Three artists – San Francisco’s Spencer Keeton Cunningham, Oakland’s Skinner, and New Zealand’s Aaron Glasson came together for Pow! Wow! Hawaii! – an international arts festival in which artists (many from street and graffiti pasts) arrive in Honolulu to beautify buildings in the city with art.
Now in it’s fifth year, Pow! Wow! Hawaii! has become the new cultural center to be for artists from around the world to gather and create large scale mural works. Much as Miami’s Wynwood District has had an explosion in street art culture surrounding Art Basel week, head organizers Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar of Pow! Wow! Hawaii! have brought the same energy to this Hawaii based event. Pow! Wow! works at cleaning up Honolulu’s buildings with amazing art from top international artists.
One of the more impressive murals, came from a joint collaboration from artists Spencer Keeton Cunningham, Skinner, and Aaron Glasson with walls provided by the Pow! Wow! Hawaii! family with additional support from PangeaSeed’s Sea Walls: Murals for Oceans program.
We we’re able to interview the artists about their experience creating this massive 200ft mural….
(special thanks to Tre’ Packard for many of the photos):
WARHOLIAN: How did the wall come to be, and how did you guys become part of the project?
AARON GLASSON: The wall is a collaborative piece between Pow! Wow! Hawaii! and PangeaSeed – a non-profit organization focusing on the preservation and conservation of sharks and oceans via art and design. For the past couple of years PangeaSeed has had a project called Sea Walls: Murals for Oceans – which aims to address and bring pressing ocean issues into the streets via large-scale mural art to instill a sense of connection and awareness within local communities. PangeaSeed supporting artists have been painting murals around the globe that address threats specific to the areas oceans, it’s inhabitants and coastlines and it’s ecosystems. Seawalls uses art and creativity as an educational tool, bringing attention to important problems affecting our oceans and encourages positive engagement and responsible action from community members. To date, Sea Walls have been painted in Sri Lanka, Mexico, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and numerous locations in North America. It’s a pioneering project that has great opportunity to really connect communities with these issues.
SKINNER: Tre’ Packard of PangeaSeed invited me to come out as the organization’s guest artist to do a ocean-themed mural and exclusive print release during the festivities. Pow! Wow! Hawaii! brings an insane assortment of talent from all over the world! It was incredible to meet all these artists. Pow! Wow!’s Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar are supported by a bunch of great people who made it all possible by helping in any way they could. There were a lot of vans going back and forth and people distributing paint and offering support! Team effort over there for sure. A lot to balance.
WARHOLIAN: How did you guys decide upon a design?
SKINNER: I decided to offer my ideas and energy to the story of Hawaiian myth and patterns and legends. The shape shifter sharks, the shark tooth patterns and the spirit world.. Spencer was depicting his concerns about the damage of pineapple industries and blobs that have been eating all the orca whales. Neon blobs are the number one whale killers in Spencer’s mind so we banded together to try and destroy as many blobs as possible. Aaron glasson was really good at doing his thing, which is, creating beautiful organic sea life or variations on color and rhythms to produce a really sweet vision of what real sea life and animals are like but mixed with the fantasy world feelings that they inspire.. It’s a fusion of imagination and the beauty of our underwater allies. Our wall was really a sort of building on top of each other’s ideas and kind of allowing it to reveal itself. We also killed many neon blobs along the way. Volcano bros 4 life.
SPENCER KEETON CUNNINGHAM: The design was a free form oceanic acid trip.
AARON GLASSON: We really didn’t decide upon much, the mural just unfolded organically mostly. We all had our respective idea’s of things we wanted to address and managed to merge them all together into a somewhat cohesive painting as we went.
WARHOLIAN: What’s it like being a part of Pow! Wow! Hawaii!?
SPENCER KEETON CUNNINGHAM: I am happy that the name has been modified with exclamation points, it’s an incredible experience – like one big family.
In regards to respecting North American Native communities everywhere. I want to note that although this is an amazing gathering of artists this is not a “Powwow” in a traditional sense, Native people are still here and powwows are a part of the culture today. A powwow is a gathering of first nations and native people for a completely different purpose. The exclamation points were placed there to emphasize a more of a batman/comic book type of exclamation in a sense. I appreciate that it was done.
AARON GLASSON: Pow! Wow! founder, Jasper Wong, has created such a special project – and being part of Pow! Wow! was incredible and such a blessing. I felt surrounded by such open and talented people, constantly. In one week a neighbourhood was completely transformed and beautified. It’s such a great event, I think every city needs one.
SKINNER: It was an honor and hilarious and beautiful. I also didn’t get sunburnt because I use SPF 50 and I’m responsible. I’m an adult now. I make adult decisions. I make adult decisions in paradise, buddy!
WARHOLIAN: Aaron what did you take away from your experience in Hawaii?
AARON GLASSON: I’ve admired Spencer and Skinner’s work for ages, so painting with them was marvelous and I learned quite a bit as well. Compared to the mainland, I think people in Hawaii are generally more conscientiously enjoying their lives, taking their time, healthy, and connected to the natural world – which is contagious. All the visitors seemed so stoked to be here, and the locals were so accommodating and happy to have us. There are definitely mysterious forces at work here, and I feel Hawaii has a special effect on people. All the visitors to Pow! Wow! seemed so excited to be here, and the locals were so accommodating and happy to have us
WARHOLIAN: Spencer how can you sum it up?
SPENCER KEETON CUNNINGHAM: Working with Skinner and Aaron was quite an interesting and fun experience. And in the immortal words of Skinner, the wall “kind of evolved” in an organic way. From start to finish, it was fun the whole way through.
Skinner painted his first whale. I was proud of him. It was a damn good whale. Aaron who is used to creating wild imaginative sea creatures fit right into the mix. We were like 3 brothers from different mothers. At one point of the wall Skinner painted 3 identical volcanoes. It was our little way of compositionally hiding these large fans that were a part of the wall. I stepped back, took a long look at the wall and began to laugh uncontrollably about the intensity at which these volcanoes were blasting lava into the air. I believe Skinner said something about it being a type of metaphor for the way we were blasting onto the hawaiian wall painting scene. To this day (only 4 days since painting) I cannot say exactly why I thought those three volcanoes were so humorous but I could not stop laughing once they were painted. Skinner didn’t take any offense to it, becuase I was not laughing at the volcanoes but just at the absurdity and strangeness of our mural. It’s a mural that has a strong ocean theme with a hint of an odd deranged Jacques-Yves Cousteau acid trip or a plot of the book NAKED LUNCH or a good Aquatic David Lynch film.
I personally wanted to reference a few things covertly in the mural. One being the Pineapple industry historically in Oahu. Dole being a big villian in this context. I also wanted to reference the sugar cane industry with the smokestack we painted. Having a decent amount of experience travelling back and forth to the hawaiian islands to visit family on the island, I always remember the smoke stacks in Maui belowing an endless cloud of rancid smoke on the island. And the layers of plastic embedded in the soil of the pineapple fields.
SPENCER KEETON CUNNINGHAM (cont.): I had collaborated on quite a few murals with New Zealand native, Aaron Glasson and his endless oceanic creativity and I was familar with his ocean life activist artist practices (we once contemplated stealing some sea turtles from an aquarium in Japan and setting them free into the Kamakura ocean side) I have a lot of respect for Aaron and his approach to opening eyes to the way the world currently ignores issues regarding endangered sea life and animal life in general and what we can do to make a postive change. I think that is one thing Skinner, Aaron and I had in common. Skinner refers to us as the Volcano brothers.
When you get a chance to paint something publicly you’re given a chance to try to open the eyes of those blind to the issues that personally plague your everyday thought process. In this case it had to do with Sharks, Orcas, and Sea Life in general. Skinner and I have both had various conversations with Prime and Estria of Oahu about the ramifications of using Sea life and creatures in a public art piece. And I think we did a decent job realizing our vision and at the same time respecting the tradtionals and culture of the original inhabitants of the island.
It was a unique experience from the start of getting our wall blessed by a hawaiian priest to the end of the 6th day painting where we all looked around at each other and laughed at the strange wall that now stood before us. I honestly still dont know what we created. But in the end it came out how we wanted it. The best part of painting the wall, other then having humorous conversations with Skinner and Aaron the entire time, was the reaction from the locals. Some would hang around for 2 hours, others for 20 minutes, but everyone that passed by had something to tell us. It was rare someone would just walk by without interacting with us. Skinner let everyone know we were friendly artists and approachable… which was nice of him.
It was the first time Skinner and I painted together but I had known Aaron and Skinner for quite some time – prior to painting at Pow! Wow! Hawaii!, so it made the collaboration process more fun.
Each day we would meet at the wall early and paint till right after dark. I’m sure I’ll have nostalgical in the future regarding this experience (seeing how I already do a few days after leaving oahu). It was a highlight of my year so far. I’ll remember all the friends and artists I met along the way a well…. including, Jeff Gress, Jasper Wong, Kamea Hadar, Larry Chen, Mikey, Brendan, Andrew Hosner, Marea, Glen Barr, Mike Popso, Gage Hamilton, Mark Madsteez, Rabbi and Davey or Cyrcle, Andrew Schoultz, Gaia, Aaron Kai, Apex, Tre Packard, Akira, my 1xrun Familia, Dan, Jesse, Katie Truhn, Pietro Truba, Persue, Alli, Tati, Augustine Kofie, James Reka, Dabs and Myla, Insa, Roids, Inti, Nychos, Bask, Meggs, Tristan Eaton, Hannah Stoufer, Prime, Estria, Mouse and everyone else who made it happen.
– Interview by Michael Cuffe for Warholian