From aspiring breakdancer to accomplished artist, Ian Kuali’i traces his path so far
May 7th, 2020, 5:30PM / BY Justin Mugits, for Smithsonian Magazine
Artist Ian Kuali’i (Kanaka Maoli [Native Hawaiian] and Shis Inday [Mescalero Apache]) is known both for his cut-paper work and for his background in hip hop and graffiti. Ian visited the National Museum of the American Indian in New York last October as part of our Artist in the Galleries series, where he presented demonstrations of his art and answered visitors’ questions about it. He was scheduled to take part in our Children’s Festival during Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month this May, leading collaborative mural painting. After the Children’s Festival was postponed, I took the opportunity to talk to Ian about his influences as an artist and his evolution from aspiring breakdancer to accomplished, self-taught artist.
Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, Ian spent time in both Hawai’i and Southern California, as his mother, Carolyn Melenani Kuali’i, moved back and forth for college and her work in Native health initiatives. Ian has always been connected to his Hawaiian roots through his mother’s teachings, and through his extended family of aunts and uncles in Hawai’i and the diasporic communities of Southern California. “The culture was always around,” he says, “so at any given moment, we might have some of the most influential figures in Hawaiian politics, like Huanani-Kay Trask, at our house in Irvine. There were hālau hula [schools of Hawaiian culture] all throughout Southern California.”
Ian was also impacted by the hip hop culture that was blossoming across the country. “We had a crew called Sick Block. My mom was going to the University of California Irvine at the time, and we would hang out at KUCI 88.9, the college radio station. And they had hip hop hour. At the same time there were b-boy [breakdancing] summits going on; there were a lot of legal graffiti walls like Huntington Beach. It was great times, going to African Student Union dances with my crew and battling people [in break dancing battles].” As Ian became more involved in hip hop culture, he realized that he wasn’t a very skilled emcee or DJ, so he began focusing on his graffiti writing.