Speak with local artist Che Pilago and his positive attitude and enthusiasm dominate the conversation. Both are apparent in his work scattered throughout his new shop above the mauka Matsuyama Food Mart. His art pieces on canvas are bright, colorful and lively.
At the beginning of the year, Pilago created Kaeo Hawaii, a company specializing in modern-style Polynesian tattoos, clothing design and art. Inside his shop, located at 73-4354 Mamalahoa Highway, Suite 204, in Kailua-Kona, visitors find art that’s more than a simple means of self-expression. For Pilago, his art is a form of indispensable, precious communication that comes from a desire to contribute to humanity.
Pilago said events throughout his life have taught him many things, including the knowledge that people have the powerful ability to overcome difficulties. No matter the disruptive situations that may arise, Pilago said he never gives up and finds Kaeo — “the call and strength to rise, achieve and accomplish.” Kaeo is also his middle name, which was given to him by his grandmother.
His message through Kaeo Hawaii holds a familiar theme: “rise through adversity, be fierce in life, but always humble.” Pilago hopes his new art motivates and empowers people through whatever economic, personal or social hardships they face. He said he wants people to see the world through a kaleidoscope — all colors, no gloom.
His new designs not only preserve culture and reveal it through passion, but evoke a sense of pride and strength. Pilago recently completed a piece featuring Kekuhaupio, the warrior chief of Hawaii Island who was a mentor and confidant to Kamehameha, which he planned to put on T-shirts.
Pilago said he also plans to celebrate Hawaii’s diversity and showcase its melting pot by pulling from the different cultures and day-to-day happenings that inspire him. When it comes to tattooing, every piece is done freehand and Pilago will strive to bring each person’s unique story out of them, he added.
Kaeo Hawaii will also showcase the work of friends and ohana, including cousin and urban artist Roberto Saldua, friend and tattoo artist Kawai Debina, and cousin and apprentice Alika Hoomana.
Having these local artists working together under one roof allows collaboration, guidance, encouragement and motivation. It’s also an opportunity to see the creative process in action from a very close vantage point, Pilago said. “The meshing of styles and sharing of ideas in this exciting, yet humble way” has brought him “a higher level of creativity and self-confidence.”
Within a year, Pilago wants to have a traveling art gallery showcasing an explosion of artistic endeavors, from painting, tattooing and carving to music. This would allow artists, particularly those from the Big Island, the chance to show, interpret, execute and share their work in front of a wider audience, he said.
Pilago is excited about Kaeo Hawaii and believes it will do well, especially with the overwhelming support he has so far received from loved ones and the community. Eight years ago, Pilago created Moku Nui, a similar company that also specialized in tattoo and clothing design. For about 10 years prior, he had been tattooing, a practice he learned by watching, listening and working with his father and uncles, all master woodworkers, sailors and craftsmen. Moku Nui was a chance to share his art with more people and in a less permanent way if so choose.
Moku Nui was operated from his small home studio and had successfully garnered a loyal following. But this January, Pilago said, he decided moved on. His reason was simple: “for a brighter direction.”
Pilago said what he hopes his children — 17-year-old Mehana and 11-year-old Aukai — take away from his new direction and venture is that “if you work hard, are committed to your passions and believe in the overarching goal, you can do anything you put your mind to.”
Kaeo Hawaii is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and walk-ins are welcome. However, Pilago, a surfer, warns when the waves are big, the shop may be closed or there might be some rescheduling of appointments. For more information, call 443-1452 or check out Kaeo Hawaii’s Facebook page.