Inside Hawaii’s POW! WOW! Worldwide Street Art Festival

POW! WOW! Hawaii 2016 takes place next month from February 6th to 13th in Downtown Honolulu.

POW! WOW! Festival Honolulu Hawaii cook

POW! WOW! is an international art sensation and festival that everybody should be talking about. With its humble origins in Honolulu, Hawaii, POW! WOW! is an arts festival with a special emphasis on street art, though it’s open to all forms of art such as sculpture, video and installations, that takes place in various cities around the world every year. During each POW! WOW! event, brilliant artists from all over the world gather and take over a city for a week to create original murals and artworks, not for profit, in order to leave them to decorate the city once the festival is over.

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The biggest annual POW! WOW! event takes place in Honolulu every February, and I got to speak with the artist and mastermind behind POW! WOW! Worldwide, Jasper Wong, to learn more about this amazing cultural phenomenon.

POW! WOW! Festival Honolulu Hawaii

How did you get the idea for POW! WOW!?

I was in art school in San Francisco, but in art school they don’t really teach you how to turn your ideas into physical form. So when you’re in art college they teach you technical skills and conceptual thinking but they never really teach you sort of the process of how to then develop your ideas. For example if I wanted to make a book or a bag, how do I do that?

So then I left San Francisco and I moved to Hong Kong to learn about that because I knew that China was one of the manufacturing capitals of the world and I knew that Hong Kong was a gateway to that, so I moved there to learn. And when I was living there, I wanted to continue doing art exhibits, art shows and different things like that because I became engrossed in that culture when I was living in the Bay Area.

I would take my portfolio around to different galleries but I kept getting rejected because they told me that I’m the wrong kind of Chinese. Basically at that time, and still to a degree now in that city, the hot commodity is male and Chinese art. So if you’re from Shanghai, Beijing or any of those cities, people are interested in art from those regions. But because I was Chinese American, I didn’t have as much potential to sell my work as someone from those areas. So I couldn’t get my work into any shows or anything like that, which was a big surprise because I was doing a lot of shows when I was in San Francisco.

POW! WOW! Festival Honolulu Hawaii street art

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As a reaction to it, I decided to open my own gallery. So I found an old abandoned restaurant, which was abandoned for about a decade, and we painted the walls white, put a front door in and said “it’s a gallery now.” The very first show we did there was our very first POW! WOW!.

The idea was just to bring my friends together and open up that process to the public. A lot of the time when you go to an opening at a gallery show, the process that led to the work is a lot more interesting. So we wanted to sort of do this open studio gallery where we just had a bunch of blank canvases on the walls and artists would be there to create the work and you could come and watch them create the work for that show while the work is already hung.

So we did that and at the end we wanted to destroy the majority of the art as a reaction to the financial nature of art. We wanted to harken back to the time when we would create art for fun, for the love of it. We didn’t create work to try to sell work. As a reaction, we tried to destroy most of it at the end. And those same ideas are prevalent now with POW! WOW!, like doing a lot of your own work and different work that is more for public viewing. It’s on walls so we can’t sell them. It’s just public work that we’re creating and that’s also ephemeral because those don’t live on forever.

POW! WOW! Festival Honolulu Hawaii luiseono

That was the first POW! WOW! and we wanted to do it somewhere else. So we decided to bring it back to my hometown of Hawaii, back in 2011. And we did one mural, we had 12 artists and we had a bunch of canvases and we did the similar thing with us destroying work and everything like that. The same concepts. Then the year after we thought maybe we’ll just do more murals and maybe do like a neighbor’s building. But then the following year we ended up doing the whole neighborhood, in Kaka’ako. And now the last POW! WOW! we had about 100 artists painting over 70 murals over a period of a week, so it’s kind of transformed and changed since then. We have an art school and a music school for kids. We’ve expanded to different countries like Japan, Taiwan, and places like Long Beach, California, to working with South By Southwest in Austin, Texas—so it’s definitely evolved and changed over time.

What exactly is POW! WOW! and what can one expect from attending an event?

The name actually originally came from comic book culture. So POW is sort of like an Adam West Batman show like POW, and there’s a punch in the face and that’s how I always felt was the impact the art has on the viewer. And WOW is the reaction to that. But at the same time powwow together is a Native American term that talks about a gathering to celebrate culture, music and art, and that’s sort of what we’re trying to do.

First we’re trying to bring people from all over the world to come together through art: working with local artists and flying in lots of artists, doing murals and different art installations, different projects, etc. and opening that up to the public. So we have tons of people within a period of a week creating lots of different types of art in one area and then working together, collaborating, getting to know each other, building bridges, etc. and all that stuff is open to the public. They can come by and see all that happening.

POW! WOW! Festival Honolulu Hawaii kamisasu

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Secondly, we want to educate. We’ll have art and music schools for kids, we’ll have different workshops and we’ll have different talks and lectures. We’re doing art exhibits in the museum and different things like that. And then we’ll also have a concert at the end, like a finale concert, and a big party to celebrate everything.

So it’s about various events happening over a period of a week. It’s more of an art and music festival because we’re working with different bands, different musicians, different visual artists, different designers and all types of creative people just coming together.

How has the event grown into the international sensation that it is today? Where can we experience POW! WOW! events around the world?

A lot of the time with the international events, we end up working with groups of people in those cities that are very passionate about art and they want to bring it to their city, and we try our best to sort of guide them and help them make that a reality. It’s all about finding people that just want to do the same thing and do what we did in our hometown in their own hometowns. So that’s how it started to grow. It’s just groups of passionate people all over the globe and we’re helping out people who want to create these sorts of festivals.

POW! WOW! Festival Honolulu Hawaii case

We’ve done it already in Taiwan, Japan, Long Beach, Austin and of course Hawaii and in Hong Kong. We’re also helping people in cities like Singapore, Israel, Jamaica, Washington D.C., Guam, all over the place.

They’re all like different versions of the one in Hawaii, some are smaller scale and in certain places some are larger in scale. And all those murals are permanent, so if you head to some of those cities then you’ll see some of our murals populating the city.

How do you find the artists that participate in these festivals?

A lot of them are really like friends, just people I feel like are going to do something interesting, or people who have been doing a lot of interesting work throughout the year. And we just reach out to them. Some guys I’ve known for a long time, some guys I’ve maybe only known through email. The industry itself and all the artists involved all over the world is like pretty small. We’re probably all two degrees separated from each other, so it’s really easy to bring together this larger global family to one place.

POW! WOW! Festival Honolulu Hawaii bakibaki_mon

What effect has POW! WOW! had on Hawaii?

I think in a way it has sort of broadened people’s minds to art. I think one thing that I’ve always noticed doing different art exhibits, whether in galleries or outside of that, is that there’s a barricade between the general public and say, traditional institutions such as art museums or galleries. A lot of people feel like they don’t belong there or they don’t even want to be there. Like they don’t know if it’s really for them, or there’s really just no interest in it a lot of the time. At my gallery in Hong Kong we’d have so many people just like look at what’s inside from outside the windows and they wouldn’t want to come in for some reason, even though I’d try to convince them to. They felt like it wasn’t their culture, it wasn’t part of their worldview and they weren’t necessarily invited.

And so, by putting art in the streets, it kind of breaks those barriers down because then it’s right in front of you. Now it’s on the building that you pass by and walk by every day. And those walls which were once blank that you never cared about, now you pay attention to them. Now it becomes a part of your daily life, where you take pictures in front of it or you tell people about it.

And with just that it kind of changes the way that people view neighborhoods. You know in Kaka’ako, no one would really walk around that area. There was no real reason to, it’s like just a bunch of warehouses, a bunch of beige and grey walls, a bunch of auto mechanics. And now people are like “I’m going to go explore the neighborhood,” and they’ve probably never really done that before. And with just that [the area] changes. Some businesses pop up, some more events pop up. Different people start using those walls, whether it be for graduation photos, lookbooks, etc. Just the act of putting paint on walls changes the way that people view that area.

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We change most of the murals every year, although in some cities we just leave them and they become permanent fixtures and landmarks of that city. In some cases where the walls are more limited we might change them around. I like to think of them as an open air gallery, where the show goes on for like a year or two, and then you come back and there’s different artwork that you can keep on exploring and finding new things every year.

POW! WOW! Hawaii 2016 takes place next month from February 6th to 13th in Downtown Honolulu. Follow @powwowworldwide on Instagram for updates about artists that’ll be attending, as well as daily photos of amazing street art from around the world.

Photos: POW! WOW!

Nadia Cho contributor profile

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