Story by Samson Reiny
Photos by Olivier Koning
In 1984 Estria Miyashiro was a 16-year-old at ‘Iolani High School. Goofing off in algebra class, he’d taken to writing his name in fancy fonts. One day another student glanced over at his notebook. “So,” he asked Estria, “you do graffiti?” Is that what this is? Estria wondered, looking at his inscriptions. Soon after he decided to make it official and sprayed his first tag on the walls of a canal tucked under a busy overpass. He doesn’t remember exactly what he wrote, but whatever it was, he’s certain it looked awful. (Aside from his lack of skill, he used the wrong paint on the wrong surface, which only made things worse.)
What he can easily recall, though, are the sensations that surged through his body: an adrenaline rush, a thumping heart, senses roused to peak alertness by fear of the police. He couldn’t resist the newfound buzz. “Writing,” he remembers, “gave me the feeling of being alive.”
Flash-forward twenty-seven years to 2011. Estria is in Honolulu’s Kalihi neighborhood, standing on a scissor lift and hoisted nearly twenty feet above the ground. A sense of ceremony fills the air. The ‘Iolani Palace Royal Guard—present only at the most important events in the Hawaiian community—marches in and stands at attention. A pü (conch shell) is sounded as a call to the ancestors, and a kahu (priest) splashes a water-soaked ti leaf while invoking a prayer in the Hawaiian language. Next to Estria on the scissor lift is Honolulu artist John “Prime” Hina, and the pair are preparing to cut the ties of a tarp covering the centerpiece of a mural that is so vast it extends two-thirds the length of a football field.
The moment is the culmination of six months of planning, two weeks of sketching and four weeks of painting day and night, and when the tarp falls, everyone finds themselves face to face with a portrait of Hawai‘i’s last reigning monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani. She is seated on a lush mountain throne, and a stream flows diagonally across her chest like a sash. A tag that runs the length of the wall reads, “Flow Mauka to Makai,” or “flow from the mountain to the sea.” The tableau—which shows a torrent of mountain water rushing into kalo lo‘i (taro patches), upland fishponds and small farm plots and finally emptying into a flourishing ocean—depicts the bedrock of the traditional Hawaiian system of water management. Other images on the wall illustrate the history of water in Hawai‘i, highlighting the diversion of mountain water for sugar and pineapple. The queen, seated in the midst of it all, radiates a quiet confidence; she represents not only the Hawaiians’ spiritual connection to the environment but also everyone’s basic right to fresh water.
“Brah, you look out and everyone is crying,” says Estria. “Prime was crying under his shades.” He chuckles softly. “I was crying, too. This was the single most important and fulfilling experience in my career.”