A hazy yellow glow permeated the air. Explosions of color blanketed nearly every surface, from a mini-mart and a metal pay phone to a 4-door sedan. Everything, it seemed, was covered with graffiti.
This wasn’t a city street, however, but a Bishop Museum gallery—part of “Pow! Wow! The First Decade: From Hawai‘i to the World.” The 4-month exhibition held in the summer of 2021 celebrated the annual street-mural festival that since 2011 has changed the look of public spaces, recast Honolulu neighborhoods, and spawned satellite events around the world.
Pow! Wow! festival organizers, including those behind the flagship event in Honolulu, shifted focus during the pandemic. Instead of holding public gatherings, they launched projects to beautify the community. Organizers have not yet confirmed a 2022 date for the O‘ahu festival, which usually takes place in February.
But Pow! Wow! remains a powerful, creative force for bringing people together, and the pandemic has not altered its mission. While admirers have been looking back on the organization’s accomplishments, Pow! Wow!’s creators are forging ahead, working to tackle hurdles posed by COVID-19 and serve Hawai‘i communities—and communities around the world—through public art.
Pow! Wow! history
Local artist Jasper Wong started the Pow! Wow! Hawai‘i mural festival in 2011. Artist and co-lead director Kamea Hadar, a former Kalani High School classmate of Wong’s, joined the Hawai‘i event team that same year. Pow! Wow! began with 2 founding principles: that the process of making art is more important than the product and must be open to the public; and that there must be space for, and emphasis on, collaboration.
The most powerful aspect of Pow! Wow! festivals might not be the jaw-dropping murals themselves but the opportunity for visitors to witness their creation in real time. When the process is open and inclusive, art becomes more accessible, tangible, and real.
“If we had seen something like Pow! Wow! growing up, it would have opened our eyes to what’s possible,” says Hawai‘i artist Roxy Ortiz. She and her art collaborator/husband, Matt Ortiz, have been part of Pow! Wow! since 2013, first as volunteers and then as artists.
More than 700 local and international artists have participated in the Honolulu Pow! Wow! festival since its launch, creating roughly 100 murals each year. Some murals are painted over during the following year’s festival. Events include talks, tours, and community education.
For Wong, Hadar, and other artists and workers, Pow! Wow! is a true passion project; they receive no compensation. Grants and donations help provide artists with lodging, food, and supplies. The events, including the 10th festival in 2020 and the 2021 Bishop Museum retrospective, attract big names in street art: Los Angeles–based muralist Tristan Eaton, who works with brands like Marvel and the NFL; international sensations like Shepard Fairey, perhaps best known for his Barack Obama poster titled Hope; and local artists such as Kai Kaulukukui and Solomon Enos, among them.
Pow! Wow! strives to ensure that at least half of the participating artists are local. A diverse mix of ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds is also important, organizers say. Emerging artists work alongside famous participants. Muralists must be personally invited by Wong and come prepared to work as part of a collective. “When artists come in with huge egos or are abrasive, they ruin the vibe for everyone,” Hadar says. “We call it the Pow! Wow! family—we are here to work with you, not for you.”
Unlike with corporate projects or commissioned murals, works emanate from sketchbooks or the heart, such as when Eaton painted a tribute to his late uncle during Pow! Wow!’s 2020 event. Meanwhile, the publicity and exposure that accompany the events elevate street art and help launch careers. “When we started Pow! Wow!, I had never painted a mural in my life. It’s how I learned how to do what I do,” says Hadar, who had previously created art only in the studio. “I’m living off my own art in part because Pow! Wow! has exposed it to Hawai‘i.”
Walls without windows
From the start, Kaka‘ako was the ideal blank canvas for Wong and Hadar’s vision. The commercial buildings with windowless walls occupied a forgotten industrial area of Honolulu. To obtain permission to paint the murals, the pair spent hours going door-to-door explaining to business owners the difference between public art and vandalism.
“That’s the work nobody sees—educating the community,” says artist Roxy Ortiz. “People are generally afraid of things they don’t know, and Jasper broke down a lot of misconceptions about street art.”
Ten years on, it’s much easier for people to understand how powerfully murals can foster pride in a community through beautification. Kaka‘ako now bustles as a hip neighborhood for food, fashion, and design. Wong can spot the most popular murals by the footprints: Fans tend to put a foot on the wall as they pose for selfies. “That traffic, in turn, makes those neighborhoods safer, and those people use the businesses, which can then grow,” he says.
But while the murals get most of the attention, they don’t tell the whole story of the organization’s reach, Wong says. “It doesn’t include all the educational initiatives and work we’ve been doing for underserved communities. Pow! Wow! is much broader than that.”
Wong saw the potential for live art events after a 2010 show at his Hong Kong gallery that featured artists painting live on canvases hung on the walls. He wanted to bring this event home to Hawai‘i, and, around the same time, Hadar had completed a family artist retreat on the North Shore, the perfect place to house visiting artists. The pair reconnected, and, soon after, the Pow! Wow! Hawai’i festival was born.
The festival began to spread across the United States and abroad in much the same organic way, through connections with artists who shared the same purpose and vision for helping the community. The first satellite event took place in Taipei, Taiwan, in 2014. Three more launched in 2015: Long Beach, California; Austin, Texas; and Kobe, Japan.
Pow! Wow! continues to build an expansive network of artists, curators, and organizers in Hawai‘i and around the world. It has hosted festivals in 23 locales across the globe, with satellite teams leading festivals on-site.
Mentoring and the local art scene
Wong and Hadar have mentored artists and nurtured the local art scene—work that has occurred mostly out of the spotlight. “Pow! Wow! is a whole ecosystem of art that connects you to it,” says Matt Ortiz. “The murals are just the vehicle the public sees and gets to enjoy.”
Lana Lane Studios, which Wong co-created in 2012 in a repurposed Kaka‘ako warehouse, is one example. It’s the state’s only shared creative studio space, with room for 30 local artists to create and work, and Wong negotiates with landlords annually to keep rents affordable.
Last summer, Wong piloted his vision for a free community art school at Kalihi’s Pālama Settlement, aiming to offer ongoing education to underserved kids in pursuits ranging from graphic design and painting to illustration, animation, and videography.
And the 2021 Bishop Museum exhibition, which featured 160 artists, 70 of them local, not only validated the work Pow! Wow! has done, but also provided a broader platform for the artists and the art form itself.
The small Pow! Wow! team so far has operated more organically than strategically. With few bureaucratic hoops to jump through, they can pivot quickly, take risks, and seize opportunities, or include events that push the boundaries of art in ways that corporate endeavors simply can’t do.
And there’s much Wong is proud of: Pow! Wow! has accomplished far more than originally planned or envisioned, from fostering artist connections, helping to transform Kaka‘ako, and seeing students become working artists, to providing community resources through Lana Lane Studios.
These days, Wong and Hadar work from home, largely because of the pandemic, while juggling their careers and families. They continue to pursue projects that nourish underserved communities here at home—just as Pow! Wow! also does on the mainland. “It’s more fulfilling and impactful to do projects in these areas,” Wong says. “You’re not painting walls that might benefit developers, you’re painting walls that benefit communities and people.”
Until a 2022 event can take place, murals from Pow! Wow!’s 2020 pre-pandemic festival will continue to adorn Honolulu walls for the enjoyment of kama‘āina and visitors alike. And regardless of how long the pandemic endures, Wong says his passion for painting and people will remain strong.
“There will always be more walls,” he says. “The walls might just be different.”
Regular contributor Christine Thomas paints in all media with her children because it’s much more fun than teaching them how to write.
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Art and activism
Beautifying public spaces can transform communities and engage residents in activism and environmental conservation. Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans, a public art program launched in 2014 by Hawai‘i Island–based ocean conservation group PangeaSeed Foundation, has made possible more than 400 ocean-conservation murals in 18 countries. Its first Hawai‘i event, in Wailuku, Maui, in 2019, explored the theme “Mauka to Makai.”
“All of our projects present artists with a topic that goes in-depth into local issues,” says director of operations Akira Biondo. “On Maui, we addressed issues affecting our oceans and our beaches but also upstream issues that affect the entire ecosystem.”
Murals by global and local artists, including Wailuku High School students who painted a mural on campus, can still be viewed across town. The goal of Sea Walls’ art and interactive events is to engage communities in ways that resonate with issues in locals’ daily lives, and transform the plight of the world’s oceans from an abstract concept into something that feels concrete and real. —C.T.
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