When Graffiti is Good

A formerly notorious ‘tagger’ now mentors kids, teaching his art in a constructive - and legal - fashion


John ‘Prime’ Hina, a graffiti artist since age 14, now mentors youths on his art in a legal way

They gather behind Palama Settlement,embracing one another with a handshake and hug, or a respectful nod. The heavy bass from a single amp pumps out underground rap at an obnoxious high volume. The scent of aerosol is strong in the air with the rattle of shaking spray cans followed by long breaks of hissing.

Graffiti artists both young and old crowd along a plywood wall racing to see who can paint the word “fresh"the fastest in the most unique way.

Further down the wall are testaments to the past. The neon colors and bold lettering from artists who pioneered tagging and graffiti in the 1980s still around today.

“If it were anywhere else, these guys would probably be fighting each other,“says John “Prime"Hina, “but not today.”

Everyone is here to paint, he says, not beef with each other about whose turf is whose or who has the better crew. Today it’s about the art.


This is an event put together by 808 Urban, an organization that takes in kids off the streets and teaches them the do’s and don’ts in the graffiti world in a constructive, legal way.

The term and use of graffiti has always had a negative connotation. Groups like Totally Against Graffiti (TAG) associate the letterings with gangs and crime. “Some may call it art,but if they are doing it on public property and do not get permission, there is this feeling of being violated if you are a property owner,“says Allicyn Tasaka, TAG’s spokesperson.

An 808 Urban member paints in a monthly competition

Groups like TAG spend some weekends pulling stickers off of signs and removing spray paint with solvents only to come back a few weeks later in frustration to do it again.

This is where Hina and 808 Urban come in. The group was founded by Hina in an attempt to get youths not only to stop tagging public and private property,but also put more emphasis on the artistic aspects of graffiti. Events like the ones held at Palama Settlement are both a part of a rebirth of an art form and pressure release deemed destructive or misguided by society.

Hina himself was apart of the original “problem"during his youth in the ‘80s as a former Bloods member who dabbled in drugs and illegal tagging.

“It all started in ‘84,” he recalls, noting how Hawaii’s youths were following those in New York, and how he would paint on school walls, ditches or any blank surface he and his crew could find.“It was kind of liberating for me, you know. To have that sense of freedom and do your thing, especially since, at that time, graffiti was the voice of the ghetto.”

Potential members look on as the monthly graffiti contest takes place

After a few run-ins with the law and being arrested once (what Hina calls a scare tactic) he decided to shelve his obsession.“Reality kicked in,“he says.“I thought,I’m not making any money doing this. I need to quit and find a job.So that’s what I did.”

Now, at 38, he has four kids, a home and ful-time job as a mortgage broker at Aloha Lending Services - what some might call a normal,respectable life.But his past eventually caught up with him, this time - in a good way.

Recently, he was at home in Ewa on a weekend, his kids asking permission to paint the garage.

Thinking he was getting a sweet deal,he told them to go right ahead. He was surprised to hear a familiar hissing sound and have a scent in his nostrils that he would never mistake.


Hina ran out to find his kids with spray cans in hand, scribbling out letters on the side of his garage.“Oh look Dad!” one of them said, “We’re doing this cool new thing called tagging.”

Although he was mad, it was not for the reason you’d think. “They thought they were going to get it,

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