Water Writes is a series of 10 collaborative mural projects in 10 cities across the globe. The theme of water connects the participating communities and documents the current local and international water crises. Water Writes Hawai‘i, a 5,400 square foot mural, was the third project in the series.
A boom box blasted ’80s hit “Renegades of Funk.” Lifts beeped as artists set up to paint 15 feet in the air. The sun beat down on the concrete and asphalt lot. And Hawai‘i-born-and-raised graffiti artist Estria looked out upon the outline of a larger-than-life Queen Lili‘uokalani, who in turn gazed upon her land.
“For Hawaiians to paint a mural of the queen? That’s never happened before,” Estria said. “After we did the outline last night, and we turned off the projector to check it out, I kind of started tearing up. That’s our queen. Our queen painted by Hawaiians? Wow. That makes it for me.”
The 5,400-square-foot mural that will stand permanently on a wall donated by company JBL Hawaii isn’t just about the last of Hawaiian royalty. The queen was chosen because she stressed the need for water to remain a public trust resource. The crew of accomplished graffiti artists had assembled for Estria Foundation’s Water Writes project. Most of these artists were organized locally by graffiti artist Prime and his collective 808 Urban.
More than 20 graffiti artists contributed to the mural, the largest of Estria Foundation’s Water Writes series. With 10 locations worldwide, Water Writes is using graffiti to raise international awareness of water issues – a theme with astoundingly different manifestations around the globe. For example: disappeared water rights activists in Columbia; the role of mangrove trees for the greater good in El Salvador; the request of schoolchildren in Palestine for drinking water because there wasn’t enough to make it through the day.
After graduating from ‘Iolani School, Estria moved to San Francisco to study fine arts and illustration. He was arrested there in 1994 for creating his art illegally. The arrest helped prompt the combination of his art form and community activism when, during his mandatory community service, he saw corruption in the departments he volunteered with.
“It made me realize that I need to speak out and use my art,” he said. “Doing these kinds of murals, we engage communities. Youth groups, water groups, artists, they don’t usually interact. You’re increasing the awareness of the community and supporters about each other and the issues.” This is where the project sets itself apart from the current urban art scene. Water Writes maximizes the form’s potential to be a communal, visual catalyst while avoiding the derailing of urban art’s foundation caused by setting it inside an exhibit.
“The museum is the street,” said Eukarezt, a local graffiti-turned-tattoo artist. “If there’s something behind what you paint or something you’re trying to say, that’s going to speak volumes to people because they pass by it every day.”
Eukarezt, who contributed to the mural, has traveled the world to teach and do murals with youth. His classes, which have been held in areas such as Palestine and Australia, are as structured and planned as high school history courses. His lesson plan looks something like this: identity, then signature style, techniques, and to end, the bigger picture, from history to ongoing urban arts.
“For at-risk youth, the areas where they live have graffiti,” said Eukarezt. “They see it on a daily basis. The graffiti artists become like folk heroes to them. With graffiti artists like Prime or Estria, if they involve the community in painting with them, the kids will be inspired and be stoked to want to do greater things.”
For several of the projects, Estria Foundation has held workshops with youth to come up with the mural inspiration. For the Palestine project, youth at the elementary schools where the murals will be done will even be helping to paint. For Water Writes Hawai‘i, Prime and Estria themselves met with representatives of Earthjustice to design the mural. From Kapua Sproat and Isaac Moriwake, they learned that plantations diverted stream water from Hawai‘i sources for private benefit during their heyday, despite the state constitution declaring water as a public trust resource. Earthjustice’s current campaign, Restore Stream Flow, is focused on Na Wai ‘Eha, four water sources on Maui still being drained for the benefit of remaining private organizations. One such diversion dam on ‘Īao Stream is depicted being broken in two by the “F” of “Flow” in the mural’s top left corner.
To look at this mural is to be awed by graffiti: its accessibility, complexity, and decades of refined technique. The mural directs the viewer’s eye from the powerful queen to the traditional ahupua‘a (land division). To the left and right of the queen run the words, “Flow mauka to makai, mountain to ocean.” To her left, renditions of futuristic ahupua‘a and sustainable resources abound. Featured within the work are devices that harness wave energy, a water wheel and wind turbines. The longer you look, the more there is to be uncovered.
Which is good, because the mural will continue to stand on Kokea Street for all to see, along with the murals around the world – at least as long as their communities fight for them and the water issues the murals embody. “I’d like it to become a movement where we don’t own it, with other people doing murals about water, and they’re not even connected to us,” said Estria. “And with kids all over the world eyeing these new murals, chances are, water-inspired tags will pop up in the least likely places. It’s up to the community to decide if they want to attempt to pressure-wash them away or find a way to welcome the means, finally, with open arms.”
In fact, all four of the murals so far, from Oakland to Honolulu have kicked off with a day of rain – or, in the case of the Philippines project, a monsoon. Looks like the rain gods and graffiti artists agree.
Check out the Water Writes Hawai‘i mural located at 905 Kokea Street, behind Honolulu Community College.
Click here for directions from Waikiki Shore to Water Writes Hawai'i mural.