The Bigger Picture

To Kamea Hadar, every wall is a window
Story by Sonny Ganaden. Photos by Matt Mallams.

I just wait for the fires, because I know they’re coming,” Kamea Hadar says while standing at the entrance to Lana Lane, a roughly half-acre warehouse of artists’ lofts and office spaces in Honolulu’s Kaka‘ako district.

The area is in the midst of long-term redevelopment, and the fires Hadar speaks of relate to today’s duties as the arts organizer for POW! WOW!, which in its own way has contributed to the revival of the city’s urban core. Or at least its beautification: Each year for the last decade, Honolulu has hosted this mobile gathering of artists and their retinue of assistants, along with an ever-expanding cast of break dancers, DJs and street vendors.

As one of the founders of POW! WOW!, Hadar has fostered an informal movement that has used street art—specifically, large-scale, outdoor murals—to transform the scenery in cities worldwide. Hadar’s own work is ubiquitous in Honolulu: Two-story-tall visages oversee traffic from the sides of buildings in Waikīkī, along the H-1 freeway and throughout Kaka‘ako. His largest project, “Hina,” was painted in the summer of 2017 to commemorate the completion of Mālama Honua, the historic, global circumnavigation by the sailing canoe Hōkūle‘a. At 165 feet tall from slippers to raised hand, “Hina”—a contraction of Hina-‘ai-ka-mālama, the goddess associated with the moon—is Hawai‘i’s tallest mural. It’s also fourteen feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, to which Hina’s pose alludes—with a few marked differences. In place of Lady Liberty’s crown is a lei po‘o (head lei); instead of a tablet, Hina cradles a corm of taro, the staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet, in the crook of her left arm.

Hawai‘i artist Kamea Hadar leads a talk with Logan Hicks at the 2019 Honolulu POW! WOW! – a week-long street art festival that Hadar co-founded nearly ten years ago. Today, POW! WOW! events held around the globe aim to transform urban scenery with outdoor murals.

But Hadar is not solely a muralist. He has painted nearly everything for clients: buildings, bodies, clothes. His art is in restaurants and movie theaters, has been reproduced as bumper stickers and golf tournament guest passes. He’s even been hired to customize a Lamborghini, on which he painted a set of flowers in gold leaf as a promotion for a local auto dealer. The car sold within hours. “It’s about seeing what’s possible,” he says of his more unorthodox commissions. “Being able to work as an artist full time means I can free up my space to pursue passion projects. POW! WOW! is still one of those.” And so today he’s roving from site to site, constantly on his phone, acting as impromptu guide for donors and photographers as well as equipment manager for a storeroom full of spray cans and house paint. Putting out fires.

“Do you have what you need?” he asks Matthew Tapia, a local artist working on a three-story mural a block away. Walking to a stack of buckets, cardboard and paint-stained rollers, Tapia asks for some basic white outdoor paint. “Sorry, bro, we’re all out,” Hadar informs him. “We cleared out the whole island this week—every hardware store from here to the North Shore.” 

The realist rendering of anatomical features—Hadar’s primary passion—is uncommon in modern street art. Portraiture is as old as paint itself and once filled a documentary function that has long since been supplanted by photography. In the twenty-first century, painting human faces well is a rare skill. “I knew I wanted to do this since I was 12 years old,” Hadar says. “When I was a kid, it wasn’t as cool as what my friends were doing—painting in ditches and running from the cops. It’s the art-world equivalent of taking ballet lessons while everyone is learning to break-dance.” 

After introductory art classes at East Honolulu’s Kalani High School, and prior to college at the University of San Diego, Hadar embarked on a series of unstructured, international residencies. He spent four months in Paris painting in the studio of the abstract impressionist Denis Rival, who was in his seventies at the time. “I just had to observe, because my French wasn’t great,” he recalls. “I’d basically get an impression of an impression—vague ideas of how to paint.” In Spain he spent weeks in museums alone, viewing everything he could by El Greco. 

“I learned to be a professional,” he says. “I have my parents to thank for that. My dad is a carpenter, doing fine woodwork and contracting. His friends are all philosopher types—he just finished his second book, about happiness.” Anne Namba, a well-known local fashion designer, is his mother’s sister.

After college Hadar went to Israel, where he recorded his grandfather’s life story. “My grandpa thought his story was normal, but that’s only because he was around other people who fled the Nazis,” he recalls. “Our Polish name was Citrinus, like citrus. After the war they moved to Israel, and my grandpa took the Hebrew version of the word, hadar. My first name means ‘lucky charm,’ like an amulet.”

Luck—being in the right place at the right time—played a part in Hadar’s rise as a muralist. The second half of the twentieth century saw a building boom in the Islands, with urban Honolulu dominated by concrete structures, which largely adhered to the Modernist architectural ethos of function over form. By the mid-2000s all that flat concrete, designed to keep the air-conditioning in, was begging for a face-lift. Since POW! WOW! began, urban Honolulu’s core has been transformed. Hadar and partner Jasper Wong became the faces of the organization. They met early success by teaming with local landowners in the rapidly transforming Kaka‘ako neighborhood, where for every well-designed building there are a half-dozen acre-wide parking garages with massive gray walls of concrete. Which means murals of all sizes are possible with the application of simple math. 

“It’s like the board game Battleship,” Hadar explains. “You just grid out the drawing and then scale it up. So it doesn’t matter if the piece is five stories or thirty, you just need the dimensions to know how much paint to buy.” From that point on, he says, the most important element in a mural is the building itself. “It took years to understand that I needed to use windows, gutters and pipes to my advantage, to reference where the proportions were. When you’re up there painting you can’t see the whole piece, so you have to rely on your reference points.” 

This year POW! WOW! added thirty-five new murals to Honolulu’s cityscape, transforming swaths of gray concrete with color and imagery. The festival has grown to include concerts, gallery shows, lecture series, and schools for art and music.

There’s another challenge: Hadar is afraid of heights. “If you look at how I’ve progressed as an artist, going big was the only way,” he says. “I stumbled into the large-scale work with friends from POW! WOW!, and then offers came in. ‘Hina’ was giving me nightmares for weeks before-hand, but I knew I could do it: I wanted to see how big I could go, and I didn’t want to let my phobias stop me from doing what I love.”

At certain times of the year, viewed from the USS Arizona Memorial a mile or so away, Hina can be seen holding the moon in her hand. “The scariest part was connecting that arm,” Hadar remembers. “We already finished the face and the hand, but we just hoped we got it right when we were meeting the two parts together.”

This year’s POW! WOW! added thirty-five new murals to Honolulu’s cityscape. A few weeks after it wrapped up—and following a family vacation to Rome—Hadar and wife Shanna invite me to witness what people told them was impossible for artists to afford in Hawai‘i: a life. The Hadars purchased a home in East Honolulu using Kamea’s income as an artist and Shanna’s as a substance abuse counselor at a local nonprofit. In the studio that doubles as a guest room for visiting artists, their daughter Nova has a drawing table set up next to her dad’s, replete with markers and used brushes. “We met at a party when we were still in high school. He was a hot surfer boy whose mom was sending him to Paris for art,” Shanna laughs. “We’ve been together ever since.”

Kamea’s wife Shanna (pictured above with daughter Nova) was his first model–her likeness appeared on a wall that overlooks a public park in Kaka‘ako.

Five years ago, when Kamea painted Shanna’s portrait on a wall that looks over a public park in Kaka‘ako, she was already well-known, if not by name then by face. As the primary model for a local jewelry company, she had appeared everywhere from international magazine advertisements to the sides of tourist buses and mall kiosks throughout the Islands. A few years back, Kamea painted her lips, scanned the image and then printed thousands of stickers that can still be seen around town. 

“There’s a joke between us that finally he’s more ‘locally famous’ than I am, whatever that means,” says Shanna, who’s moved on from modeling. “I’ve told him to paint other women—it’s nice having my own career, being a 9-to-5 person married to an artist. Like most artists he’s moody at times, especially when it’s busy. I’m here to remind him how lucky he is, that he gets to do what he loves and actually get paid for it.”  HH