When John Cullen was 5 years old, his mother got him a tie-dye set. In their Southern California home, where beaded curtains hung in the doorways, he was transfixed by the art’s kaleidoscopic swirl of colors and patterns.
Asked what his favorite color was, the young Cullen would say, “psychedelic,” and his sisters would dispute his answer until it appeared on a color name for a crayon.
It wasn’t until Cullen started attending Grateful Dead concerts when he really got into the art, which was vibrant, colorful and glowing with happiness. All the tie-dyed creations he spotted at concerts were “genuine works of art, each more beautiful than the other.” Inspired, Cullen asked his friend, Mike, to show him the basics. With a slew of rubber bands and dyes, he folded and knotted up his first T-shirt.
“Being an artist, it came naturally,” he said.
Cullen moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he started his tie-dying business at the J.P. Luby Surf Park, a popular surfing and kiteboarding spot. Later, he ventured back to California and also to Oahu, selling his creations on the shore. For roughly 20 years, Cullen said business was swirling, with his tie-dye fashions selling nationally and internationally.
Then one day, it wasn’t fun anymore.
Cullen said he “jumped off the ship” because he was stressed by obligations, big and small, and just burnt out on his lifestyle. He recalled the worry, strain and dread he felt upon looking at the piles of paperwork. It was then, while reviewing a water bill and “feeling stuck like a bird trapped in a bird cage,” that he noticed a homeless man and decided to leave his home.
Cullen said it was during the Great Recession, the economy was headed downhill, and there seemed to be no signs pointing to improvement. So, he gave everything up and lived on the Los Angeles County streets for seven years. By being homeless, Cullen said he learned how people really are and got training in being humble. He added, “I used to be too cocky, arrogant and ungrateful.”
When he was homeless, Cullen had a regular routine and camped under a freeway overpass. He survived because “God provided” in ways including the kindness of strangers, such as employees of convenience stores, gas stations and pizza restaurants, who generously gave him food and supplies.
Following the death of his mother last year, Cullen decided to move back to Hawaii and get back on his feet. Upon arriving on the Big Island, sharing his story and tie-dying talents, Cullen said many people in South Kona lent him a hand, from helping him find a home to starting a business. His former life is gone and Cullen, 49, is grateful for a second chance.
About a month ago, Cullen opened his business, Tiedye Hobo, on Mamalahoa Highway in Captain Cook, next to the T-Rox store and across from Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden.
“Being nicknamed ‘the bum,’ I decided to name my business after the experience I endured,” he said. “The reward to me is the appreciation. Money comes and goes, but appreciation stays. It’s a privilege to share my art with the world again.”
Cullen is adamant that good luck had nothing to do with where he is today. He credits hard work and perseverance in good times and bad, all of which he said generates character and hope. Nowadays, without hesitation, Cullen says he’s colorful and happily hopeful.
While there’s no sign, passers-by can’t miss his shop. It’s marked by a tie-dye tent filled with a sea of bright rainbow colors and swirls. Inside, the shop is covered wall to wall and on the ceiling with tie-dye.
Cullen offers a variety of tie-dye fashions, such as shirts, sweatshirts, socks, tanks and baby onesies. He also turns out tie-dye tapestries and wraps. Prices range from $10 to $50. Those interested can also drop off items and Cullen will tie-dye them for a fee.
Often inspired by the world around him, Cullen’s designs include hibiscus, rainbow, spider, sunrise, sunburst, volcano, ocean and splash. He also goes out of this world with his Milky Way, aurora, meteor, cosmic and earth and sun designs. As of Thursday, there were 32 designs and 43 colors from which to choose.
Each item is handcrafted by Cullen. He added, his record is completing 350 tie-dye shirts for a gymnastics team in less than 24 hours.
Cullen insisted the style is still relevant and not dated. Sure, he said, it’s associated with the free-love 1960s and psychedelic 1970s, but it’s as important to American culture as Harley-Davidson and Levi’s. His goals are to excite a new generation of people about tie-dye and “make it as common as chocolate cake.”
Cullen said he never tires of seeing people of all ages get excited about tie-dyes or hearing where his creations went. “The happiness is priceless,” he added.
Cullen hopes more people visit his shop to talk story with the self-described friendly, eccentric owner about this art. He promises they’ll get a good deal on an unique tie-dye item and “get happy.”
In kindergarten, Cullen professed he would live in the jungle, take care of the animals and be an artist. He likened this latest journey to being pretty much a dream come true.
Tiedye Hobo is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Cullen also sets up a booth at the South Kona Green Market, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays at the Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Captain Cook. For more information, call 315-0111 or visit tiedyehobo.com.