Honolulu's 'Graffitification' Problem Can't Stop the POW! WOW! Art Festival

POW! WOW! Japan, 2015. Images courtesy Jasper Wong

This week, Honolulu will be overrun by gods and monsters, impossible visions and creatures that defy imagination. The streets will flow not with blood and terror—but paint. This is the sixth year of POW! WOW! Hawaii, a street mural festival loved for its expert curation and killer vibes. POW! WOW! originated in Hong Kong in 2010, but Hawaii has become the festival’s flagship. The festival has budded in Taiwan, Long Beach, and Austin, will germinate Japan later this year. Each location unites street art superstars and local talent, cross-pollinating techniques and cultures to create some of the strangest and most gratifying fruit in the street art world.

Over the weekend, a cadre of muralists descended on Oahu to transform the tourist mecca into a vibrant public art gallery. HULA, 1010, Slinkachu, Haroshi, Audrey Kawasaki, and over 70 other collaborators are primed and ready to splatter Honolulu’s Kakaako neighborhood with dreams and pigment. Sponsors ranging from Hawaiian Airlines to Monster Energy fuel the maelstrom of creative talent, and at the center of it all is artist, curator, businessman, and native Hawaiian, Jasper Wong.

Comfortable both in a beach tank with boardshorts or five-panel hat and Oxford cotton button-down, Wong has the characteristics of a chameleon. He adapts his persona to any situation: underdog artist, savvy businessman, mentor, son, husband, father, visionary. He speaks compellingly about the economic trials, tribulations, and triumphs of POW! WOW!’s past, then shifts gears to contemplate artistic integrity, the joys of travel, or theorize about next great art capital of the world. It’s not Detroit, he says, but more on that later...

Rods, Madsteez, POW! WOW! Hawaii, 2013

In the present, Wong has been focused on making POW! WOW! an artist’s paradise independent of Hawaii’s palm trees and sandy beaches. He chose Kakaako because in 2011, it was an industrial area á la Brooklyn in 2002. He and artists like Jeff Hamada, Aaron de la Cruz, and Meggs laid down roots in the community, earning necessary trust from locals. POW! WOW! offers artists free flights, hotels, and uninhibited creative freedom. Inhabited mostly by auto mechanics, Kakaako attracted Wong to its flat walls and few rules. “Before we touched the neighborhood, not too many people cared about it. It was a forgotten district in the middle of Honolulu,” he tells The Creators Project.

At first, Kakaako’s community of landowners weren’t thrilled by the idea of a young art squad covering their businesses in paint. Wong constantly struggled against the prejudice engendered by the Broken Windows Theory, the idea that one act of “vandalism” will normalize it and send any neighborhood down a slippery slope of decay.

In fact, quite the opposite has occurred.

After much sweet talk, Wong won over the locals with the elegant combination of free art and the promise that they’d paint over any murals any owner disliked. The art attracted foot traffic, that foot traffic attracted small businesses, which in turn attracted large businesses. Graffiti writers stopped tagging buildings hosting murals out of respect—or because they themselves had painted it. POW! WOW! has generated enough attention to paint Kakaako for six years in a row, to recreate the festival all over the world, and recently began providing much-needed children’s art and music classes. POW! WOW! is as much a part of the community as a yearly festival can hope for.

Mouf, POW! WOW! SXSW, 2015

Six years running, this is part of the secret to POW! WOW!’s success. Another is Wong’s commitment to integrity, maintaining a strong separation between the artists and the brand sponsors. “I would hate to go into a festival where they say, ‘We’re sponsored by McDonalds, so you’ve got to put some McDonald’s-themed stuff in your mural,’” he says. “That would be horrible. We never want that to happen ever."

Throwing events with dozens of great artists isn’t cheap. Wong pays for his integrity by basically practicing sponsorship jiu-jitsu, a delicate art balancing the ever-thinning borders between creativity, “content,” and brands.

“For most of our projects, there’s no income,” Wong explains. “You can’t charge money for people to look at murals. You can’t charge money for people to come to art shows.” Finding sponsors that don’t insist on ruining the artwork with their logos and hashtags is difficult, Wong says. They’d rather do concerts or parties, where they can plaster their branding across every square inch of the stage without polluting the artist’s work. Wong’s solution is to deck festivalgoers themselves in branded lanyards, cups, and other paraphernalia, and putting up branded banners. He throws parties in front of the murals, hosts dinners and workshops with artists, asks airlines and hotels to comp services. He is essentially selling companies on images and video, and offering a community that will guarantee clicks. When he's not wooing sponsors, he and his team are writing endless grants, which are easier because they're less transactional, but usually offer less money. "Any avenue that we can fundraise, we’ve tried," he says.

When asked directly about his secret sauce, Wong simply says, “We just don’t put shitty murals out there.” 

Case McClain, POW! WOW! Japan, 2015

Six successful years later, Wong says that managing POW! WOW! is still a non-stop battle. “People always say, ‘The longer you do it, the easier it gets, right?’ And I’m like, ‘No, it never gets easier. It just gets harder for some reason.’” Whether it's lack of money, misinformed cops, or the 'anti-Jasper club' of senior citizens still convinced Wong is ruining their homes, Wong's relationship with Kakaako is maintained just like any other relationship: with dedication and hard work. "I’ve been blamed for public urination, homelessness, everything," he says.

But looming even darker on the horizon is the spectre of what Wong calls "graffitification," or graffiti-gentrification. Like Brooklyn, or Boston's SoBo, Little Five Points in Atlanta, Wicker Park in Chicago, Kakaako has attracted an army of developers who want to make a buck by building condos in the artistic neighborhood. At least five new high rises are in development, and Wong says, "The buildings we used to paint on have been demolished and these glass towers are being built in their place."

A lot of literature has been written on artists' roles in gentrification, namely that they're at least partly responsible for raised rent prices and the following infestation of trendy coffee shops and organic markets. Wong argues that blaming artists for gentrification is unfair. "We don’t benefit from rent going up. We also get booted. It ends up just happening by virtue of the fact that people love the art. We do a good job, we paint amazing murals, people end up wanting to find the murals. It’s never our intention to boost property value. We go in thinking, 'They want to give us a wall to paint on. Let’s paint it!' The choice is to either to paint walls, beautify the neighborhood—or not do that."

Dana Paresa, SHWN SHTS, POW! WOW! Hawaii, 2013

In the words of Jerry Saltz, "Artists do what they must." For Wong and the POW! WOW! community, not painting walls, not beautifying the neighborhood, isn't a solution. But Wong thinks he has one. 

"Cleveland," he says.

"The problem is that none of us actually own the properties that we paint on. We don’t have any control over who comes in and buys the buildings. We go in with good intentions, but don’t control what happens afterward. We just need to find a place where we can own all the buildings." 

For Wong, that's not L.A., that's not New York, that's not Detroit—it's Cleveland, OH. Like Detroit, Cleveland was hit hard by the 2008 economic crash, and suffered one of the largest population dips in the country. While generally an ill omen, for artists, this means that rent is cheap. A quick Craigslist search turns up whole houses on the market for $800 a month (utilities included!), and Zillow has a few for sale with price tags as low as $6,500. Wong's most compelling argument for Cleveland is in its wealth of protected historical districts. Building large condo developments is a hassle when you can't knock down an entire block because of a protected historic house. Artists, though, could buy up whole neighborhoods with ease.

"We don’t want to be vehicles of gentrification, but it happens anyway," Wong says. "We just love to paint walls." In the meantime, that's exactly what he, 1010, HULA, Audrey Kawasaki, Slinkachu, and more are doing in Hawaii this week. Mural painting begins tomorrow.

Mike Johnston, POW! WOW! SXSW, 2015

Keep up with POW! WOW! Hawaii on the official website and Instagram.


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