Hilo mural with armed hula dancer painted over amid complaints

HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - A mural meant to celebrate this year's Merrie Monarch Festival has instead created a conflict between artistic expression and sensitivity about gun violence in America.

Organizers say several artists flew in to Hilo to help complete the painting, which can be found on the wall of a furniture store downtown. The mural depicts a hula dancer – which, given the mural's celebratory intent, is not unusual.

What is unusual about the painting is that the dancer depicted is holding an AK-47 assault rifle, a scene meant to symbolize hula and music as weapons that help keep the Hawaiian culture alive.

The message, it seems, did not sit well with everyone; about a third of the way through their work, the artists said they were were visited by a representative from the Hawaii County mayor's office.

"I talked to the owner first, and I told her 'I just want you to know this is your business. It's your right to do whatever you want with your wall,'" said Mayor Harry Kim. "But I just want you to know the number of calls I'm getting regards to concerns about the taste of what is being done."

Artist Keoni Payton says shortly after that visit, the owner of the store asked them to get rid of the gun – which he says is key to his message.

"You're trying to force us to think a certain way, to conform, because you don't understand where we're coming from," said Payton. "I feel that it's an infringement on my basic rights of freedom of expression."

The goal of the Merrie Monarch Festival is to celebrate the ideals of King Kalakaua, who sought to revitalize the Hawaiian people and culture by showcasing their native artistry. Muralist Dante Orpilla says he was humbled and honored to be asked by Payton to help with the message.

"The message that it encapsulates is one that's universal: music as our weapon," Orpilla said. "With Merrie Monarch and the hula festival coming into town…It's here to celebrate people being able to keep culture alive throughout times, no matter what," he added.

A giant red block is now painted over the rifle. The artists are now striving to send a new message of censorship.

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