POW! WOW! Pop Culture

A homegrown street-art festival gives way to the bright, imaginative murals making a cultural statement in Hawaii

Word on the street in Hawaii: turn a corner, go under a bridge, pull into a parking garage, or simply stride the sidewalk for a while and encounter a large-scale assault of the sensory sort. This means murals—enormous in size, ambition or both, always beautiful, sometimes comical, many with a bold social undertone. These epic, eye-popping pieces pulsate with an energy and animation that give color, character and creativity to a place that is all these things and more.

Public art is nothing new; it’s long been a means of beautifying communities. But the practice of taking it to the streets is especially resonant in Hawaii, which nurtures a rich storytelling heritage and is a prominent part of Native Hawaiian culture. The fact that Hawaii is one of the most isolated places on Earth, her islands scattered in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, makes it a melting pot of different ethnicities, which has resulted, quite strikingly, in one of the most diverse, and imaginative, street art scenes in the world.

“Being based in Hawaii, Native Hawaiian culture is very important and we try our best to use public art as a vehicle to tell cultural stories,” says artist, curator and entrepreneur Jasper Wong, who founded POW! WOW!, an annual street art festival that gives participating artists—half of them locals—the opportunity to share one’s history and story via their own work of art. “It takes it directly to the general public without the barriers of other institutions.”

Named after comic book culture (“POW!” is how art impacts the individual, “WOW!” is the measure of one’s reaction to it), the weeklong event has become its own movement, in Hawaii and beyond, active in more than a dozen cities across the globe. Locations change, but the goal does not: POW! WOW! aims to spruce up communities, thereby changing their very fabric, helping increase foot traffic in once-forgotten districts in order to support small business, bring people together, prop up local creative industries, promote indigenous artists, and serve as an educational resource for community youth.

“We hope this will then help to build bridges between people and create a worldwide collective of like-minded individuals,” says Wong.

That the beauty of Hawaii is a wellspring of artistic inspiration may be cliché, acknowledges Wong, but it’s also fact. How an artist chooses to translate this is singular to personal experience, perception, and intention. The same is true in other places where POW! WOW! is painting the town—though no canvas could ever be considered as radiant as Hawaii. powwowhawaii.com

Written by Jenn Thornton
Photographs: courtesy of Jasper Wong and Brandon Shigeta

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