“David Cameron Hates The Mandem”, Ryan Hawaii proclaims on a t-shirt in bold graffiti. In a stroke of tech-age punk protest, both image and phrase went viral on Instagram.
Still, as much as Hawaii’s artwork is visually indebted to punk’s patched, painted, fundamentally DIY aesthetic, it’s the movement’s fury and anti-establishment vigour that he most seeks to embody in his art. “What appeals most to me about punk is the mentality… Not letting anyone else dictate what you do. You determine your own fate and do what you want to do… If I want to do a thing on the street, I’ll just do it. I’m not going to wait until someone says I can.”
Hawaii began a foundation in Graphic Design at Camberwell College of Arts before dropping out because, as he tells me: “I always had a vision to do my own thing.” Instead, three years ago, he began painting on canvases from his local fabric shop Rolls and Rems and then stitching the results to t-shirts, all from a bedroom in his Catford flat. Not originally, at least, for artistic reasons, his DIY technique was a way to sidestep the need for minimum orders from printing companies: Hawaii simply didn’t have the money to pay for 100 t-shirts.
If it was an accident of circumstance, it was certainly a happy one: creating garments that manage to recall the graffitied leather jackets of Basquiat and his acolytes, as well as the fraying street uniforms of The Warriors’ tribes, Hawaii stumbled upon a perfect medium for his distinctive work. Since then, his output has developed from simple t-shirts to more complex projects, like a collaboration with workwear brand Bonne Suits. Whether he’s remixing streetwear touchstones like the Thrasher logo to playful ends, or painting statements of proud anarchy — “Teenage Angst Forever!” — Hawaii will nearly always temper his anger with a wicked playfulness.
That anger is, nonetheless, very real, and can sometimes begin to feel something like hopelessness: see a Bape shark hoody that Hawaii tattooed with “SOCIETY SUCKS” in a cyclical pattern of unending despair. So, what’s getting him down? The same things that infuriate most of us, really: “I don’t think that education should be something that people have to pay for because you’re immediately separating the different economic classes within society,” he reasons, before moving onto a more specific form of cultural injustice. “I think there’s a lot lacking in the infrastructure of music in the UK. In underground music at the moment, it’s only really built for […] the grime MCs, or people doing commercial shit. But there’s no money in the underground scene. So I’m trying to change that by making my own money.”
And that’s why Hawaii is a unique proposition. Whereas the anti-capitalist streak in his punk forebears repeatedly left them open to that time-worn accusation of “selling-out” — remember Jonny Rotten’s extraordinary turn in the Country Life butter adverts? — Hawaii doesn’t believe that term is relevant in 2016’s turbulent creative economy. While, as he points out, some of the UK’s most prominent underground acts are “still on the streets selling drugs”, Hawaii has always realised “that you have to be a bit of a businessman if you’re talented, because you need to hustle.” He knows that (sadly) most people won’t buy a record on iTunes if they can get it for free online, and that financial security for independent musicians might well be in merchandise because “t-shirts are something tangible… something outside of the digital realm.”
It’s here, in fact, that Hawaii’s latent optimism shines through. He might be critical of those in power, but the artist’s faith in his own generation is admirable: “We’re pretty fucking smart. We’ve seen a lot of mistakes happen from people that came before us, as well as the good stuff.” That kind of level-headedness has allowed him to operate effectively with brands, without compromising his integrity. “The reason why I started painting on clothes was because I couldn’t afford designer clothes, which is why at my pop-ups I always try and have some low-price items so people can actually buy into it,” he muses. “The whole culture of fashion and trends, I’m not into it because it’s so pretentious… I would definitely collaborate with designers though, because I like the people within fashion, I just don’t like fashion as it is.”
His message has resonated: fans include Skepta and Off-White’s Virgil Abloh, who gave Hawaii the ultimate co-sign when invited Hawaii to speak at his Ideas Workshop in Off White’s Selfridges brand space last year mere months after Hawaii was kicked out of the space in the same store because he held a “protest presentation”, which drew a spontaneous 200-strong crowd. But where to next? Everywhere, apparently: Hawaii also makes music with his crew, Neverland Clan, a punk rock-inspired posse who describe themselves as “the gnarliest boy band ever,” and has ambitions in other fields, including film and photography. Essentially, he wants to be “one of the first multi-faceted artists to be accepted as a multi-faceted artist.” Unlike so many, he doesn’t scoff at Kanye West’s cross-formal experiments in fashion and film: he celebrates them.
Hawaii might not want to call himself a designer, but he does what the best and most cerebral designers do: provoke thought and change through their clothes. In fact, the early work of fashion’s original youth designer and one of Abloh’s undisputed heroes, Raf Simons, actually bears an uncanny resemblance (both visually and conceptually) to Hawaii’s. Simons’ iconic SS02 collection carried the portentous subtitle: “Woe onto those who spit on the fear generation… The wind will blow it back.” Something tells me that’s the kind of designer Ryan Hawaii could buy into.