HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Offensive or empowering? That's the question being raised by some about a t-shirt depicting a hula dancer with a machine gun. The artist says he wanted to call attention to the annexation of Hawai'i and the plight of Native Hawaiians, but hula dancers say he missed his mark when he collided hula's message of love and life with an image of violence and destruction.
Delys Recca comes from a family of hula dancers.
"Hula represents our land, our love stories and our history," described Recca, who has danced in Merrie Monarch with her halau.
She was stunned when she saw a RVCA shirt featuring a hula dancer holding a smoking gun surrounded by empty shell casings on display in a surf shop's window in Hawaii Kai.
"This image isn't right and it's actually very offensive, and on behalf of my hula brothers and sisters we would like this shirt to be discontinued," said Recca, who is also an art student at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.
"There are so many youth in Hawai'i right now that aren't educated on the culture that are going to buy that shirt and wear it. You might see a good looking Hawaiian boy with that shirt on and you're like, 'Nooo!' That's not right. That's not good for your Tutus that studied hula for their whole life and for me that's still on a path of studying it," explained Recca.
The design is one of three featuring hula dancers with firearms by artist Kevin Ancell, who lives in San Francisco but spent his youth in Hawai'i.
"It's not a blast on the art of hula, because I absolutely love it. It's in no way to insult the Hawaiian people, or any Pacific Islanders, it was strictly a way to show the way things fell for them and to empower them and stand up for their identity," said Ancell.
"The message is there's these beautiful happy people that live aloha, but they're eventually forced to empower themselves. The gun is just representational – it's not really a gun. It's just the act of empowerment," explained Ancell.
Kumu Hula Vicky Takamine says Ancell is missing the point.
"I don't need a gun to be empowered. In fact, a gun to me tells me that you as a person are weak – that you need something of force to give you power. That's not empowering us at all. What's empowering for me is education, is consideration for others, is respect – and obviously this person has no respect for me, Native Hawaiians, our people and our land," said Takamine.
Educators say the misrepresentation of the Hawaiian hula girl image and other Native Hawaiian icons is an ongoing problem.
"This is a clear collision of culture where someone comes in and appropriates this imaging for some kind of hip, cool and fresh idea of branding – not realizing perhaps, that it's insulting for Hawaiians, especially to the hula world," explained Lia O'Neill Keawe, an Assistant Professor at UH Manoa's Center for Hawaiian Studies.
Ancell says that was never his intent. He says he spoke with a few halau before creating the design years ago, and says once he described his message to them, they understood. Now he's considering having the shirt printed with an explanation.
"I can understand how they would be a little freaked out by it, because it's a sacred thing to them, but if you're going to ask me if I think it's wrong – I don't. It's art, it's just representational, but you know, I do apologize if I hurt somebody's feelings," said Ancell.
Recca says she hopes this discussion will empower people to claim their voice in an important discussion about identity and culture.
"We need to tell people who we are. Since we're not, other people are just coming in and speaking for us and that's not right. We need to speak for ourselves. It's time to stand up and speak for ourselves," said Recca.