How did an art exhibit in an abandoned Hong Kong restaurant turn into an international mural festival based in Kakaako?

The evolution of POW! WOW! Hawaii, an event known to contemporary artists around the world, started with local artist Jasper Wong. When he was based in Hong Kong in 2010, Wong set out to create art that focused on process and collaboration rather than sales potential.

It didn’t go over well at first, so he started his own gallery in an abandoned restaurant. He painted the walls white and invited artists from London, France and Taiwan to repaint them. At the end a week-long exhibit, Wong painted over all the work.

Louise Chen of Detroit was one of more than 60 artists participating in POW! WOW! Hawaii this year. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

A year later, Wong partnered with fellow Kalani High School graduate Kamea Hadar to launch the first POW! WOW! Hawaii, painting just one wall outside a gallery in Kakaako. The mural was a hit, so Wong and Hadar looked for other walls to paint.

“Slowly, just by accident, it turned into a mural festival,” Hadar said.

Now Hadar and Wong host the event every February in Kakaako, a burgeoning Honolulu neighborhood once known for auto body shops and warehouses. This year more than 60 artists participated Feb. 11-18.

Every February, some of the old murals are painted over to make way for new ones. Artists consider themselves lucky if their mural stays up for three years. Usually, they’re painted over after one or two years.

Wong’s organization now hosts street art festivals in cities around the world.

“They’re huge now,” Los Angeles-based artist Drew Merritt said. “If you’re in the art world, you just know.”

While their expenses are covered, the contributing artists don’t get paid for their work. Instead, they paint to make connections and develop their craft.

In addition to a week of painting, the event features live music shows, panel discussions and galleries with art for sale.

These events are held at the POW! WOW! Hawaii headquarters in Kakaako, also known as Lana Lane Studios, as well as in other nearby venues.

Paying For Paint

Covering Kakaako’s warehouse walls with murals isn’t cheap. Hadar declined to provide an exact dollar figure, saying determining the amount would be difficult as most funds come from in-kind donations.

He estimated the event costs a few hundred thousand dollars.

City Mill, a local hardware store, provides paint and brushes. La Tour Cafe feeds the artists and the event staff. Hawaiian Airlines flies the artists in, and The Modern Honolulu, a Waikiki hotel, puts them up in rooms for the week.

Some artists pitch in with their own funds to buy paint and supplies.

“I had to really work hard to be here,” said Kaplan Bunce, a carpenter and artist on Kauai. Getting 10 days off of work wasn’t easy, he said.

Other funds come from fundraising events, crowd-funding projects and merchandise sales, said Wong.

Kamehameha Schools, which owns 17 percent of the land in Kakaako, started donating money to the project just last year. In previous years, the organization, Hawaii’s largest private land owner, supplied walls for paintings.

This is the second year the Hawaii Tourism Authority donated money to the project.

“This has become a destination,” Hadar said. “A lot of why (the) tourism authority is getting involved, they want to show that Hawaii has more culture than just whales and dolphins and beaches, that we also have a sophisticated, contemporary urban culture.”

‘Putting Hawaii On The Map’

The event brings people in from around the world to paint large walls with few guidelines.

That’s not happening anywhere else, says Merritt, who painted his first Kakaako wall this year after participating in a POW! WOW! festival in Washington, D.C., last year.

Half of the artists participating come from Hawaii and the other half are from the mainland or abroad.

Kauai artist Kaplan Bunce hangs over a lift to work on his mural alongside Lana Lane Studios. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The festival gives them exposure that can be hard to come by. Streetwear brands also scout for artists to collaborate with at the event, Merritt said.

“If I was just starting out I would murder to be a part of POW! WOW! because its so influential,” Merritt said.

A museum exhibit in Lana Lane Studios, open throughout the festival, showcased the work of participating artists.

This isn’t the only “powwow” in Hawaii, said Bunce. He is a Native American and the president of the Kauai Powwow Council, which runs the annual Native American powwow on Kauai.

The mural festival’s name drew criticism from Native American communities, and Bunce himself was skeptical before he grew to love the event.

“Our powwows are very similar,” he said, “in that it starts with cultural exchange and honoring the people of this land.”

‘Huge Boon’ For A Booming District

Some Kakaako residents opposed Wong’s efforts to paint public murals in their neighborhood, concerned that graffiti art would bring crime to the area. Others say it has had the opposite effect, making Kakaako more commercially viable.

“This is a huge boon to the community,” said Jim Hayes, who has operated Tropical Blends, a Kakaako surf shop, for more than 15 years.

Hayes lets artists paint on the walls of his shop, providing them with a huge public canvass, and in turn their art attracts foot traffic.

A new Kevin Lyons mural next to Mother Waldron Playground painted for this year’s POW! WOW! Hawaii. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“The people who move out here, one of the reasons they move in here is because of the community,” Wong said. “Because of the painting and the art that’s here. They see it as hip.”

He added that the intention of POW! WOW! is not to gentrify the neighborhood.

Even as support for the gathering grows, wall space available for murals is shrinking. New condominium developments featuring glass exteriors leave no room for murals.

Solomon Enos, a POW! WOW! artist and the artist in resident at Hawaii Theater, has his own notion about how the large-scale paintings affect the neighborhood.

Fascinated with Polynesian science fiction, the Native Hawaiian sculptor and muralist creates work that explores power structures in Hawaii.

“It really is de-urbanizing an urban space,” said Enos, who grew up farming taro in the back of the Waianae Valley. “You’re literally destroying a wall and creating a field, a meadow again.

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