Bishop Museum’s Graffiti (POW! WOW! at the Bishop)

POW! WOW! the international street art festival, celebrates 10 years with a stunning installation at the Bishop Museum’s Castle Memorial Building (the show is on view from May 15 to September 19). Bishop Museum’s decision to feature street art in its galleries puts the museum on the global map, and on the cutting edge of embracing a new genre of art. Establishment critics, curators, and museums are finally taking street art more seriously. The few museums that have curated street art shows have found overwhelming positive public reception. According to Artnet, Banksy’s retrospective at the Bristol museum drew 300,000 visitors in just a 12-week timeframe, making it one of the most popular shows at the time. LA MOCA’s show “Art in the Streets” “broke attendance records” according to Artnet. And at the Bishop Museum, POW! WOW! saw a sold out opening night with lines going out into the parking lot.

While serious critics continue to hesitate in taking street art seriously (Jerry Saltz, and Vulture, I’m looking at you), Artnet reports that the street artist, KAWS just made $14.7 million on a piece. And while I don’t want to equate sales for quality, there’s an uncomfortable transformation happening in the street art world, one that more readily lends itself to the museum, to galleries, and to commerce. I think we’ve moved far past street art’s illicit origins. Street artists are now designers, often producing work for major real estate corporations, businesses, and even cities. While the work remains free to observe and photograph, the art isn’t necessarily free to make, and is no longer divorced from the art world’s ethos of consumerism, sales, museum prestige, marketing, and moneymaking. Street art can turn an industrial district into a city’s most sought-after real estate literally overnight. And while commerce and street art have become strange bedfellows, the roots of street art, as free art, performed illegally, under the cover of night, has become the province of graffiti-makers, while the more design-heavy murals of popular street artists have become quite mainstream in the art world. Whether this work is fine art is another question entirely, but it certainly fits in the spectrum of art-making, and fits easily into curatorial spaces that now embrace everything from fashion to furniture.

I attended the opening of POW! WOW! on Saturday with my partner who has painted murals for POW! WOW! and whose piece is on exhibit among the dozens of others on display in the show. So please put my conflict of interest aside when I tell you that, of course Sergio Garzon’s palate knife wax painting of R2-D2 is the best in the room. R2-D2 seems to glow like a deity in a reliquary, but sits fragile in its delicate medium. If the piece were put outside in Honolulu’s summer sun, it would melt away like a plastic toy thrown in a landfill, or boil to nothing like a coral reef bleaching in the summer sea. It’s a commentary on climate change, plastic waste, and also a commentary on the difficulty of producing technically demanding and academic artwork in an artistic climate that favors design and populistic imagery.

Graffiti art has its origins in illicit activity, and it’s only right that this writing be a little illicit as well. So that’s my bias. Here’s my spray can, criticism and journalism . What are you gonna do?

I write about POW! WOW! because in Hawai’i everyone knows everyone by some degree removed, and so it’s fairly difficult to approach anything without some disclosed or undisclosed conflict of interest. It’s the challenge and joy of living on an island where everyone and everything is truly connected, and where people happen to live richly varied lives. Your doctor might very well surf your break in the morning, your friend from life drawing may also moonlight as a Sunday meditation instructor at the Korean Buddhist Temple, and, if you were here 8 years ago, your friend from acro-yoga might happen to be Edward Snowden’s girlfriend. It’s literally a small world when you live on an island with a circumference of 112 miles.

POW! WOW! is an international festival, but it has the feel of a tight-knit community. Founded by Jasper Wong, who told Hawai’i Public Radio that he put the cost of the first festival on his credit card back in 2010, the festival is an example of what can happen when people come together and lift one another up; when established artists work alongside lesser-known names, and when a community takes a chance on art. Today the festival is one of the most anticipated events in Hawaii’s arts scene (and is currently heavily backed by corporate sponsors), but it wasn’t an easy sell back in 2010. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to convince local business owners that they should let the kids who did the illegal throw-ups in the industrial areas turn the sides of their stores into mural canvases. It worked out. But the success and logic of things that work only looks right in hindsight.

Cities and communities have found a value in the illicit artists who used to do their work under the cover of night. These artists have now become professional designers, revitalizing industrial areas and transforming them into trendy arts districts. POW! WOW! travels the world bringing mural artists to Israel, Korea, Long Beach, San Jose, and more. I saw a similar movement in my hometown of Miami, where the Wynwood neighborhood underwent a slow transformation from the untouchable warehouse district of my childhood (where you were most likely to be stabbed), to a culturally rich outdoor gallery of murals nestled between bars, clubs, coffee shops, million dollar condos, and stores selling Prada and Coach. I look at Kaka’ako today, and see a neighborhood undergoing a similar transformation, and Jasper Wong’s POW! WOW! is no small part of the increase in property values, influx of local business, and increased tourist traffic. He should get a medal from the state of Hawai’i.

The very artists who would have been thrown in jail for writing their names on the walls, now create art that often raises property values and revitalizes communities. The best street artists often make a living by selling prints, through their own private commissions (think big real estate and business), and through social media, which connects these artists to collectors. Cities, property owners, and businesses will often pay these artists good money to revitalize their neighborhoods, buildings, and businesses—seeing a real value in what this art can do. 

Amid all the glamor of a gala museum event at the Bishop Museum, complete with timed wristbands, food trucks, sound systems, and museum officials lingering about, it’s easy to forget that street art has its origins in graffiti. This is where the Bishop Museum’s curated show truly shines.

The first thing you see when you enter the Castle Memorial Building is a colossal woman, covered in graffiti, being pulled up to the sky, painted directly onto an immense column. The work is a collaboration between Kamea Hadar (one of the founders of POW! WOW!) and Hula, who is known internationally for painting murals in places where the sea level will rise and cover them up. I believe Hadar is one of Honolulu’s best street artists. Throughout the city, his portraits of indigenous women and men stand as tall as the buildings themselves. These youthful faces reflect contemporary Hawai’i and its energy, but they ripple with deeper power that comes from a rich past. A father and son embrace, surrounded by kalo, a sacred plant here; a regal woman, two-stories tall, stares out at the highway cars that rush past her like a swiftly moving river, her head crowned with a lei Po’o (flower crown lei). She looks almost like she could be a diety.

In the Bishop Museum, the main entryway has been transformed into a mock Chinatown street scene, complete with bodega, newspaper stand, noodle shop, and bathroom. Everything is covered in graffiti, and the tags would be recognizable to those in the know in Honolulu’s street art scene. The work of the late street artist Beak was prominent in the room, a moving tribute. In the bodega, a woman stood behind the cash register, bored, surfing Instagram, perfectly in character. She assured us that nothing was for sale, though I wanted to buy the POW! WOW! book on display at the counter. An arcade machine turned out to feature a game designed specifically for the exhibition. It was styled like an early 90s Nintendo gem, featuring graffiti artists tagging city walls.

The POW! WOW! exhibit is intelligently executed, and feels a little like a Banksy installation I went to see back in 2008 in New York City, where the artist set up a mock pet shop in the middle of Greenwich Village. Chicken McNuggets pecked around at feed like real chicks, and fish sticks swam around in a fish tank.

There was even a bathroom installation. The tagged bathroom was not quite dirty and smelly enough to be convincing, but I liked the gesture. Walls of the museum had been turned into large-scale murals by some of the most popular artists from POW! WOW!’s 10 years. The rest of the museum read like a traditional gallery, where artists got a chance to display their work in more traditional canvas, paper, and frame. Sometimes the work translated well to this format, sometimes not so much.

It had been 14 months since my partner had been to any social event. We’d mostly been locked away since the pandemic started. It was impossible to forget that we’re still living through a global pandemic, as we shuffled past the masked faces in the crowd. The exhibition was timed. We had about 45 minutes in the gallery for the sake of everyone’s safety. It wasn’t quite enough time, but I’m not complaining. Just being in a real museum was a relief.

YOU HAVE THE REST OF YOUR LIFE TO FIGURE OUT THE CONSEQUENCES BUT RIGHT NOW IS NOT THE TIME by Edwin Ushiro is the piece I would buy if it were for sale and if I could afford it. It’s a relatively large piece, about 50 inches long, and it depicts children jumping into a river in the depths of the forest. It’s not entirely clear whether the children are disappearing or whether the forest is. One boy seems to fall out of the sky (reminding me a little of “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Peter Bruegel the Elder, a painting memorialized in a W.H. Auden poem), other children slip away into the rocks. Looking at the piece is a little like looking at the cell of an animated film (and Ushiro’s influences include Japanese anime), but there’s also something uncanny about the scene. Figures seem to appear where they don’t belong. Life is happening here, but ghosts are happening too.

The loudspeaker told us we had to leave. We walked toward the party on the lawn and then away from it, a little overwhelmed by all the people. Tucked to the side of the action was a little green house surrounded by native Hawaiian plants, and Hawaiian canoe plants. The house was empty, and probably would have been a meeting room or place for schoolchildren to gather in pre-pandemic times. Two chairs sat empty on the patio and my partner and I took the invitation to sit. We watched the crowd mull about on the lawn, pretended the house was ours, and that the people in the lawn were our guests. Music drifted over the crowd.

This was everything we wanted. A little house with a patio on a hill. A breadfruit tree. Plants. Friends laughing nearby. An art community. It was ours, for a moment.

We talked about the meaning of graffiti. When I visited St. Peter’s church in Rome, I was allowed to go beneath it, to the catacombs (the story of how I managed to talk my way down there is too long to tell here), to see the original shrine to St. Peter. The original shrine, the original church, was once just a wall—a wall covered in initials and names–graffiti. The pilgrims came, and tagged the prayer wall. Down below St. Peter’s church in Rome is a wall covered in ancient graffiti left by the first Christian pilgrims. Below the wall lie the bones of St. Peter, and above it, St. Peter’s baldachin by Bernini, Michelangelo on the duomo above, and the grand architecture of the basilica itself.

Always, always, since the beginning of time, we have witnessed the ancient human need to be seen. The urge to write your name on something, even if it isn’t yours, goes deep in the human psyche. We all want to be remembered. “The Friends of Khufu Gang” is another piece of graffiti left by the workers of the pyramids of Giza in the king’s burial chamber. The living would not see it, but the dead certainly would.

Banyan. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Banyan. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

We wandered further away from the crowd, away from the music and pomp, toward the highway, where a large banyan stood. It was as wide as an apartment building. It might have been several trees that had somehow been colonized by one, fused uncomfortably together to form a single entity. We wandered into its labyrinth of roots and hanging vines, touched its columns of branches that had dropped down to earth from the sky, fused with the ground. The place smelled of stale beer and piss. The setting sun shone through the branches like gold leaf. The cars hummed by on the H1, a machine river, relentless. Coca-Cola cans from the 90s littered the ground, crushed Blue Ribbon beers, a box of stale rice, swarming with ants. And then, the tree itself, its branches completely covered, tattooed really, with graffiti. Lover’s names, hearts, names covered in scar tissue, names crawling up the banyan’s columns, names oozing sap, names ambered in piss, names, names, names on an ancient tree covered in graffiti in the employee parking lot of the Bishop Museum.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.