Quote Unquote: Honolulu’s Registrar for the Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts

When he’s not coordinating the Honolulu City Lights annual holiday wreath contest or dressing up for historical re-enactments, Honolulu Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts Registrar Tory Laitila is responsible for helping manage the city’s art collection—which includes overseeing acquisitions, maintaining and coordinating installations, and rotating more than 1,100 art pieces on display at various facilities across O‘ahu.
Tory Laitila
Tory Laitila in the collections storage room at the Honolulu Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts with a few of his favorite maquettes.


Physically, the largest piece in the city’s collection is the [Hiroshima to Honolulu Friendship] Torii gate in Mō‘ili‘ili. The piece of the highest value would be the in-progress Hoku Pa‘a [sculpture] by Kazu Kauinana for the Joint Traffic Management Center, with a budget of $300,000.


One of my favorite pieces in the collection is at the top of Wai‘alae [Avenue] in Kaimukī. There’s a plot of gravel, maybe 8-by-10 feet. It’s technically a city park. And it’s got a plaque on a rock, which tells the legend of Kaimukī, where Menehune grew tī leaf for underground ‘imu. I like the plaque because it’s an overlooked piece of local history that tells the story of a place (and its proper pronunciation, “ka-imu-ki”).


SEE ALSO: Hunt for Hawai‘i History in the Heart of Honolulu


“Queen Kapi‘olani” (child removed in final statue)

“Queen Kapi‘olani” (child removed in final statue) and “Surfer on a Wave.”


After high school, I was a carpenter at Liberty House for several years. Then I went to college, studied art history, and later became an assistant curator at the Hawaiian Mission Houses.


The Honolulu City Lights wreath contest has been around for roughly 30 years. Parks and Recreation used to do it; they had three ladies who would write the labels and handle everything but they were all retiring. The next year, after I first started at the city, someone told me I was doing the contest. So now I coordinate it each year and get the volunteer judges.


“Having a background in carpentry helped because whether you’re doing gallery work or installing art, it helps to know how to swing a hammer and use power tools.”
“Kamehameha III”
“Kamehameha III”


In 1993, they were looking for volunteers for Onipa‘a, the event at ‘Iolani Palace with a re-enactment of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. They needed Caucasian people—I’m Chamorro but can pass for Caucasian—to be sailors of the USS Boston. Then the Masons, who hosted a Boston Tea Party re-enactment at the Falls of Clyde, called me and I helped with that, loading guns and firing rounds into the harbor. The Army Museum had “living history” days and I started getting invited to those.


SEE ALSO: Insider’s Guide to Honolulu Museums


“A School Boy in Hawai‘i” (Dr. Sun Yat-sen age 13)
“A School Boy in Hawai‘i” (Dr. Sun Yat-sen age 13).


There’s a group I’m part of called the Hawai‘i Civil War Round Table. Some are re-enactors, some are historians. We’ve been invited for events at the [battleship] Missouri and by the Royal Order of Kamehameha I to honor some of our Hawaiian Kingdom citizens who fought in the Civil War. The Round Table helped secure a new headstone for J. R. Kealoha, who is an undocumented Hawaiian Civil War veteran buried at O‘ahu Cemetery. So in my life, “living history” and history, it all goes together.


Read more stories by James Charisma