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Vol.18, no.1
February/March 2015


Concrete Canvas 
Story By: Noel Nicholas
Photos By: Elyse Butler

During the week of Valentine’s Day last year, more than a hundred artists from across the globe descended on Honolulu’s industrial neighborhood of Kaka‘ako. Some came from as nearby as Waipahu, others as far away as New Zealand, Israel and Taiwan, but all for the same reason: They came to paint. Over seven days the artists transformed more than forty blank walls in the neighborhood. They used spray cans, brushes, gloves and sometimes their whole bodies. Their styles ranged from classic portraiture to abstract. Looming mechanical lifts rumbled down the streets, and respirator masks were strapped on. A turn around a corner that week might have brought a pedestrian face to face with artists working to create such scenes as a giant, nymphlike woman bursting from the ground in a flurry of red ribbons or an explosion of orange, gold and green shapes squirming on a rich purple background. Everyone walking the streets in Kaka‘ako got to experience the glorious mess of the creative process—and such public exposure to that process is the intention behind POW! WOW! Hawai‘i. 

“The name comes from comic book culture,” says Jasper Wong, founder of POW! WOW! Hawai‘i, or PWH. “POW! represents the immense impact a piece of art can have on a viewer; WOW! signifies a person’s reaction to that art.”

The inspiration for PWH came when Wong, himself an artist, was living in Hong Kong and operating a small gallery called Above Second. “People would buy art in Hong Kong like they would buy wine,” he says. “They would buy it, store it and resell it but never ever really enjoy it.” Wong set out to highlight the beauty of the creative process itself. In 2010 Above Second debuted POW! WOW! Hong Kong, inviting five artists to live, collaborate and create together publicly for a week. “Many times you see art only in its final phase, but the process it takes to get to that point is usually more interesting than the finished piece itself,” says Wong.

The event was a success, and Wong began to think about taking the show on the road to nearby cities like Beijing or Singapore. But at the urging of old friends and artists on O‘ahu, he decided to bring POW! WOW! to his hometown: Honolulu. 

As it turns out, Wong made a very good move. The first POW! WOW! Hawai‘i was held in 2011 and centered around a public, one-night-only event at Kaka‘ako’s Fresh Café. Hordes of spectators packed the space and watched each of the twelve participating artists first paint a canvas of their own, then collaborate on other canvases. At the end of the night, covered in paint and congratulatory lei, the artists gathered to paint over the largest, most collaborative piece entirely in black symbolically bringing the focus back to the creative process. Following the event the vibrant, playful images that had been splashed across Fresh Café’s exterior caught the attention of neighboring business owners. “As we started to connect with the neighbors, we suddenly found ourselves with tons of alleys, garage doors, sides of buildings and even a library to paint,” explains muralist and current PWH co-director Kamea Hadar. Now, four years later, PWH is one of the largest and most influential street art festivals in the world. The event has created a global network of artists, enabling Wong and the team to bring the event to Portland and Taiwan in the past two years and to begin laying groundwork for festivals in Germany, Japan, Singapore and Jamaica.

New Zealand-born and based artist Askew One is among the artists who participated in the 2014 festival in Honolulu. Completely self-taught, he is well recognized for his experimental graffiti art. Most recently he has been working on a unique type of portraiture that blends abstract shapes, silhouettes and colors with the human face. As a nod to his New Zealand heritage, most of Askew One’s subjects are people of Pacific descent. He likes the selection process to be spontaneous; he often arrives in a place to paint without a model in mind. His openness always seems to work in his favor, and his most recent POW! WOW! experience was no exception. “A girl rode her bike past my girlfriend and I while we were working on our mural in 2013,” he recalls. “We both commented that she would be a great model, but we never got a chance to get her attention and ask her. A whole year later we were walking through Kaka‘ako, debating about who would be a good subject, and lo and behold she rode right past us again. We were heading to Fresh Café, and when we got there my girlfriend spotted her sitting inside so she approached her.” Askew One, in collaboration with artists Reyes and Zes of California, created a massive mural spanning nearly half a city block that featured the woman’s lovely face staring from inside a swirl of boldly colored abstract clouds.