM John “Prime” Hina. When The Queen’s Medical Center wanted to see a burst of creativity in its Family Treatment Center housing troubled kids, it turned to John “Prime” Hina, founder of 808Urban, a nonprofit arts collective known for its vibrant murals and street art. Read more Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser! You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription. Subscribe Now Read this story for free: Watch an ad or complete a survey Log In Already a subscriber? Log in now to continue reading this story. Activate Digital Account Print subscriber but without online access? Activate your Digital Account now. When The Queen’s Medical Center wanted to see a burst of creativity in its Family Treatment Center housing troubled kids, it turned to John “Prime” Hina, founder of 808 Urban, a nonprofit arts collective known for its vibrant murals and street art. About six months ago, in tandem with the center’s nurses and other staff, Hina and young artists he has mentored via the collective launched an arts-based therapy effort dubbed the “Piko Project,” through which the center’s patients — children, ages 5 to 17, contending with behavioral and mental health issues — are tapping traditional Native Hawaiian methods to build coping and other life skills. Among other things, Hina is seeing to it that the project folds the hospital’s own history into mural artwork at the center as Queen’s was founded in 1859 by Queen Emma and her husband, King Kamehameha IV. Tailored for kids who have experienced severe trauma, often the result of physical, sexual or verbal abuse, the therapy stresses gentle patience. Hina said, “We’re going in as family — and we genuinely care about everybody’s well being.” He added, “This is how we know it’s working: We’re seeing kids released from the center coming back saying they want to help us with the project, they want to make a difference.” Question: The idea for the Piko surfaced when a Queen’s clinical process improvement coordinator invited you to visit and consider developing a project. What was your impression of the 28-bed treatment center? Answer: I went into the space and I instantly felt this heavy energy. I met with staff, and then went home to think about it. A few days later, I sent an email saying: “You know what I think we should do for this place is we should really look into how we can use art to heal.” I had thought we were just coming in to do a mural, and that’s it. But feeling the energy of that place — not just from the kids, but from the staff — the walls cried out to me saying, “We need a change.’’ Q: After teaming up with Queen’s staff, how did the vision for the project take shape? A: My whole thing was reconnecting to Queen Emma’s vision for the hospital. Something just kept saying: “It has to go back to her, and her legacy and value system.” At first, it was a feel-out process, to incorporate Hawaiian protocols in an institution like Queen’s. Because although it was the norm at some point, it had been lost over time. Q: What happened when 808 Urban began working with patients and staff? A: The kids had to earn the privilege to paint. We spent a lot of time with them while they learned how to make a lei, chant and meditate. … A public environment would be different for us. We would say: “Here’s the colors, there’s the wall, go for it.” But here that could get out of hand, so we mentally prepare them. We ask them if they’re ready to paint and we pull them away if they need to regather themselves. … With staff we had to navigate with what we know about the traditional Hawaiian approach and the Western approach to find a happy middle. Q: Is there a particular Hawaiian story guiding the artwork? A: In our meditation, in our conversation, in our research, there are two story lines that come up. One is the old story of Kapo‘i, who was a commoner in the Punchbowl area. It’s also called “Battle of the Owls.” It’s a beautiful story about humility and dedication. … The reason it’s tied to Queen’s is because Kapo‘i builds a heiau on a place called Manu‘a. Q: So that’s near the medical center? A: It’s actually under. What makes Manu‘a such a special place is that that’s the only heiau that wasn’t dedicated to human sacrifice. It was the most sacred heiau of that ahupua‘a. Q: And the other story-line? A: There were several songs composed for Queen Emma. … We took one of the verses and broke it down. It’s about the time when she’s running up against Kalakaua. She loses her husband, she loses her son. (In 1874, after King Kamehameha IV and the couple’s young son had died, the queen was defeated by David Kalakaua in a royal election bid for the throne). She goes up to Mauna Kea and she hikes it on horseback, and makes it up to Lake Wai‘au, which is so sacred. … She bathes and swims from end to end. And the people that were there to witness created these songs that talk about her as the people’s queen. … And even though she was suffering from melancholy, she was still a cheerleader for the people. That says a lot for her character and perseverance. When the patients hear these stories, they can immediately relate. Knowing that they are homegrown here — and not from somewhere else — is also important. Q: You have said that when you were growing up in Honolulu, you were not taught much about Hawaiian culture in school. What influenced you? A: Hip-hop was a replacement culture for me, not knowing the Hawaiian culture. It gave me the grit to question … whenever I thought something wasn’t truth. … Hip-hop was that core culture that I felt comfortable in. When I got older, I transitioned to the Hawaiian culture. Q: You started making your mark as a graffiti writer at age 13. Were you artistic even then? A: I flunked all of my art classes … because they didn’t teach lettering. So I skipped school just to go down to the ditches and paint, teaching myself. But now with YouTube, everybody’s a master. I’m on it, too. People ask me: “Who’s your teacher?” I say: “Kumu YouTube.” Q: After years of establishing yourself as a graffiti writer, you quietly shelved the spray paint when you went about raising a family. How did your work with 808 Urban get started? A: The seeds were planted in 2003 when my (middle school-aged) kids asked to paint the garage. I thought they were going to just paint. When I saw that they were tagging I wasn’t mad about that. I was mad, though, that they didn’t understand you’ve got to make your letters dance. It needs flow and chemistry. (Prior to that incident, the children had not known about their father’s graffiti-writing past.) Q: The flourishing street art scene in Kakaako was touched off, in part, by 808 Urban projects that got underway about a decade ago. Does street art get mistaken for graffiti, which is, more or less, synonymous with vandalism? A: There’s still some of that misconception that street art is … illegal or dangerous. … I think the movement here in Kakaako is helping to change that. So is going into different communities and showing them the power street art can have. Q: Over the years you have worked with various groups of kids through 808 Urban. How many murals, altogether, at parks, schools and elsewhere? A: We’re a couple hundred deep, at least. … They’re not just here (Oahu). They’re on neighbor islands. They’re in Miami, New York. We have a few in Japan, Taiwan. Q: What else is on the horizon for 808 Urban? A: We’re planning a one-year tour, doing six murals at six schools on five islands. It could start as soon as late February or early March. Each one is a Hawaiian charter school. Every island will have its own palette. The Big Island’s color is red, so its palette will be reddish. It’s part of our new push, “Living Legacy” (a series of murals based on Hawaiian history and legend) that give the stories a facelift … and focus on the quality of the process. We’ll be working with every student and every parent that wants the opportunity. … We’ll also be painting murals along a bike path in Kalihi Valley. … And in January we’ll be working with the governor, painting a mural at a homeless shelter in Kakaako. Q: Any particular artists you look to for inspiration? A: I did grow up with the Michelangelos … and fantasy art, Frank Frazetta. There are so many. But my favorites are the kids. They’re in that place of discovery, of wonderment. I feel that as long as we can keep that part of ourselves as artists … we’ll keep creating. Q: What do you find most challenging and satisfying in your artwork? A: I always tell myself: “Why did I chose to work with kids?” Because the kids drive me nuts. I shouldn’t be this bald or gray. At the same time working with them is most rewarding because when you see the kids in that “ah-ha” moment, you feel like you’ve done your job. When you see them trying to help others using the same values that you taught, you’ve done your job. Previous Story Allowing life-ending medication is a compassionate choice Next Story He aha ka waiwai o ke mele ‘Hawai‘i Pono‘ī’?