'Prime' Time Artist

Street art transforms Kakaako

There’s an art scene sprouting in Kakaako, and true to its street art roots, the works pop up quietly, seemingly over night, transforming the once sketchy streets to galleries evoking Hawaii culture and story.  It’s not easy catching up with a long-time street artist, even if he has gone public, so when I finally sat down with John “Prime” Hina in a quiet park in Kaneohe, I admit to being a bit star-struck.

Founder and icon of 808Urban, Prime is the man behind much of the art, creating a renaissance of sorts, introducing street art to a new generation of teenagers looking to express themselves. But this time, they’re doing it in collaboration with businesses and residents and law enforcement that share a vision of connectivity and community in Honolulu.

For Prime – his name, his tag, and his brand – some of his earliest inspiration came from the Sweathogs of Welcome Back Kotter, a sitcom that ran only four years in the late 1970’s, but helped define a generation.  A part-Samoan-part-Hawaiian kid growing up in Honolulu, Prime remembers his era as the “gap generation,” during which culture and roots were removed from school teachings and kids were left frustrated, wanting to find ways to connect with their heritage.  Graffiti – or writing as it’s called underground – provided that outlet to speak out, share frustrations, find their voice. “I wanted to be a Sweathog, just like John Travolta,” he said, “where we could say whatever we wanted.”

Prime’s teen years followed a somewhat predictable path, flunking art classes at Kaimuki High School – where his teacher told him he had promise but no focus – and investing more time in the hustling streets than study hall. “The scene was so alive back then,” Hina says, “hundreds and hundreds of writers expressing themselves.”  But when his girlfriend (now wife of 30 years) got pregnant, Prime got serious, left the streets to build a family.  And it was his ohana who eventually pulled him back to the streets. In his cousins, his young brother-in-law, and even his own son and friends, he saw the same frustrated teenagers he remembers.  “It was the same stuff, just a different generation.”  

When this new generation’s work emulated what they’d seen from places like New York and LA, Prime couldn’t stand it any longer.  He’d watched the culture identity struggles in Hawaii his entire life, and he believed street art could bridge the gap, create an identity that is unique to Hawaii’s heritage.  “I came out of retirement to show these kids what passion is all about.”

It’s through 808Urban’s Junior Boards that Prime shapes his vision of art and community. Comprised of high schoolers from islandwide public and private schools, these kids make a one-year commitment to the project, working with Prime and other artists to bring Hawaii heritage to the community’s blank spaces.  Theirs is a full-service project, first cleaning the area of the detritus remaining from abandoned spaces, then meeting with cultural advisors and kapuna to find the story to be told.  Only then do they paint.  Prime’s goal isn’t to create artists, but rather, to instill creativity. “I don’t teach art. I teach life.  Maybe they’ll go on to be doctors and lawyers one day, and I want them to be the most creative doctor or lawyer they can be.” 

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