How does one go from a street tagger worried about the cops to a graffiti artist so renowned he’s received commissions from MTV and Toyota? How does one go from the deep underground to a mural unveiling so public it’s attended by the ‘Iolani Palace Royal Guard? For Estria Miyashiro it’s been a road on which he’s been both labeled a felon and celebrated as a master—all within a culture that has seen graffiti both labeled a social ill and celebrated as an urban art form.
It began in the City by the Bay: After his tagging days as a high school student at ‘Iolani, Estria headed to the University of San Francisco to study art and illustration. It was in the 1980s—during what he calls SF’s “Golden Age” of graffiti, an era of high-octane output and creativity— that he came of age as a graffiti artist. He was practicing on the streets rather than studying in the classroom, and that honed his abilities. “You couldn’t learn that kind of art in a traditional school,” he says of a form that demands superb arm control and dexterity with a spray can.
Crayone, a fellow Bay Area artist, was an early mentor. While most graffiti artists at the time were drawing their inspiration from the subway art of New York City, Crayone, who is half Korean, was utilizing Japanese anime and other Asian motifs in his pieces. He also possessed a can-do attitude on which Estria came to depend. “He didn’t seem to know you couldn’t do things,” Estria recalls. “He would just think, ‘What’s the biggest, craziest thing to do to create the most visibility?’ He pushed the limits of our creativity.”
Over the years Estria refined his skills, and his personal style matured. He became known for his clean execution and bold use of colors. After graduating from USF, he began freelancing as a muralist for businesses in the city. And as someone who had volunteered at a Honolulu YMCA long before he had touched a can of spraypaint, Estria decided to offer free art classes to students at a continuation school.
The class was a hit, but it came to an end in 1994 after Estria was arrested for graffiti. His case made national headlines both for his work with young people and because, thanks to a new law, he was the first person in San Francisco to be tried as a felon for the crime. In the end he was sentenced to a year of community service.
Nearly twenty years on, Estria, now an elder statesman in the graffiti world, says the arrest wasn’t the major turning point in his life some have made it out to be. What it did do, he says, was cement ideas that had already been forming in his mind, ideas that challenged commonly held notions of ownership. While he doesn’t endorse tagging private property and hasn’t done it himself for years, he does note that graffiti has been used as a form of public expression—a literal way for people to leave their mark—since the beginnings of civilization. “The Pyramids had graffiti,” he says, “and so did Pompeii, even Vienna during the height of classical music.”
After he finished his community service, Estria decided to continue working in the community. He taught kids at Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center for four years and held workshops at high schools in the city. In 2000 he co-founded Visual Element, a free program at the EastSide Arts Alliance in Oakland that encourages community activism through public art. In 2002 came Tumis, a marketing firm dedicated to serving nonprofits and foundations, and after that Samurai Graphix, a custom apparel print-screening company that employs Oakland youth.
In 2007 Estria collaborated on a project that inspired him to set his sights even higher. That fall he traveled with a former student, Josué Rojas, to the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras, where a group had asked the pair to work with local kids to paint a mural. When they got to Honduras, Estria wasn’t satisfied with either the location or the proposed mural’s subject matter. He and Rojas drove around looking for new ideas and happened upon a wall that had a small metal cross hanging next to it. Rojas explained that this was the site of a massacre: Four years earlier, three vehicles had surrounded a city bus and opened fire. Twenty-eight people died. Gangs were blamed for the killing, though some speculated that the military had a hand. Estria and Rojas stared silently at the scene. That night they talked about their fears of retaliation if they decided to put up a mural there. They agreed to move forward anyway.
They soon knew they’d made the right decision. As they worked, passing buses honked their horns, and passersby stopped to ask questions, share stories, say thank you. Politicians came for photographs. The finished wall portrayed a winged yellow bus ascending to heaven and the inscription “Arte es la Vida … Sin Armas ni Violencia,” “Art is Life … Without Weapons or Violence.” The mural, Estria believes, brought closure and hope to the community. It changed things for him, too. “After Honduras,” he says, “it wasn’t enough for me to paint my name on a wall. I wanted to paint messages.”