Each winter, street artists around the world fly to Hawaii to cover the island of Oahu in multicolored murals. The POW! WOW! Hawaii street art festival, which takes place annually in February, brings talent from across the globe to the Kaka’ako district of Honolulu. This year, over 100 living legends and festival first-timers converged on the neighborhood brandishing buckets of paint, thick markers, and aerosol cans.
Unlike other festivals around the world, like Coachella, SXSW, and Art Basel, POW! WOW! isn’t about the spectacle of a wild party. Instead, it’s about a community that forms for a week on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and lasts for years on a global scale.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a party atmosphere at POW! WOW!, but the joie de vivre is basically a side effect of bringing so many creative personalities together. Over the course of the festival, artists and press sleep in giant houses on the North Shore, trekking over an hour to Kaka’ako every day in packed U-Haul vans. They commute past crushing waves, fields of pineapples owned by the Dole Plantation, and steep mountains straight out of Jurassic Park. The drive leaves plenty of time for POW! WOW! participants to get to know each other. Over breakfast, Hueman, an artist from L.A. who’s experiencing her first street art festival, says, “It almost feels like summer camp.”
Philadelphia-based artist NoseGo, another POW! WOW! first-timer, says, “It’s like a tribe of people that live in different parts of the world, and once they’re here, they all meet up to celebrate what they love. It’s awesome.” He doesn’t have many friends in his hometown and finds motivation in the international community that grows out of street art. “That’s what drives me,” he says while sipping beers at a local brewery.
Because it takes place on the city streets, POW! WOW! is by default open to the public, and the lineup includes a final block party and speaking events in public spaces. “A lot more people are seeing it as an asset to have art on your wall,” says local artist Matt Ortiz (one half of Wooden Wave, with his wife Roxy) as he perches atop a ladder. “To have that interaction with the community is a win-win situation.” During one of the first days of the festival, an enthusiastic mechanic ushers me through his garage to show off the mural going up on the back of his shop. He is clearly proud to house the artwork.
“It’s like a tribe of people that live in different parts of the world, And once they’re here, they all meet up to celebrate what they love. It’s awesome.”—NoseGo
This garage is one of many in Kaka’ako, a warehouse-filled area that would be drab if not for the many murals and hip little shops that have popped up over the years. Several people explain that the neighborhood has changed since POW! WOW! arrived, and it's reminiscent of Bushwick or any other gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, except the artists aren’t moving in. But Kaka'ako won’t have this gritty charm for long. There are 4,500 new housing units planned to go up, and although the developments are advertised as helping solve Hawaii’s affordable housing deficit, only 5 percent will be available to low-income residents (both from the neighborhood and different parts of the island). Currently, only about 200 people live in Kaka’ako, but it’s unclear if they will be able to afford to stay after the new construction.
It’s tough to say how the street art festival has contributed to change in Kaka’ako (other than aesthetics), but without a doubt, the neighborhood has become more desirable over the years. The better question is if POW! WOW! will be able to continue to take place in Kaka’ako once luxury high-rises dominate the skies. “There’s a lot of development coming, and so there’s a large group of artists that are taking advantage of the situation,” says Ortiz, explaining how artists are using these last opportunities to put up murals. “We’ve moved in [to paint] and we have our eyes wide open. We’re embracing this opportunity and running with it.”
One sight in Hawaii that many visitors choose to ignore are the tents that cover parks and street corners. Last year, Hawaii had the highest number of homeless people per capita in the U.S., and there are more than 4,700 homeless people just in Oahu. This problem is not something that the artists come directly in contact with, even though the streets they work on serve as living space for Hawaii’s homeless population. Yet one artist’s interaction with a homeless family leaves a deep impression on me. HOTTEA, who hails from Minneapolis, is an anomaly at POW! WOW! because he’s not a painter. Instead, he weaves multicolored yarn through fences and across bridges to create installations and geometric words (in Hawaii, a few of his creations spell out “Aloha”). One night, as we bike around searching for fences to install his work, we come upon a homeless family. Their tent is pitched along a fence. HOTTEA shows the woman a picture of his work and asks if he can use her fence. She smiles and nods, and her child begin to play with the yarn, mimicking HOTTEA. He gives the young girl a ball of thread before leaving. Although HOTTEA’s work will do nothing to benefit the family financially, the interaction is touching, and it is a powerful example of how street art can be experienced and enjoyed by even the disenfranchised members of a community.
HOTTEA admits that he feels like an “outcast” at POW! WOW!, partially because he isn’t a traditional street artist; many people name him the most unique artist at the festival. That outsider status may have contributed to his less complimentary view of POW! WOW! in comparison with other artists. “It’s good and bad,” HOTTEA says when asked about what street art festivals are doing for the medium. “It’s good because it’s exposing a lot of people who aren’t familiar what we do. It’s exposing our artwork. It’s bad because there are so many mural festivals going on right now that it’s becoming so saturated that it’s losing its mystery. It’s losing its spark because there’s so much of it right now.”
"We were participating in one of the greatest visual revolutions in history. We had no idea."—SABER
This is a complaint you hear more often from older artists who came up during the heyday of graffiti and transitioned to street art. These are the guys (it’s definitely a boy’s club) who first established street art as an artform. Belgian artist ROA, whose sketchy, black-and-white animals are a staple in street art’s history, says, “Graffiti was always about copying styles and putting it on the next level. Street art was always about having your own style. But then, suddenly, people started to take things. And there were new people coming in the game with other people’s styles, like a mixture. So many new people took other people’s styles that it suddenly feels OK to take other people’s styles. So, suddenly people took people’s concepts.” Of his own work, ROA says, “Ten years ago, nobody painted animals. Animals were not cool to paint. If you look now, this is a big thing—girls and animals. It’s not stolen from me, but it’s definitely inspired.” Walking around Kaka’ako, it almost seems like a requirement to include animals in your murals.
Despite his negative comments about the current street art scene, ROA remains optimistic: “It’s not always a bad thing, but right now things are diluted with a lot of people who try to have fun, but who don’t have a concept, who just follow concepts,” he says. “And it kills things. Basically, if I don’t want to go and paint your wall for your company, find somebody else who does similar work who will listen to your demands. In a way, I would love the scene to have more balls. But this cleans itself. It goes in phases. I’m not worried.”
ROA is one of the original artists who legitimized street art as a medium, but he admits that he was never as skilled at graffiti lettering. Across the globe in L.A., SABER came up around the same time as ROA (the early ’90s), but he was grounded in graffiti, not street art. His legendary status as one of the kings of Wild Style elicits applause even before he can begin his speech at a panel discussion. During the panel, SABER poses a question on a lot of street artists’ minds: “The whole thing is open now, so now where do we bring this culture? How do we keep this culture true to its art?” SABER calls the current scene a “new era” of street art, and stresses that we’re on the precipice of what will come next. Klone, a street artist based in Tel Aviv and known for his paintings of foxes, seconds this idea. “I don’t think it’s street art anymore because it’s all legal and they define your space,” he says. “It becomes something else.”
While their styles may be strikingly different, both SABER and ROA stress that street artists past and present don’t recognize the power of their medium. “We were participating in one of the greatest visual revolutions in history. We had no idea,” says Saber. ROA takes this historical view even further: “Even if we look to art history, there’s no artist in the past ever who traveled that much to do site-specific work. Nobody ever did that. It was not possible to, but this is innovative. Don’t ever underestimate how much this changed everything. Art history changed with this. We don’t know how much yet, but it changed. It’s a crazy movement. The movement is sometimes not aware enough of how unique we are. It’s dangerous even to lose all of this. It should have balls; it should keep the balls. You need to keep the balls.”
On the flip side, the opening up of street art, which is facilitated by festivals like POW! WOW!, isn’t completely a bad thing. Now more than ever, artists with a wide variety of backgrounds (not just graffiti roots) can participate in the medium. “It’s broadening it for people like me, who don’t really do public art,” says Esao Andrews, an L.A.-based painter who hadn’t worked on murals before POW! WOW! “This show reaches over and invites other people besides longtime graffiti artists. It combines all these other different types of artists.”
What’s surprising about this merging of artists from different backgrounds, styles, eras, and mediums is that there is no sense of hierarchy at POW! WOW! There’s no ego between the artists, numerous people assert, and that comes from the sense of community intrinsic to the festival. This global family may be what will define the new era of street art. “At the end of the day, we want to make something positive, because I came from an era where it wasn’t positive,” says SABER, recalling graffiti’s old beefs and violence. “There was nothing positive about what we were doing. It’s a new era.”
In some ways, this new era of a more accepting street art culture may be diluting the scene with concept-less artists, as ROA fears. But in other ways, it has given people like HOTTEA (someone who definitely has his own concept, even if it comes out of yarnbombing), a global stage. And maybe artists like this will infuse the culture with the new ideas that will usher it into the new era of openness—as long as they usher it into the new era the right way, not through mimicking past concepts or selling out to brands. In other words, as long as they have the balls.