The various shifts and changes that Hawaiian culture has experienced are reflected in Kahawaii. The principal figure in this painting, J.K., is of native Hawaiian ancestry but has a Japanese family name. His grandfather, F. Kahawaii, adopted it in order to gain the blessing and acceptance of his future Japanese parents-in-law. The series of triangles tattooed on the figure’s face is a common motif in traditional Hawaiian tattoos and symbolizes the teeth of one’s aumakua, or guardian spirit (in some cases a shark), or even the teeth of one’s ancestors. In this piece the triangles are identical to the capstone with the All Seeing Eye floating over the pyramid on the back of a dollar bill. This juxtaposition of a traditional tattoo with the contemporary American dollar brings to the viewer’s attention the effects of modernization and changes that Hawaii and native Hawaiian culture have seen. Such transformations and effects of cultural mixing, influenced by both the East and the West, give the piece its central theme.
Koa is a type of wood found only in Hawaii, and is known for its strength and beauty. The wood was used by the ancient Hawaiians to make many things like paddles, bowls, and canoes. The word Koa was also used to describe ancient Hawaiian warriors, whose strength was compared to the wood which they use to make their weapons.