What Is “Defend Hawaii”?

Entrepreneurs behind the popular street brand Defend Hawaii unload about the idea behind the icon.
Defend Hawaii sponsors Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Russell Doane.
Defend Hawaii sponsors Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Russell Doane.
Photo: Courtesy Defend Hawaii
Defend Hawaii hat.
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon

The sheer volume of SUVs and trucks that are now plastered with the Defend Hawaii logo — the one featuring an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle—got us wondering who’s behind the brand and why it’s resonating with people. 

It turns out that the street-wear-turned-lifestyle company has seen its share of controversy. It’s been widely misunderstood as everything from a pro-Second Amendment campaign to a symbol for the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

We met up with Defend Hawaii owner Mike Malone and operations manager Chris Meheula in Kaneohe to talk about the brand, now in 13 local shops on Oahu, including T&C Surf Designs, Blue Hawaii Surf and Island Snow, as well as on the Neighbor Islands and in Japan.

Malone, a former mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, said Defend Hawaii began as an MMA brand, as a way for athletes to “rep Hawaii” as they were fighting on the Mainland and abroad. The original creator (who remains nameless) got the idea for the logo from Defend Brooklyn, a small underground street brand, and she sold shirts at fights out of the back of her car. Malone bought Defend Hawaii in 2009.

“The gun design was the only original design that we kept,” Malone says. “It was the strongest way to say Defend Hawaii. We’ve tried other things, with spears, brass knuckles, but nothing was
as strong.”

What it means to “Defend Hawaii” is up to interpretation. Generally, though, the pair says it’s about the aloha spirit. “Whether you’re born and raised or you’re a tourist, everyone has a feeling about Hawaii and these Islands. They have a love for it. Most people respect it, and that’s where Defend Hawaii comes from. It’s about defending everything that Hawaii means to you,” Meheula says.

While Malone is a gun enthusiast, he says the brand is not about that.

“Some people see a gun and that’s what they associate us with right off the bat. But they don’t know we have hundreds of designs,” Malone says, although he admits the AR-15 design is the most popular.

State Rep. Kaniela Ing of Maui was an early critic of the brand, writing a blog post in 2010 that went viral. “Some of these designs didn’t seem like the aloha I grew up learning,” Ing says. 

Some Hawaiian activists were offended by a depiction of King Kamehameha holding a rifle. Shirts emblazoned with “iKill” were immediately pulled from shelves. Some of the early designs were ill-conceived, Malone admits, and “not the direction we wanted to go in.”

Ing has softened a bit, calling the brand’s newer designs a step in the right direction. “The value of the brand to me is the discussions it has fueled: from Hawaiian sovereignty to broader issues of race relations in Hawaii.”

The brand has become more politically and socially conscious, opposing GMO crops and even sending care packages to troops in Afghanistan. The pair stresses that the company employs local people and prints with local vendors.