Solomon Enos’ Signing Hands: The Story of the Thomas Square Mural

Solomon Enos’ Signing Hands: The Story of the Thomas Square Mural
by Colin Whited

Photo: Solomon Enos [pictured] paints one of 139 hands at Thomas Square.

Commuting downtown Honolulu, many have noticed the mural of colorful, giant-sized hands adorning the wood barriers of the Thomas Square re-construction.

Those passing by frequently asked: “What is this? What does it say?”

It began when the Mayor’s Office approached Native Hawaiian artist Solomon Enos with the opportunity to do a mural at Thomas Square. Enos, already a staple in the local art scene, gladly accepted. The only question was the message Enos wanted to send through the work.

Initially, Enos had no idea. After a while, however, he eventually stumbled upon his source of inspiration.

“It was a t-shirt from Savers on Dillingham,” he laughed.

The shirt Enos described had a word spelled out using the American manual alphabet. Despite having no prior connection to the Deaf community or any experience with sign language, laying eyes on the t-shirt was Enos’ eureka moment.

“One look,” he said, with the snap of a finger, “And that was it.”

Prior to beginning his project, Enos reached out to the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind and met with teacher Billy Kekua. He sought the Deaf community’s blessing, and Kekua – who at the time was also President of the Aloha State Association of the Deaf – was happy to give it.

A nod to the 140-character limit of the modern-day Tweet, the final design of the mural contains a “139-hand” message about Admiral Richard Thomas, the Square’s namesake. Enos used Kekua’s hands as a model for each letter in the message.

“The decision to use sign language is meant to symbolize the act of giving voice to the voiceless,” Enos explained.

Enos’ passion for Hawaiian culture – and for people of all abilities – is evident from the get-go. For starters, the word “impaired” isn’t used by Enos. “Instead, they’re ‘sacred,’” he says of individuals with disabilities.

Much of Enos’ artistic inspiration derives from Hawaiian culture. He spoke of “laulima,” a Native Hawaiian term representing a pillar principle within the Hawaiian culture. It literally means “many hands working together.” Enos used this term to describe his work at Thomas Square.

“[In that sense] I thought our message would be compelling, telling it with hands,” he explained.

It also took many hands to make the project possible. Approximately 35 volunteers from the American Savings Bank helped to apply primer and blue paint to the wood barriers – “thousands of square feet of wall,” Enos said – before the hands were ultimately painted.

In discussing the symbolism behind his work, Enos spoke of the belief that all which surrounds us tells our life’s story.

“Our land is our movie,” he explains. “Search ‘Thomas Square’ on Google Earth and what do you see? The Union Jack,” Enos continued, referencing the national flag of the United Kingdom. From overhead, the pathways in the square are laid out like the stripes on the Union Jack.

“Is this appropriate?” he asked, rhetorically. “Look around, things are on their heads; it’s about turning it right.” And there’s the rub. According to Enos, the challenge in this is how most people aren’t looking around.

Which leads to the most common interaction Enos has with people about his Thomas Square mural.

“They come up and say, ‘Solomon, the mural, it is beautiful!’” he begins. “Then, they ask, ‘But what does it mean?’ I smile, and I tell them, ‘You have to solve it.’”

A twist lies in where the mural begins and ends. It starts on Ward Avenue, and then continues along South King Street, Victoria Street, and then South Beretania Street, wrapping around the entire Thomas Square block. According to Enos, this was deliberate because it meant curious onlookers would have to walk around the Square in order to view the entire message.

“You can’t drive it; there’s no left turn onto Victoria,” he said, with an unabashed smile. “So to solve it, one must walk the block and look around.”

The color scheme was another feature of the Thomas Square mural. The 139 hands are painted using a colorful combination of red, white, and brown against a deep blue background. The colors used – red, white, blue – are the colors of the Hawaiian flag. Enos incorporated brown because of its symbolism.

“It is the aggregate color of people on earth – our skin tone – and then it is the color of the soil,” he explained.

The most striking feature of the mural is its use of one of the country’s fastest growing languages: American Sign Language. For Enos, this was his first piece to feature sign language. But if he has it his way, it won’t be his last.

“There is no question – if the [Deaf] community allows – that I want to incorporate sign language and develop disability-oriented projects in the future,” he said. “A critical part of my work is to tie in folks who’ve been marginalized.”

The mural is scheduled to remain on display until the City & County’s maintenance project is finished in July, ahead of the annual celebration of Hawaiian Sovereignty Restoration Day on July 31.

Artists find inspiration everywhere – even from t-shirts. See more of Solomon Enos’ work at www.solomonenos.com.