Faith lifts
T-shirt business

Artist Brian Ito creates
character-driven T-shirts

I have loved drawing all my life and can't remember a time when I didn't bring pen to paper to create something that would make me smile. I am lucky that I am now making a living as an artist, but the road to get here has been anything but smooth.

I started Poi Pounder Hawaii about 20 years ago in my parents' Kalihi basement. Inspired by the melting pot of Hawaii and wanting to create something that brought joy to others, my first character, Poi Dog, was born. He was a lovable, huggable mutt with an infectious grin and never-ending aloha spirit. From there, I created many other characters and started putting them on T-shirts.

Sales built very slowly over the years, so we also started printing T-shirts for businesses, organizations and events to make ends meet. That area of the business became more lucrative and I found myself silk-screening shirts most of the day instead of doing what I loved -- designing and creating my own characters.

Earlier this year, after especially lackluster sales in 2001, my business partner, Jaysen Morikami, and I began to bring prayer into our business. Although we go to different churches, we're both Christians. But we used to keep that part of our lives separate from work. However, once we started incorporating prayer into our work day, things really started to take off. My own designs on T-shirts started selling and there were requests to expand our lines.

The Poi Dog character, who had been semi-retired from being an unofficial mascot at University of Hawaii games and various charity events, came out of the moth balls and was updated with a new look. He became the official mascot of the "Gifts of Aloha" goodwill trip to New York in September 2002 and was seen around the world. That was a dream come true for me. Poi Dog was spreading aloha to people who needed it the most.

I'm no longer in my parents' basement. Poi Pounder Hawaii just relocated from a small space in the Ward area to a two-story warehouse space. I still start early and go home very late, but I am selling a lot of my own designs now and have been able to spend time creating new ones. Sears is selling more than 1,000 of my "Reel Life" T-shirts -- featuring fish designs -- every week. We can barely keep up with the demand. We have helpers for the silkscreening and are considering buying new equipment to speed the process. We recently launched a Poi Dog plush animal and they are selling well at Macy's, Sam's Club and Vue Hawaii at Kahala Mall. I also introduced more Poi Dog ohana characters and have been having so much fun with the creative process.

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