‘O wai ‘oe? What is your water? This question was at the heart of an inspiring K – 12 art project that took shape throughout the week of April 2 – 7, under the creative direction of world-renowned street artist John “Prime” Hina.
“Ka Punahou – Our Punawai” is the title of a mural stretching across more than 100 feet of the grades 2 – 5 construction wall facing Case Middle School. It tells a visual narrative inspired by Ka Punahou as a water source that nourishes a community while connecting it to the rest of Hawai‘i and the world, just as all bodies of water are ultimately connected.
The project was conceived by middle school social studies faculty Ke‘alohi Reppun ’99 and music director Alicia Scanlan. Scanlan had brought Prime as a guest speaker to her hip hop music class for several years, after having his daughter Le Valasi ’19 as a student. Reppun met Prime while serving as a cultural advisor for the Wo International Center’s Pan-Pacific Program, for which his family had been a host for visiting exchange students. Both teachers wanted to bring Prime’s talent for creating vibrant murals with strong social and cultural messages to Punahou.
As a co-founder of the internationally acclaimed Kaka‘ako street art festival Pow-Wow! and the non-profit organization 808 Urban, which works with student groups around the state, Prime is a veteran of Hawai‘i’s blossoming street art culture. His work was recently celebrated in “Mele Murals,” a documentary film about the intersection of graffiti art and native Hawaiian culture. But Prime’s connection to Punahou dates back to the early 1980s, when as a child growing up on nearby Dole Street, he would come to campus to play on the basketball courts. Now a parent and husband of Queenie Hina, who works in the School’s physical plant department, Prime’s relationship with Punahou has deepened through this mural, which involved thousands of children and adults from the School community.
When it came to deciding on a theme, Reppun suggested water as both source of identity and metaphor for the School, “because of its presence in the School’s name, Ka Punahou, and in the value of this place. But water is also such an awesome, universal metaphor because the relationship to it is universal and the necessity of it is universal.”
At a mural dedication ceremony on April 7, Reppun’s students performed the traditional Hawaiian song “He Mele no Kane,” which poses the question: Where is the water of Kane? Its six verses explain that water is everywhere – where the sun rises and sets, in the mountains, the sky and the ground – and it carries a strong message about how central water is to life.
“Water’s everywhere. It’s everything. We are water, and that is what we’re trying to convey,” Reppun noted. “If we don’t protect our water sources, if we don’t take care of and acknowledge them, then there’s a chance that we won’t exist at some point. So to me, it’s about being responsible to your place and having that connection, that’s what I wanted for my students. I wanted them to feel that they have a kuleana in taking care of this place.
“When you understand the place name Ka Punahou and the stories associated with that name, it takes you back. Water has a genealogy and this genealogy is really important in understanding place. The genealogy of the people traces you back to the genealogy of the land and to the genealogy of the water, because civilizations and communities developed around water sources.”
“I hope people learn the story in this mural,” reflected Prime. “We spent a week learning the story, but we didn’t do our job if you just walk by and say ‘oh that’s pretty’ but don’t take the time to learn the story behind it.”
Prime designed a two-step process in which anyone could help to lay its foundational layer, beginning with what he called “Hana Lima” which can be translated as work with hands, or handmade. For the first two days, classes from kindergarten to the Academy, teachers, staff and others stopped by to leave their colorful handprints on the wall.
The community’s participation was the biggest highlight for Scanlan. “Being able to see not only our students, but also custodial staff, my accompanist from choir, parents, our administration – all those people are now living on this wall, their energy has become part of this beautiful picture.”
After Hana Lima came the “Pili Aloha” phase of the mural, in which students used spring water from Ka Punahou to create colored tints over the handprints – joining or binding them (as the word “pili” entails) in aloha. Over this, a series of images were painted by Prime, his assistants and some students, conveying some of the stories associated with the waters of Ka Punahou. Beginning at the hala grove on the banks of the new spring, winding through a lo‘i kalo under the watchful eyes of a pueo and a guardian mo‘o goddess, the mural then reaches the ridgeline of Manoa presiding over the ocean and its rich marine life – completing the water’s journey from mauka to makai.
Prime explained that his mural-making process is highly improvisational, and depends in large part on the kind of feedback he receives from the community. “The game plan is probably 20 percent of the finished product and 80 percent comes from whatever people throw at us. I try to get the kids to be spontaneous. I think when we’re too structured in our way of doing art, we forget how to become Peter Plan, we forget how to fly, to imagine.”
Interspersed throughout the mural are bubbles containing words like “family,” “aloha” and “rest.” These were student responses to the question: “What is your punawai?”
“When you think about the idea of a punawai, a freshwater spring, it’s constantly renewing itself,” said Reppun. “You can take that idea of a spring and use it as a metaphor for many different things, so my punawai, my Punahou, could also be the thing that renews and rejuvenates me. We had the kids think about their individual punawai and they created these cards where they expressed a word or a phrase about how this place contributes to their renewal. Some of those words are embedded in bubbles on the mural, which are like little breaths of fresh air, the thoughts of our students and the community.”