As Matthew Agcolicol gestures toward an almost-finished mural in Wailuku Town I notice the tattoo on his arm that reads, “We are the small axe.” The weather has been on-and-off rainy, and, nearby, three Maui-born-and-raised artists are putting the final strokes on the vibrant wall, which only a week ago was a worn and forgotten dirty-white section of a vacant warehouse. Now, it has new life as a piece of public art.
Even from a block away, the new mural is striking. An ‘alala (Hawaiian crow) on the building corner is visible from the top of Main Street as it swoops over verdant mountain peaks into waving strips of kapa cloth. As one moves down the hill, the image flows downstream into scenes of kalo and then silhouetted fish, following the kapa into a hina‘i (traditional fish net). Some small fish escape into a darkened reef, inhabited by an enormous he‘e (octopus).
“Positive change!” enthuses Matt, the project director of the Wailuku murals effort, which includes 16 murals, 18 artists, nine locations, and a partnership with the international nonprofit organization PangeaSeed Foundation. Walking around the mural, we talk about the $80-million-plus improvements planned for the Maui Redevelopment Area, which encompasses both the sites of new murals and the area of the contentious Wailuku Civic Complex. I’m curious about how the art project fits into the planned changes for this town where Matt and I both grew up.
We aren’t the only local kids here.
At the mural, Maui born-and-raised artists Amanda Bowers, Kirk Kurokawa, and Noble Richardson bounce between talking story, taking cover from the rain, and painting. Elmer Bio Jr., the mural’s fourth artist is also a Maui native, but is absent today. Elmer’s 20-foot-tall he‘e on the far side of the mural awaits his return and the other three are reluctant to proceed with a photo shoot because of their missing friend and collaborator. In the end it doesn’t matter. The rain that has been pelting the artists throughout their week-long project picks up too strongly for good photos anyway.
The project with PangeaSeed has been a year-and-a-half in the making, Matt tells me. It’s the product of a network of volunteer artists, countless meetings with property owners, and support from the County of Maui. Years ago, Matt volunteered as an artist with a PangeaSeed project in San Diego, where he went to art school. Since returning home in 2016, he’s made it his mission to facilitate public art on Maui.
“We don’t really have a solidified public art program or means to create art in a way where it’s accessible to visiting artists,” he says. “I think this will be a catalyst.”
PangeaSeed, founded on the Big Island by Tre Packard with the core values of sustainability, education, ecology, and design, dedicates itself to addressing tremendous change (ocean acidification, climate change, plastic pollution, and more) through art – especially public art and murals. Likewise, these four Maui-born artists work at the forefront of tremendous change for Wailuku, in the shadow of a future parking structure and an $84.2-million project that could permanently alter the character of their town.
My curiosity becomes a question: What is the role of art in a world that is changing?
“If you are the big, big tree, we are the small axe//Ready to cut you down, to cut you down.”
When I think of murals, I instantly connect to Mexican painter Diego Rivera, who used artwork to communicate political messages during a period of change. But Matt sees things a bit differently.
“I think it’s an awakening kind of thing,” he says when I ask if the artwork carries a political message. To him, values like responsible consumption and concepts like ecological interdependence “can be portrayed in a beautiful way where people are constantly reminded of them.”
For the 16-mural project, the theme of “Mauka to Makai” (loosely, “Mountains to Ocean”) was selected to guide the artists’ designs, Matt explains. People don’t think of Wailuku as being a coastal town, but our small island ecosystem means that everything immediately influences each other. That’s why recognizing water resources from mauka to makai is so important, he says, and why the team took a field trip of sorts last week.
“Last week Saturday we went from ‘Iao Valley all the way down to Ka‘ehu Bay and saw what was happening in the context of mauka to makai,” says Matt. “So we took a look at the river, then went down, passed by the bridge and saw how the water and everything was going down through this concrete flume and then down into the bay, and seeing the results of how freshwater is affecting a lihikai, or those brackish water systems that should be flourishing the environment or the ecosystem.”
“I think that was more of our intention here, to showcase [the ecosystem] and also raise awareness for ocean environmental issues,” he says. “Art is a catalyst to interpret or showcase these messages.”
PangeaSeed has coined the terms ARTivism and ARTivists for the work it does with artists, stating on its website, “We believe that art, design and new media can transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries inspiring positive global change. PangeaSeed collaborates with today’s most influential creative minds to help give the oceans the voice they so desperately need.”
I ask PangeaSeed director of operations Akira Biondo, who arrives fresh from showcasing the murals on an art walk with local high school students, about artists in a time of change, especially in ground-zero of an area planned for redevelopment and gentrification.
She admits that she is not extremely familiar with the changes planned for Wailuku, but responds, “art definitely plays a role in creating a sense of community and ownership. That’s what we really hope to do, where people really start being proud about where they live, in the place they call home.”
Regarding gentrification, Akira says, “I don’t think this is going to happen in Wailuku. My feeling is that Wailuku has that small-town vibe, and it seems very attached and connected and proud of that already, so I really hope that all the artworks we’ve created will just contribute to the value and people’s community pride rather than take away from that.”
“Taking action and being a part of the community,” Matt adds. “I think that’s important. That’s what changes. You have to be a part of it. You can’t just watch it happen.”
“Often communities wait for things to happen,” says Akira. “It’s typically a small group of activists who will push for a bill or a new policy, and I think there’s definitely a place for that. But also for getting the masses engaged in a non-confrontational manner. And opening up that space for people who may not identify themselves as activists but still have that sense of care.”
“I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts. You know, coal miners used to take birds down into the mines with them to detect gas before men got sick… I continue to think that artists – all artists – should be treasured as alarm systems.”
So with Matt and Akira’s (and Kurt’s) words in my head, I walk around the block, from Uptown Texaco down Main Street and then over to Vineyard Street, to hear more about what the area’s working PangeaSeed artists have to say about the question:
What is the role of the artist and art in a world that is changing?
Matt Agcolicol, Project Director: Art is a universal language. That is all arts – performance, music, visual arts. Somebody might have a totally different interpretation of what the work portrays. It’s something that’s beautiful and also says something that only the viewer can translate themselves.
Noble Richardson, Artist, MAPA Wall: [Art] is good for anywhere. It helps everybody. It helps the kids. We got Punana Leo [Hawaiian-immersion preschool] driving down every day. They get to see something that they’re familiar with. Kids that are not familiar with it get to see something to become familiar with. So when somebody like PangeaSeed comes through and offers this gigantic pedestal to be on, take that opportunity to say something worthwhile. Anybody can do one pretty picture, but that’s what I like about [PangeaSeed]: They bring on the messages… The greater meaning [in the mural], the ‘alala and the hina‘i and the he‘e is: Travel far and beyond and then come home. Bring that knowledge so we can live better. Capture that knowledge, come back, come home. The ‘alala is more like, we’ve always had that education – some of it conservative at times – but the purpose is: Hey, time to be voiceful. Time to be voiceful. Be loud about it. Don’t hold it in anymore. The mana‘o (thought) behind the hina‘i, the fish trap, is: You attain knowledge but don’t hold it in, release some of that. You gotta release some of that. The idea behind the ‘alala is: Speak it. Let it echo.
Kirk Kurokawa, Artist, MAPA Wall: All classes of life, from the rich to the poor, can enjoy the artwork. You’re not going into a gallery or a museum, which can be kind of intimidating for some people. Public art is important for that role: It’s open to everybody and anybody can learn from it. You can take what you got from this piece of art and dialogue about it – it starts something. It keeps a community together that way too… Honestly, at the end of the day I just want people to be happy and feel good about where they’re from. Art is important, because you can say stuff you might not be able to say to a politician, or you can you can voice your opinion in a different way. This is just a different voice. And it opens it up the dialogue for everybody. Politics can learn something from that too.
Amanda Bowers, Artist, MAPA Wall: We wanted to paint something that would spark a question. People would drive by, they didn’t know what bird that was, didn’t know what a hina‘i was. The [‘alala and the hina‘i] are things that were common, and then all of a sudden they’re not. In a world where the environment is rapidly changing, we felt like we just had to remind people. [Public art] reaches everybody. It’s free. You don’t even really have to come up to it to see it. You can just drive by and see. It’s like planting a seed in someone’s mind, or maybe somebody sees this they don’t have any idea what it is, but then later they see something about it and go, “I’ve seen that before.” That’s sparking something new. You can take what you want from it. It’s really a beautiful thing. It really is like the idea of taking what you need and then releasing some of the fish – now they’re not just catching everything. It’s the idea of sustainability and being able to share your knowledge and culture with people around you, just soaking in whatever’s around.
Kamehanaokala, Artist, North-facing Texaco Car Wash Wall: For me art has always been a vehicle for expression, but more so awareness. This is how we share stories and especially in these times I like to reflect on the concept of the past, and how all those lessons and ideas are really important today. I think [art] is another form of expression. This is my voice, this is my weapon. People will take what they do out of it, but it’s supposed to make people think. You don’t necessarily have to have an obvious view, but if it did make someone question something or discussion is created: That is successful.
Gregg Kaplan, Artist, Texaco Kitchen Wall: I don’t know if I have a role, I just like to make art. I mean, I’m sure that I do have a role but I don’t know what it is. I can’t comment: That’s where the time will tell. I hope people appreciate what I’ve done, but I just wanted to create something beautiful and something that pushes my own boundaries. I’m always learning… I hope people are inspired to go make cool stuff too.
Dulk, Artist, South-facing Texaco Car Wash Wall: What I like about street art is that it’s free art for everyone. I think the gallery is for the people with a more specialized interest. But with street art, it’s for all kinds of people walking down the street. That’s the most important thing for me: That you can give to everyone.
Kai Kaulukukui, Artist, Maui Land Brokers Wall: I think artists are some of the most important creatives coming up in this changing world because with automation happening so many jobs are going to disappear. It’s going to create a vacuum where if we don’t embrace the creativity of people then we might just get lost in technology and the change. I was just reading about the [Wailuku Civic Complex] this morning and it seemed like it’s good and bad. But it’s just a loaded question, I don’t know. The point of the mural project is to get messages out there, to expose keiki, the next generation, to these ideas. Like, why exactly this particular fish? Or why does she have a coral hat? Mine will show trash. It’ll make them think. We get a platform to just say what we want and if you’re not really saying anything, what’s the point of saying it, you know? There’s something called an art wash that happens in a town where it’s broken down, it’s cheap, nobody wants to be there, so artists come and then a really good coffee spot opens. And then the next thing you know that neighborhood is alive again; they tear down the old buildings, build new ones, and kick the artists out… and it’s all part of growing I guess. But the hope is always to get the message out to kids. My hope is that – my wall particularly – kids will take the message, like “I saw that turtle on the wall. It was choking on plastic” and if they’re on the beach and they see plastic maybe they’ll just grab it and throw in their backpack – you know just the little things like that.
Lauren Brevner, Artist, Kama‘aina Loan Cash for Gold Wall: I think the one thing that art does is it creates culture. That’s what I see my job as, as an artist: that culture. But sometimes what ends up happening is, we come in, we do these murals, and it kind of changes the scene because it’s so well received. And at this point, I think when I see people walking by, connecting with my art, I’m so happy and that’s what I want to do. I wanted to create a piece that connected to children and wasn’t super conceptual in any way – that anybody can connect with, look at, and get something from. Artists are always going to be a good thing. What comes after that I can’t really comment on.
Alexandra Underwood, Artist, 1975 Vineyard Wall: Our topic is ocean acidification. It’s such a heavy, depressing thing. You know, you’re doing all this research and you feel helpless, but – doing murals and just talking to people about it – is a positive way to do activism and it gets people excited and draws them in. I haven’t read enough about [redevelopment in Wailuku], I just heard it was happening. If we could incorporate art into that and make it more of a cultural center, I think it’ll make people feel like they’re a part of it.
Joey Rose, Artist, 1975 Vineyard Wall: With this project especially, the biggest role the artist has is as an educator – so, art as a way to educate people about issues or cultural things that need to be brought to light in a positive way. Public art, especially, is a total equalizer. Anyone can come and it doesn’t matter.
Learn more about the Wailuku murals by taking a walk around Wailuku Town and seeing them first hand. Or, visit SmallTownBig.org and follow SmallTownBigArt on social media. Learn more about PangeaSeed Foundation by visiting PangeaSeed.org and following PangeaSeed on social media.
Cover design by Darris Hurst, photo by Sean M. Hower
Photos 1, 2, 5 & 6 by Axel Beers
Photso 3 & 4 courtesy PangeaSeed
Photo 7 courtesy SmallTownBigArt
Video by MarQ Morrison – MightyMovies.org