Local Artists Paint Honolulu’s Streets With Surprising Hawai‘i-Inspired Art
It’s not just about massive murals. Some local artists are going smaller scale with their street art.
“This painting was inspired by Hawaiian legends of mo‘o and my daughter’s zodiac sign, the dragon,” says artist Gemma Hazen. “I’ve been working at the restaurants at the corner of Ninth and Wai‘alae for over a decade so it felt really special to leave my mark on a box nearby!”
Drive through Kaimukī and you might notice brightly painted electrical boxes along the side of the road. Or large colorful cement planters and boxes featuring nature scenes while strolling through Chinatown.
Kaka‘ako isn’t the only neighborhood getting decked-out with pop-up paintings. More and more local artists and art collectives are teaming up to beautify Honolulu’s streets with surprising works.
ARTIST LYDIA MATIAS SPECIALIZES IN PAINTING NOSTALGIC SCENES OF OLD HAWAI‘I. “I PAINTED THE THREE AUNTIES WEARING MU‘UMU‘U ON THE BOX FIRST. THEN A FRIEND CAME TO VISIT ME WHILE I WAS WORKING, AND SHE’S ALWAYS WEARING A MU‘UMU‘U AND LITTLE STRAW HAT, SO I DECIDED TO PAINT HER ON THE BOX, TOO,” SHE SAYS.
“Painting the gray traffic boxes [in Kaimukī] started out as an idea that the friend of a neighbor suggested, based on similar public art projects on the Mainland,” says Jennifer Noel, founder of the grassroots community art organization Street Art Hawai‘i. “But it took at least a year and a half of just floundering around, trying to figure out how to go about it.”
The traffic signal boxes are under the purview of Honolulu’s Department of Transportation Services so Noel had to get the city’s approval. She also had to use a certain kind of paint (a water-based latex exterior house paint) and ensure there would be no religious symbols or advertisements on the city property.
“WITH THE DRIPPY PALM TREES, I WANTED TO PAINT SOMETHING THAT WOULD BE EASY TO TAKE IN AT A GLANCE WHILE DRIVING, USING COLORS THAT ARE SOOTHING BUT ALSO HAPPY,” SAYS ARTIST LAUREN ROTH. “MY BIGGEST HOPE IS THAT IT BRIGHTENS PEOPLE’S DAY.”
Noel connected specific boxes with more than two dozen local artists—including Kahi Ching, Ryan Higa, Kim Sielbeck, Lauren Roth and Boz Schurr—and hosted two-day box painting marathons along Wai‘alae and Harding avenues in December and February. Only two days because Noel had to organize lane and road closures to ensure artists’ safety, and the money needed to shut down parts of main thoroughfares—which Street Art Hawai‘i had to come up with—quickly adds up. She also worked with nearby schools; 10 high school art students at Saint Louis School and an art student at Kaimukī Christian School joined the project. “Kaimukī has been tremendous in their appreciation; businesses were giving drinks and snacks to artists who were painting as thanks,” says Noel.
“The two boxes I painted were near the freeway exit and, while I worked, people would drive by, cheer, say hello and thank me,” says artist Boz Schurr. “It was a really overwhelmingly positive reaction from the neighborhood.”
Conservation biologist Kayleigh Chalkowski spent several years working for various bird conservation groups, including the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project and Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, as well as at the Hanalei and Kīlauea National Wildlife Refuges. Last year she submitted a proposal for a public art project relating to Native Hawaiian wetland animals.
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“I’ve been lucky to be able to pursue a passion where I’m able to be around wildlife all the time and kind of experience it firsthand,” says Kayleigh Chalkowski. “I’m glad I could share that with others.”
Hawai‘i FEAST (“Funding Emerging Artists with Sustainable Tactics”) has a quarterly community dinner where artists present proposals for public art projects, with the most popular project receiving the proceeds from the ticket sales to make it happen. Chalkowski pitched the idea of an outdoor painting that celebrated native wetland birds, fish and plants. “I was working to reintroduce native and endangered wetland birds back to Honolulu but I thought this could also be a fun way to pay homage to these creatures,” she says. “It was also a way to sort of familiarize people with wildlife that they don’t see every day.”
Chalkowski’s original proposal was to create a mural on Pauahi Street, but that turned tricky. Many buildings in Chinatown are registered as historic, making murals a nonstarter. Around the same time though, the city was installing sidewalk bulb-outs, expanding the walk into the street to slow traffic at certain intersections. “There were these giant drab cement pots that people weren’t happy with, so the project shifted to painting these instead,” says Chalkowski. Using a latex base paint covered with high density acrylic, Chalkowski spent a week painting nature scenes with native bird species, such as the ‘alae ‘ula (mud hen), ae‘o (stilt), koloa (duck) and the nēnē.
Michael Amerino, fine arts department chair at Saint Louis School, asked students in his beginner art class to come up with ideas based on Kaimukī, then the class combined them to make a single design to paint on a box. “This was the first time these kids could see their artwork out in public and it really builds their self-esteem,” Amerino says.
The outdoor art has been a way for the community to come together, sometimes in unusual and touching ways. Local artist Luke DeKneef was working on one of the Kaimukī boxes when he was inspired to begin painting a portrait of a young woman. According to Noel, a guy driving by on Harding Avenue pulled over and very emotionally approached DeKneef, saying that he came from the hospital where his girlfriend’s mother just passed away, and the young woman looked exactly like her in her youth. “The guy showed Luke a picture of his [girlfriend’s] mother, he showed me and sure enough, it’s very similar. The guy said he lives in the area so now every time he goes by, he’s reminded of the memory of [her].”