Pow! Wow! Hawaii promoting the arts in Honolulu

Pow! Wow! Hawaii invites an international roster of artists, such as Kevin Lyons seen here, to paint murals and participate in a variety of events in Honolulu for a week long festival every February.
Pow! Wow! Hawaii invites an international roster of artists, such as Kevin Lyons seen here, to paint murals and participate in a variety of events in Honolulu for a week long festival every February. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pow! Wow! Hawaii

For Honolulu-born curator, artist and illustrator Jasper Wong, a successful piece should be like a punch in the face.

Back in 2010, Wong was living in Hong Kong after attending art school in San Francisco, and was trying to make a living off his art. The Chinese art dealers were hyperfocused on what was marketable and could sell, according to Wong, and he grew frustrated. He got the idea to open his own gallery and hold an art event that celebrated art for its own sake, whether or not it can be sold or will last for any period of time. He called it Pow! Wow!

"'Pow' is that impact art has on a person," Wong, 35, said. "I took it from the comic books, that iconic image of the punch depicted with a 'Pow!' And, 'Wow' is the reaction of the viewer."

By 2011 Wong had moved back to his hometown and started exploring holding a similar event in Hawaii. He formed a non-profit and dedicated Pow! Wow! to bringing opportunities for artists and promoting creativity and arts education in the communities they visit.

"I was always interested in art growing up, but was mostly self-taught," Wong said. "It was my passion growing up, and I loved cartoons and comic books."

The organization is now based out of the Kakaako neighborhood of Honolulu, and the weeklong Pow! Wow! festival Is held there every February. Additionally, Pow! Wow! takes its show on the road, holding 10 events in 10 cities in 2016.

This year Pow! Wow! Hawaii runs Feb. 8-18 and includes a breakdancing competition, artist talks and workshops, and the robust mural project at the heart of each year's program.

Approximately 50 artists will complete roughy a similar number of murals. About half of the artists are from Hawaii, and several hail from California and New York, but there also representatives from Japan, Australia, South Korea, Spain, Germany and Canada.

New this year is the inaugural Pow! Wow! foot golf tournament (like golf played by kicking a soccer ball into holes), which will be held on the last day of the festival. The majority of the events are free and open to the public.

"We pretty much keep the same structure for the festival each year but try to add one or two new things to mix it up and see what works well," Wong said.

The mural program officially kicks off Feb. 12, and visitors can see artists working on numerous artworks around the Kakaako area. By focusing on murals, Wong found, the festival naturally met his criteria of art for the public good that highlights the process and community involvement.

"You can bring together several artists to collaborate on one big wall, you can't sell a mural on a wall so it takes away that aspect. People get to the see the artists at work and how the process works, and I think that makes it more inspirational. And murals are ephemeral. Public art doesn't last forever. It will get weather damaged or painted over."  

Filling out the schedule is a block party on Feb. 10 alongside the Honolulu Night Market, an exhibition curated by Thinkspace at the Honolulu Museum of Art, and a limited-edition print exhibition presented by Detroit based 1xRun at Lana Lane Studios.

True to Wong's mission of promoting arts education and youth involvement, Pow! Wow! also hosts both a music and an arts clinic. The music students write and compose their own songs with the guidance of different professional mentors, including DJs, producers and working musicians, and then play the tunes live at a show concluding the workshop.

"We sort of throw them in the deep end and see how they swim," Wong said.

The art school uses graffiti to teach students about color theory, composition, typography and other skills.

"We use graffiti because that's what many of these kids are most in tune with based on the music they listen to and the clothes they wear," he said. "They are more connected to graffiti than say Renaissance art or still life."

Today, some of the students from the very first Pow! Wow! classes are participating artists in the festival, preparing to add their own murals to the Honolulu landscape. Wong has plans to do events in Cleveland, San Francisco, Manila and Rotterdam in 2018, and hopes to continue fostering the arts in Honolulu and every community the organization visits.

"I hope the people who come to Pow! Wow! Hawaii get inspired," Wong said. "I hope they spend time in the neighborhood, explore it, check out small businesses in the area, and find a new reason to visit. Most of all, we want to grow the arts community in Hawaii."

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