Honolulu neighborhood's public art fest thriving in 10th year

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Approximately 90 artists will participate in the Pow Wow Hawaii 2020 public art festival based in Kakaako.
Approximately 90 artists will participate in the Pow Wow Hawaii 2020 public art festival based in Kakaako.
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

When artist Jasper Wong, a Honolulu native, launched the Pow Wow public art festival in Hawaii in 2011, he worked so hard to pull funding and resources together, he was not sure how long the nonprofit, community-based venture could last.  

"For me it's special that it still happens here," Wong said. "That first one in Hawaii was such a struggle to make a reality. It all rode on volunteers and my credit card. The fact that we are doing it 10 years later is something special to me."

Returning to the Kakaako neighborhood for 2020, Wong and his team have pulled together a special program as the festival marks a decade in Hawaii with some of the artists from the first installment returning to complete new murals. 

This year the schedule of events runs Feb. 7 to 16, and the final weekend includes a block party with exhibitions, live entertainment and more alongside the Honolulu Night Market on Feb. 15. The free slate of programming also includes film screenings, artist presentations and a breakdancing battle.

"This year we have around 90 artists coming to Kakaako, and walking the area during that period is a lot of fun," Wong said. "All of the art going up creates this amazing energy. People can walk around and meet and chat with the artists."

Each year in conjunction with the festival, Pow Wow holds a handful of youth workshops, bringing in professional mentors to work with students in music, photography and art. Students in the music program will produce an original piece which will then be performed at the block party. Now that the festival is in its 10th year, some of the students from the first workshops have returned as participating artists and mentors.

"It's the communities that make it work," Wong said. "We do the festival and projects in 17 cities around the world now, and it's always the communities in those cities that come out to support it that make it successful. The people and businesses have to be behind it. It's really about community beautification."

The impacts of a project like Pow Wow can be seen right in Kakaako, which has transformed in the decade since the festival first made the neighborhood its headquarters. The area has added a plethora of new restaurants, bars, galleries and shops, the majority of them locally based, and more housing is being added.

"I think public art does a number of positive things for neighborhoods. They become brighter and more welcoming with colorful works of art instead of bland gray or beige walls. More people come out which makes the areas safer with more foot traffic, which also benefits shops and restaurants there."

With community impact in mind, Wong hopes to do more targeted projects in the future, including bringing murals to public housing. As part of Pow Wow Hawaii 2020, artists will be painting an anti-bullying mural at Honolulu's McKinley High School.

"We also have a project in Kathmandu, Nepal, centered around beautifying orphanages and schools," Wong said. "I think that is the direction Pow Wow as a whole is heading in. It's all volunteer. The director, the artists, none of us get paid. So we want to bring the projects and support the communities that really need it."

Closer to home in Hawaii, Pow Wow will be launching its first museum collaboration in November when it curates a street art and mural exhibit at Honolulu's Bishop Museum.

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