What do a rooster, a young girl and water flowing next to a crater have in common? All are images that materialized recently on a Palolo Elementary School wall. 

It’s the latest in a series of murals popping up across the islands that connect students to features of their communities through a nonprofit mentorship program with graffiti artist Estria Miyashiro.

Palolo fourth- and fifth-graders took part in a workshop series that included drawing and painting exercises and learning about meditation and mindfulness. They also went on field trips to significant cultural sites in their community.

With the help of student mentors from Iolani School, a mural concept was created.

Community members gather to help students paint a mural at Palolo Elementary School on April 22. Katie Boon/Civil Beat

In honor of Earth Day, Miyashiro hosted a painting event April 22 in which community members joined students in turning their ideas into a mural. Miyashiro explained the images to state Rep. Calvin Say, who represents Palolo, while the dull-white wall with outlines became a vibrant work of art.

Miyashiro said a rooster was included because they are known to be brave and stand their ground.

Water flowing out of the Kaau crater represents a common theme found in murals across the islands: the importance of water.

The girl in the center of the mural was an idea that came from a student during of one of the three field trips. She is reaching up toward the light in the direction of what will soon be an ulu tree. Miyashiro said this is to represent an area in Palolo once known for producing bountiful breadfruit.

“It’s pretty simple,” Miyashiro told Say. “It’s for them to know where they are and know their story.”

Tattoo artist Libra paints next to a student at Palolo Elementary School. Katie Boon/Civil Beat

Miyashiro returned to his home in Honolulu in 2014 after years of involvement in the San Francisco street art scene and has created art internationally. Through donations and state grants, he began Mele Murals as a mentorship program to inspire young people to connect with their sense of place.

The program is named Mele Murals as meles (songs and chants) are the basis of design for many of the images created.

In the program, students are taught how to become visual storytellers to preserve Hawaiian values and increase engagement between generations and island communities.

Each Place Has A Story

Through Mele Murals, students visit significant sites in the area where they learn the importance of meditation, Miyashiro said. From there, they come up with an idea to sketch, which then evolves into a mural.

Most murals are painted at the students’ schools, but some appear on other buildings within the community.

Initially, the goal was to create 20 Mele Murals throughout the islands. But already 30 have been completed, mostly in Hawaii but also in New Zealand and Samoa.

“We stopped saying 20 because the demand for it was awesome,” said Miyashiro. “There’s always more in the works, but right now we’re just working on the next four.”

Most murals have involved a single group of students, but some have incorporated community programs, public schools and charter schools.

'He Manu Momona i ka Ike' mural in Kaneohe
Students celebrated the completion of this mural in Kaneohe. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One recently unveiled mural near Windward Mall in Kaneohe was designed by Castle High School students and painted with the help of kids at Kaneohe Elementary, Puohala Elementary, Hakipuu Learning Center and Kualoa-Heeia KEY Project.

Waianuhea Walk, a teacher in the Hawaiian immersion program at Puohala Elementary School, found the students’ work inspiring.

“Just picture it,” Walk said. “It’s pouring rain. The kids are smiling. The young ones are learning from the older ones. Then, they all start singing these Hawaiian meles.”

The mural depicts a variety of native birds.

Kaneohe resident Sarah Makainai said the wall is a reminder of the historical legacy of her neighborhood.

“‘Ahuimanu’ means a gathering of birds,” said Makainai. “This is a place where feathers were collected for making traditional feather capes.”

Prince Kuhio Elementary Mural painting art.
The Prince Kuhio Elementary School mural. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Prince Kuhio Elementary School in Mccully-Moiliili recently unveiled its own mural.

Principal Lynn Kobayashi said that the project was a leadership opportunity for her students, as junior leaders from an after-school program taught their peers how to paint.

Prince Kuhio Students reflected on a field trip they took to learn about water patterns on land. They came up with a visual representation of the life water gives in a properly functioning ahupua’a or watershed; from mountain to ocean.  

A hawk and a lizard border the sides of the Prince Kuhio mural. They are watching over the land rich with water. This also reminds the students that it’s important for everyone to watch over and take care of the land.

“We’re hoping to build the young people to become those visual storytellers that are grounded in place and in culture so that they can tell all our stories,” said Miyashiro. “So that our stories, culture and values all live on.”

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