Whenever I reveal that I grew up in Hawaii, I am faced with a slew of questions. Some are silly (“Does everyone know how to surf there?”) while others are downright confused (“Is Hawaii a part of the United States?”). There is a lot of basic information about the 50th state that many Americans aren’t aware of, like that native Hawaiians have their own language, and that the Kingdom of Hawaii was illegally overthrown and annexed in 1893. The history of Hawaii is as complex as its contemporary culture; to grow up in the islands is to be exposed to a veritable melting pot of customs, languages, and people.
I moved to Kaneohe, on the island of Oahu, in 2006, and I quickly assimilated into local culture at Ahuimanu Elementary School. Growing up in Hawaii, I was introduced to many different customs from countries like Japan, the Philippines, and Tahiti. At the same time, I felt disconnected from mainland-American art and culture that I consumed only through the internet and magazines. As I entered teenagerhood, I began searching for a crowd of like-minded people on Oahu.
When I was a freshman in high school, I started going to monthly events called Art & Flea, founded by musicians and event curators Aly Ishikuni and Nicole Franco. This pop-up market draws an eclectic, young crowd and is an outlet for local artists, clothing and jewelry designers, vintage collectors, and musicians to showcase and sell their work. Among the handmade bowties and vintage aloha shirts, I also found teens my age looking for community and an opportunity for self-expression. Enter Jhunette Liwanag, aka Jhune Li, an artist, photographer, musician, and general badass chick who has helped shape Oahu’s DIY culture since she started working for the Art & Flea street team in 2012.
Both sides of Jhune’s family immigrated to Hawaii from the Philippines. On her mother’s side, Jhune’s great grandfather came from Quezon City to become a plantation worker, and her father lived in Pangasinan, joined the military, and was eventually stationed on Oahu. Many other families have lived in the islands for generations due to military or plantation work opportunities, which is how so many cultures came together to form Hawaii’s unique community.
Jhune describes her child-self as “PAINFULLY shy,” and her quiet demeanor led her to find ways of expressing herself without words. She began taking photos in sixth grade on her parent’s old Olympus Infinity Zoom film camera. What began as a fun way of capturing memories evolved into an integral part of Jhune’s identity. She had finally found a way to make tangible her silent observations, even if her shots were often hazy or out of focus because of the camera’s broken zoom ring.
Jhune attended high school at a very conservative private school where there was not much room for creative expression. Her artistic opportunities were limited to a digital photography class, but Jhune preferred capturing images on film. She began sharing her street photography and portraits of friends on Tumblr, simultaneously developing an artistic voice and a unique narrative of the local teen experience. When I discovered Jhune’s photography, I was impressed with her ability to capture parts of Oahu in a way that totally subverted the stereotypical, touristy imagery that non-locals are used to consuming. Her images of Oahu’s stylish youth lounging around skate parks or the gritty streets of Chinatown exude an air of unrest.
In recent years, the Chinatown of Oahu has become a hub for local bands and artists, and one can attend a punk show any given weekend. As Jhune began documenting the local music scene, she became immersed in a vibrant and raucous community. When members from some of her favorite bands started to move away from Hawaii, she and her partner Rob Cunningham consulted the local band Beaman about helping the DIY music scene continue to thrive. They began throwing shows under Beaman’s label, Failed Orbit Records, and hosted fundraisers to bring mainland-based bands out to Hawaii. Along with Rob and her friends, Jhune has helped bring out the bands Audacity, Benny the Jet Rodriguez, and Screaming Females, as well as host bands like Puberty Wounds and Tom Grrrl.
I spoke with Jhune about her favorite part of running a DIY record label, and she said, “Something that I like about doing Failed Orbit is that we’re not limited to a specific space or venue, so we get to keep things from getting too stale. Some of these venues have allowed us to incorporate art into the shows. We threw shows at this art gallery in Chinatown called ARTS at Mark’s Garage that we called “The Space Jam,” and we bought mini basketball hoops and played the movie Space Jam behind bands as they played.”
In addition to creating art for posters, mixtapes, and T-shirts for local bands, Jhune also shoots fashion editorials for Oahu-based brands like Ditch Life and local businesses like Barrio Vintage. Fashion in Hawaii is naturally reflective of island culture and lifestyle. Although many locals choose to dress casually in T-shirts, board shorts, and slippers (no, we do not call them flip-flops!), local designers and fashion curators have created a unique blend of styles.
Crafting a unique personal style is an important part of Jhune’s identity, too: “I love the act of thrifting. I miss being in high school when I had way more free time to search for things. It’s like a treasure hunt…It’s cheap and it’s good for the environment, and I might be the only one I ever see wearing it so it feels extra special, except it’s also pretty cool when you do see someone else wearing it because you have this weird connection that neither of you expected to have when you woke up that morning. I think about fashion pretty often. It’s never far from my mind. And I think that’s why I like doing fashion photography so much, because I get to hang out with people who think about fashion as much as I do, and we all have the common goal of making an outfit that looks great and sharing it with others.”
This past May, Jhune graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in elementary and special education. She will begin working in Honolulu, working one-on-one with students on skill-building techniques once the school year starts in August. Jhune’s latest creative endeavor is singing and playing guitar in a band she started with friends called Aura Bora. I asked Jhune what it felt like to finally be in a Failed Orbit-band herself, and she replied, “It’s weird! I never saw myself as someone who would ever be able to write songs.” Despite her humble words, I believe Jhune Li can accomplish whatever goal she sets her mind to, and I can’t wait to see what she makes next in Oahu. ♦