A mural on the wall of a Hilo business has drawn controversy for its depiction — and subsequent redaction — of a firearm in the midst of a tableau celebrating the Merrie Monarch Festival.
The mural, painted on the west-facing wall of Agasa Furniture on Ponahawai Street, features two hula dancers flanking the words “Aloha Aina.” Although one of the dancers’ arms is now partially obscured by a large red bar, the dancer originally was depicted brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle.
Artist Keoni Payton, one of the creators of the mural, said the gun was intended to symbolize hula, music and Hawaiian culture as a weapon, defending against cultural erasure.
Now, however, the intentionally unsightly red block that replaced the gun represents a warning against censorship, Payton said.
“It’s a very colonialistic attitude, to ban anything you don’t understand,” Payton said. “It’s a very scary thing. Where does it stop?”
Payton said a representative of Mayor Harry Kim approached the artists with concerns about the mural’s content, saying people had made complaints about the gun. When Payton explained the meaning of the work, he said, the representative appeared satisfied and took no further action.
However, Payton said the Mayor’s Office “pressured” the owners of Agasa Furniture to alter the mural. The owners of the business had been supportive of the work as it progressed, but changed their minds shortly after the visit from Kim’s representative, Payton said.
Irene Agasa, co-owner of Agasa Furniture, said otherwise. Agasa said a friend had told her about a group of artists who wanted to paint a mural on the wall of her business, to which she accepted. When the artists presented her with the planned design, she “didn’t remember seeing the gun,” she said.
Had Agasa known of the gun beforehand, she would not have approved of the design. “We don’t want to upset anybody,” she said. “We’re peaceful people.”
Agasa said the Mayor’s Office told her about complaints regarding the mural, whereupon Agasa saw the gun for the first time and requested that it be removed.
Kim emphasized that the only action he took was to inform Agasa of a series of complaints his office received Tuesday morning.
“I said, ‘I think you should be aware of it,’ and I told her, ‘It’s your decision,’” Kim said.
Agasa said she only received three phone calls about the mural — two of the callers “kind of objected” to it, she said, but the third said “it was the most beautiful mural.”
“Who complained?” Payton asked. The painting has attracted dozens of onlookers as the artists worked on it for the past week, all of whom were supportive of the mural and its message, Payton said.
“Of course, there is a bias because the people who come here to see it are interested in art,” Payton conceded.
Kim said the complaints his office received were misdirected, as the county had no involvement in the mural – Payton said the project was funded with the artists’ own money — but said he believed the mural to be in poor taste.
“The timing is just a bad one,” Kim said.
The arguably violent connotations of the mural clash with the peaceful celebration of the ongoing Merrie Monarch Festival, Kim said, while the depiction of the gun itself might have seemed overtly political in the midst of an ongoing nationwide debate about gun control and assault weapons in the wake of the February mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people, 14 of them high school students.
“There’s no violence here,” Payton said. “Did the painting jump off the wall and hurt someone? No way!”
However, Kim assured that depictions of firearms are not verboten in Hawaii County, and that the decision to cover the gun was Agasa’s, not his.
Agasa said she might paint over the mural in the future, or change the red bar into something less visually jarring.
“Everybody knows that’s the gun,” she said.
Until then, she said, the incident is a lesson less politically fraught than censorship or gun control — a lesson to look more closely at artists and their sketches before allowing them to paint a mural on a wall.
“Lesson learned,” Agasa said.
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.