Images by Chris Rohrer
Kainoa Gruspe and Tommy Hite are two of my favorite artists and oldest friends. In 2016, I had the privilege of arranging their first solo art exhibits of paintings, only months apart, in the basement-gallery of Hound and Quail in Honolulu’s Chinatown. Since then, dozens of solo and group shows, and collaborations with brands like In4mation and Napalm have followed. Their careers have taken off. However, they hardly ever speak about their craft. Actually, they hardly speak at all. It’s hard to say whether their quiet dispositions are inherent to their character, a matter of personal choice, or if they’ve simply never been asked to properly explain themselves. Whatever the reason, we got them together to speak with one another about their practice, upbringings, and what they hate most about painting.
Tommy Hite: All right, questions. I brought a couple. What first got you into art?
Kainoa Gruspe: I think I first got into it through skateboarding. Seeing other skateboarders in the world doing art, seeing people like Ed Templeton, all these cool board graphics and stuff. And then I was always doodling in school. I didn’t take any art classes in high school or anything. I started in college when I took a drawing class.
TH: Oh shit, really? But you were drawing before that?
KG: I was drawing my whole life, but I never really took it seriously.
TH: Yeah, same here. What age then?
KG: Did I start to get into it?
TH: Yeah, when were you like, “this is my number-one hobby”?
KG: When I first took a painting class. I was 18 or 19?
TH: Same. I always did more graffiti, lettering, and shit in high school. I started drawing when I was like, 11. I skated, too. I was getting into drawing because I wasn’t good at skating, so I would just draw instead. It took a turn in college, when they started teaching me things, and I started figuring out what I can do. When they were like, “OK, this is the art world, and this is how people make money.” I started to figure out that I don’t want to make things for other people, I want people to want the things that I make.
KG: Let’s see, I wrote some questions here, they’re a doozy. How do you start? Do you lay out the image first, like sketch it out? Or do you have a single picture or idea that develops over time?
TH: It’s all over the board. At first it was hard in school, when they tell you that you need a focus. But then, once you find a focus that kind of makes sense for you, you can do a riff on anything. My work is really specific to Hawai‘i, whereas your themes are more international. A lot of the stuff I do is more about local quirks, inside jokes. I try to make it obvious to the rest of the world, if the rest of the world is even looking, for it to be understood.
KG: Yeah, I get that from your work. There are motifs that anybody would recognize, like the rainbow or the palm tree, but there are more specific things that only people from Hawai‘i will understand and resonate with.
TH: And teach people.
KG: Are you annoyed at the idealized depiction of Hawai‘i? All these paintings of sunsets—do you see that negatively and, like, that you’re rebelling?
TH: Probably to some degree. You see what everyone’s doing, and then you’re just like, yeah, fuck that. I don’t want to do that. Growing up, I didn’t really go to the beach at all. We’d just skate around and flip off trolleys and shit. Remember mooning trolleys? You can’t help but make fun of this idea of Hawai‘i. I always thought it was interesting how, for most of the world, Hawai‘i is only this one thing, this one idea. But there is more dimension, there are subcultures. There’s a lot of uniqueness in Hawai‘i. Whether it is known or not, we are cool. It’s definitely a goal to bring that up. It is kind of irritating if someone paints a sunset and then has a big following because of it. But, also, that’s OK. I’m stoked for them.
KG: Yeah, that kind of stuff makes me super annoyed. It seems like your stuff consciously negates or pokes fun at the rainbow and the palm tree.
TH: Yeah, for sure, there’s definitely some teasing. The more you paint, the more you figure out what you’re doing. I think I’m taking what people think Hawai‘i is, and what it really is, and combining them in a picture so that they contrast each other. But they also make fun of each other. And that’s like as simple as I can explain it. I’ve noticed that you kind of poke fun at that too.
KG: Definitely. A lot of the stuff that I make stems from being super annoyed at something, things that are just boring and that are accepted by everybody. What influenced you to do art growing up?
TH: It was the graffiti artists. I always hung out with skaters and artists at Wilson Park because I lived across the street. There were kids in high school who were drawing amazing sketches in composition books, just chilling. I was completely mesmerized by the shit they were doing with pencils and ballpoint pens and Sharpies. That’s literally how I started drawing. I used to like building stuff and taking stuff apart. I always had to be doing something. I wanted to create things. I wanted to be an inventor when I was young, but I couldn’t figure out circuits. I remember watching the news and seeing these kids building computers and I gave up that day. I was like, “fuck that!” They’re my age and they’re building computers. I was super into, like, Harry Potter. That was another fascination. I started writing “Magic Staff,” and then people started calling me that.
KG: I’ve noticed sometimes there’s a wizarding, magical element in your paintings.
TH: There is an essence of that whole magical thing that’s appealing and trendy. There’s something about the magical, the fictional—stuff that’s present in Harry Potter, Howl’s Moving Castle—there’s something in them I find alluring. The weird whimsical stuff came about when I just had the idea to put the rainbow from one trashcan to another and I think that’s kind of what set it off—it was like me trying to break away. The BFA show at UH was when I tried to make up my own scenes. I felt like I wanted to hone in. It was that rainbow, I just thought it’d be super funny if I just put the rainbow in a trash can…
KG: And from then you figured it was just more fun to invent your own pictures?
TH: Yeah, and then, that matched the fire hydrant with a cone on it that I painted the next day. That’s how all that came about.
TH: When you come up with an idea for a show, does it take you a long time to do each of your pieces?
KG: Sometimes it takes a super long time for one painting. And sometimes it can just be a day. I like starting something and it kind of comes together in the first day and I can kind of see where it’s going. It feels like I’ve got a lot of momentum to keep working on it. I like being surprised when I only do a little thing and that little thing totally makes it work. You put one little piece of color somewhere and then the whole thing looks good. I like that.
TH: All right, well, this was cool.
KG: Yeah, this was fun. Hopefully we sounded smart.