Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

From Morbid to Magical

Story by David Thompson. Photo by Elyse Butler.

Throughout her childhood—first in rural Japan, then in hyper-urban Hong Kong—artist Kris Goto immersed herself in manga, filling notebook after notebook with characters she copied as she taught herself to draw. Then came boarding school in New Zealand, where she discovered the intricate designs of Māori tattooing, opening her eyes to a world of art beyond comics and graphic novels. When she moved to Honolulu in 2006 after graduation, she came with a talent for inking fine-grained detail and a dark artistic vision that sometimes led friends to ask, “Are you okay?”

But there’s something about living in Hawai‘i that wasn’t entirely conducive to Goto’s severed limbs and caged babies. Before long, groups of jellyfish began drift-ing across her pages. ‘Ōhi‘a lehua flowers blossomed. Pineapples, coconut trees and hula dancers appeared. Balloons floated by, sometimes attached to chubby little figures of indeterminate gender.

After she learned to surf and began spending hours in the water at Waikīkī, Goto’s work turned downright playful. Her dreamy surfer girls streak effortlessly across the faces of black waves, sometimes carrying unexpected accessories, like red umbrellas or Spam musubi. They sit languorously on their boards, waiting for the next set, or ride tandem among flocks of origami cranes. They lug their boards to the beach in office attire or atop giant snails. They enjoy post-surf snuggles in mammoth balls of rice. “I’m very susceptible to what I’m drawing,” Goto says. “By drawing these whimsical pieces I think I’m in a more whimsical state of mind—it’s good for me.”

A few years ago Goto quit her day job to dedicate herself full-time to art. Her pen-and-ink illustrations now hang in galleries around the state and have been displayed at art shows from Los Angeles to France to Japan. Today, at age 31, she’s one of Hawai‘i’s most prolific emerging artists. While she’s best known for her lighthearted beachy works, she hasn’t lost her edge. Still, its Goto’s fun and fanciful side that’s in ascendance these days. “I feel like Hawai‘i told me to chill out a bit,” she says. “I’m now able to see the world through a very playful pair of glasses.”