A grouping of islands smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii is one of the most isolated places on earth. Over many generations, Hawaii has become a melting pot of cultures home to a vibrant alliance of artists who, year after year, share a select amount of wall space with the international community during Pow Wow Hawaii, a week-long festival celebrating art and creativity in Honolulu's Kaka'ako district.
"It's now a global community of super awesome people."
Honolulu-based illustrator Jasper Wong started Pow Wow in Hong Kong back in 2010 for a very simple reason: he wanted to bring all of his friends together to paint. Three years later, his small gathering has transformed into a major cultural event with an altruistic twist, and hosts more than 100 international and local artists. "We wanted to share our process, so we opened it to everyone in the community," says Wong. "It's become much more than that, especially with the growth of our free art and music schools for the youth of Hawaii. We now see Pow Wow as a gathering as well as a way to beautify neighborhoods, share culture, and a support system for emerging artists. All the artists and partnering media are friends or friends of friends. As each year passes, we grow as a family. More friends join in. It's now a global community of super awesome people. I couldn't think of a better word to describe them."
For local artists, Pow Wow offers a unique opportunity to perpetuate the Hawaiian culture. "The spirit of Aloha exists in so many different levels that the world doesn't know about," the Honolulu-based artist Prime says. "When you speak of Aloha you only speak of hello and goodbye, which is what everyone knows, but there are other layers. Alo means in the presence of, and Ha is the breath of life. From the first breath you take when you come into this world to the last breath when you leave, you never truly own anything in between, so let's share this breath of life in each other's presence. That's Aloha," he explains.
Wall spaces are predetermined in collaboration with local businesses, but never assigned to the artists prior to the event. This process of picking where the artists are going to work and what they are going to paint happens very much in synch with Hawaiian spirituality and traditions "We're such a progressive world now that we forgot where we came from. We need to reconnect with the land," Prime admits. "Once we determine where we're going to paint, then we do protocol. We meditate and bring in our ancestors and let them speak through us. Everything happens on the spot, because each parcel of the land around us tells a different story, and we don't know the story until we get there," he concludes.
When LA-based artist Madsteez decided he wanted to paint King David Kalakaua, the last reigning king of the Kingdom of Hawaii, he had no idea what he was getting into. "We took him down to the King's crypt and taught him protocol; how to ask for permission and state his intention," Prime says. Furthermore, the Kahuna—a Hawaiian priest—will need to be around every step of the way while he's creating his mural this week.
Having that much creative energy in one place is indeed truly magical. Artists flying in from all over the world to be a part of the festivities stay at the Utopium Estate in the North Shore, which becomes sort of a commune for the duration of the event. "It's a real family feel and I've made a bunch of good, new friends each year and had a lot of laughs under that roof! My impression is that if you approach Pow Wow without ego and go with the flow of the friendly Aloha spirit then you will have a great time and be welcomed!" Melbourne-based graffiti artist Meggs explains. The Fresh Cafe + Loft in Space is another home base for the visiting artists, with great food and good vibes, and doubles up as a gallery space for the duration of Pow Wow, where the participating artists can showcase their fine art work.
Educating the local youth through programming at the School of Art and the School of Music of Hawaii is a is huge part of Wong's vision. "The kids are our future. The government is always cutting education budgets and music and art are always the first to go. We've created free programs to fill those gaps. We want to support them and their passions," he says.
On Saturday afternoon, a mob of some of the greatest artists of our generation strolled around Kaka'ako to discover the painting locations for this year's Pow Wow, a good time for us take a peek at some of the past few year's best murals. When asked what his favorite is, Wong explains, "I enjoy the collaborative pieces more so. It's amazing to see artists from all over the world create one unified mural. It's a sight to behold."
Images by Laura Austin