[ MAUKA-MAKAI ]
Its been a
Grant Kagimoto brings back
some favorite early designs
Gary c.w. Chun
Grant Kagimoto of Cane Haul Road is too busy to wax nostalgic about how his business has lasted, lo, these 24 years.
He's the man behind those gently humorous T-shirt designs that generally only us longtime local folks can relate to. And even though he's branched out a bit to market other merchandise of a similar nature, Kagimoto occasionally brings back old favorites if the demand is there. Or if he wants to mark a special occasion.
As a hui member of local artisans who regularly sell their work at Native Books and Beautiful Things, Kagimoto's Cane Haul Road is the featured company through Saturday. He's decided to spotlight the historical roots of the company and has brought back some older designs that emphasize the sugar plantation life, "remembering our ancestors who came over to Hawaii as immigrant workers," he said.
The reprinted designs, done over a 16-year period from 1981 to '97, are only available during this limited time. They include the "Jun Ken a Po" design; the eye-catching simplicity of the retro-looking "Shaka Palaka;" "Hilo Lullaby," referring to that familiar "music" made when Hilo's prevalent rains hit galvanized iron rooftops; "Plantation Days," designed with the help of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association; "Haul Cane Road, Cane Haul Road," referring to both Kauai and Oahu work roads, respectively, with a detailed drawing of a cane truck; and a T-shirt design for the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum in Puunene, Maui, that illustrates the sugar refining process, using cartoon mongoose as workers.
Kagimoto said one of the more popular designs he's done, the plantation house of "Home Sweet Hawai'i," is available as a special hand screen on acid-free silkscreen paper. Two detailed scale-model plantation homes made by Howard Inouye, copied from the builder's former Honokaa house, are also part of the Cane Haul Road display at both Native Books locations.
"With the handscreened prints, I wanted to show younger generations that they do have a connection to the plantation camp experience, where their fathers or grandfathers lived in such houses. It was also a time when pidgin English was first spoken, as different ethnicities tried to find a common ground to talk with each other."
Once the promotion is done this upcoming weekend, "I'm already gearing up for Christmas," he said. Six new designs are due early next month.
"I occasionally bring back designs we've done in the past, part of the large inventory of work that's been done over the years, numbering 350 or more designs."
Those 350 designs would include one of Kagimoto's first designs, "Fighting Chickens," depicting stoic chickens commandeering a tank, and made available again.
"Cane Haul Road merchandise still sells mostly to local people," he said. "In fact, I think we were pioneers in addressing the local and resident market. The company started out with 15 to 16 of us, and within six months, we were down to two. And I bought out longtime partner Carol Hasegawa nine years ago. But I've always been the one responsible for the bulk of designs and concept work."
Kagimoto's first big sellers were musubi designs, "Club Musubi" and "Musubi & Friends," ones frequently advertised in the pages and covers of the early issues of the local literary journal Bamboo Ridge.
The association with Bamboo Ridge didn't come by accident. "(Co-editor) Darrell Lum and I met in college. I was going to UH-Manoa, majoring in art design, and Darrell was also into graphics, which is kind of unusual, to find a guy who used both the left and right sides of the brain!
"I also met Eric Chock at that time, who helped Darrell put together Bamboo Ridge. What they were doing with local writing, that was something we wanted to do graphically with Cane Haul Road," Kagimoto said.
In fact, Lum created one of the company's signature designs that perfectly captured a familiar "localism." It's "Local Genealogy," with the phrase, "What school you went?" scrawled on the cover of one of those old-school, black-and-white covered composition books.
"That design was originally on one of his Christmas cards, and I thought it was so perfectly realized, that I went ahead and bought his design," Kagimoto said.
"At first, Cane Haul Road was perceived as this rather strange company. But people soon understood the theme and philosophy behind it. Something like food is so integral to our lifestyle here, and something like the musubi was one I wanted to incorporate into designs.
"We actually started with canvas bags, but within a year's time we lost our seamstress. So we had all these silkscreen designs, and that's when we decided to use them on T-shirts."
KAGIMOTO is a Hilo boy, although from the ages of six to 18, he became an Army brat, living in Okinawa because his father worked for the federal government.
"Whenever I came back to visit, I could vividly see, hear and taste what made Hawaii different from Okinawa, so it was natural for me later in life to refer and spotlight what makes Hawaii unique and depict it in a positive way, one that could be shared with other Hawaii-born and raised people, saying to them, 'You're OK in what you value about living here.'
"It took about four years before I felt I could make a livelihood out of Cane Haul Road. My cousin, who's a CPA, jokingly called it my hippie hobby.
The hippie is now 53.
"I think what keeps Cane Haul Road viable is that our designs are usually timeless in feel," he said. "You can't tell whether they were done either just yesterday or 10 years ago. It doesn't smack of current fads, and I think this work stands the test of time.
"Fifteen years ago, it was a distinctly local market for us. Now we also have the visiting Japanese to take into account and, to a certain extent, the Asian-American market on the West Coast."
Cane Haul Road's work has also served as a precursor to how some Asian-themed designs are being sold elsewhere; the hip Asian-American magazine Yolk has had success with merchandise printed up with things like a rice cooker and a takeoff of the successful "got milk?" ad campaign, using the phrase "got rice?"
At a recent conference Kagimoto attended on the West Coast, he said that "the hapa issue is the big thing. While I was serving on a panel, I brought up the point that they must realize where the term came from, which was here in Hawaii. The mixed race issue has become a political one for people of my generation, and will continue to be for the generation after us.
"It's something that adds to the quality of life here, rather than something of a subtractive nature."
KAGIMOTO still finds it invigorating running Cane Haul Road, always keeping a sketchbook close at hand for sudden inspiration. "I haven't run out of ideas yet," he said, "and I keep putting out new inventory."
Like "Chicken Lolo," a local variation of the Chicken Little story that continues Kagimoto's tradition of combining verbal and visual puns.
He occasionally buys outside designs, like Eric Woo's "Hitting the Jackpot," a local fisherman's phrase describing a day's catch.
Kagimoto even started a line of printed polo shirts several years ago, reflecting his preference. "As I got older, I wore less and less T-shirts, and since I prefer cotton over the rayon that's found in most aloha shirts, I wanted to make some simple prints that could be put on polo shirts. I call them the lazy man aloha shirts!
"That's how I run this business. I basically look in the mirror, see what I am as an individual and figure out what's right for me businesswise, rather than drifting around, latching onto fads and being like a photocopy machine.
"It was a golden time for Hawaii 25 years ago. You could go out and listen to Olomana and (Cecilio and Kapono), see Booga Booga perform; there was the "Talk Story" conference and the early years of Bamboo Ridge.
"In remembering that period, we haven't changed all that much dramatically. Even though life here has become more homogenous, there's still enough of Hawaii to celebrate. I've got some Kona coffee designs in the works, so I still have new fields to plow, no pun intended!"
"When the kids played the game, I just thought it would be funny slamming down a roach without the guts coming out! By the way, I still have a lot of those milk caps left (as I'm sure other small companies around the state do) and we're anticipating the next time the craze comes along 20 years from now."
Milk cap 1993
"Arthur Kodani, who's an illustrator for the Hawai'i Herald and is working on a book for the Bishop Museum, does wonderful detail work, and he did this drawing based on a 1907 Hawai'i Sugar Planters Association blueprint. I redid it a bit to complete that old-style photograph look. This is available as a silkscreen print."
"This is another one of Art's drawings. It reminds me of my childhood in Hilo, where my family had a large mango tree on our property. The neighborhood kids would come by to 'borrow' the mangoes from the tree, which was fine with my family. It was all part of the sense of adventure when I was a small kid in Hawai'i."
"This is a takeoff on a Japanese family crest I picked out of a book. I like the strong image. Since I didn't want to impinge on an actual family's crest, I altered it a bit."
"This is a reaction to my 'haole' background of growing up on an Army base in Okinawa after my family left Hilo. If I was hungry, I'd eat a sandwich, and still do to this day. But my wife is a Cup-o-Noodles person. So if she doesn't feel like cooking, she eats saimin instead."
Eat Saimin 1995
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