Tattooing letters of inspiration to Obama


POSTED: Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The letters, decorated with rows of little triangles and other geometric shapes, are short and sweet, their messages simple: “;Congratulations on winning the election.”; “;Come visit Hawaii again.”; “;Please stop the war.”;

Yet the intentions behind the writings go deep, not only for the children who composed them, but also for the teacher who prompted students to correspond with President Barack Obama. The letters were an impromptu project that came out of art teacher Gail Herscher's Hawaiian tattoo design lesson with Makaha Elementary School students. Herscher is an instructor with the Honolulu Academy of Arts' Art to Go outreach program, a partnership with social-service agencies, organizations and public schools to teach art to youths at risk.

“;This group is focusing on Hawaiian culture. Each time I go to Makaha, we do a different Hawaiian (project): lau hala weaving, coconut frond weaving, printing on kapa,”; said Herscher, a career arts educator. “;We happened to be working on the tattoo designs on the very day of the inauguration, so I thought of the idea of putting the designs on stationery and writing to the president.”;

Within the simple project were myriad lessons.

“;They remembered their heritage with the tattoo design, learned that they can communicate with people through letters, wrote neatly — I told them, 'If you write to the president, it's gotta be neat.' ... Mostly, I just wanted to empower them, to let them know that they COULD write to the president.

“;So there was a lot we were trying to accomplish. We try to get what they're learning to relate to the rest of their lives.”;

Herscher's approach fit the bill perfectly for the Program for Afterschool Literacy Support, a three-year research project that's partnered with Art to Go at three Waianae schools, including Makaha Elementary. The PALS project explores how place- and culture-based after-school education supports literacy.

“;Each program is tailor-fit to what's going on at each school,”; said Kay Fukuda, PALS project director. “;For example, they're planning a play at one school, so the artists will help create backdrops for the play.”;

Fukuda said that two years into the PALS project, there's evidence that taking part in the community supports success in school.

“;When children have an understanding of the significance, uniqueness and richness of their community, there's a sense of pride, and they seem to be more engaged with academics,”; she said.

Art to Go has been a good fit for PALS because “;kids really love art,”; Fukuda said. “;It's another avenue for creative expression. Plus, the artists are really great.”;

Vince Hazen, director of the Academy Art Center, which oversees Art to Go, agreed. “;This type of well-rounded education will produce a generation of creative innovators who will have the tools to communicate their ideas and improve their communities.”;

Nathanael Endo, a sixth-grader in Herscher's class, said he enjoys her visits because “;I get to do more art than I used to.”; Nathanael's message to Obama: “;Congratulations in becoming president.”;

Alicia Garcia's father was serving in Iraq, and her letter asks Obama to “;please send my dad home.”; But even before the letter started making its way to the White House, the girl's family received word that her dad would return this month. The news has cemented the fourth-grader's faith in the new president.

“;My dad's coming home,”; she said solemnly. “;I think it's because Obama won.”;