Honolulu is famous for golden sand beaches and big waves. But the city’s warehouse district, called Kakaako, is famous for a different sort of attraction. You won’t find kitschy Hawaiian souvenir shops or hordes of tourists here, but you will find a thriving urban arts scene, with colorful street murals so big they stretch across walls and sometimes entire sides of buildings.
In one mural, a skeleton with a surfboard in tow flashes the shaka, a Hawaiian hand greeting. In another, a snarling panda ferociously snaps its jaws near a doe-eyed maiden. A third shows a banana in grass skirts dancing a hula with a talking pineapple.
Kakaako sits between Honolulu’s downtown and the touristy Waikiki. In ancient times, the area was home to a native Hawaiian fishing village. In the 20th century, the area industrialized, with warehouses, auto repair shops and car dealerships. The neighborhood has declined in recent years as landowners struggled to find ways to use its prime real estate, smack in the middle of Honolulu.
It wasn’t until 2011 that Honolulu artist Jasper Wong sought to revitalize the area with urban art. Wong created a group called POW!WOW! Hawaii with the goal of beautifying Kakaako and bringing people together through art. Artists from around the globe participated, painting murals on walls across the decaying neighborhood.
Wong says the art represents a unique local style, mixing the elaborate urban graffiti seen in places like Brooklyn, Miami, Tokyo and London with Hawaiian cultural influences and Asian anime. It’s also a far cry from the graffiti-tagging that once plagued the neighborhood.
One of the more powerful murals covers the sides of a building near a popular gym, the UFC Gym at 805 Pohukaina St. The faces of Hawaiian royalty – King David Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani – appear on the wall in a swirling mist of fantasy, history, and social commentary. It was created by native Hawaiian artists Solomon Enos and John “Prime” Hina along with mainland artist Gaia.
For vacationers, the neighborhood’s edgy vibe and urban art offer an appealing alternative to Oahu’s better-known attractions – sunny days at the beach or trips to historic sites like Pearl Harbor. Teens may especially relate to the vivid anime themes, while older viewers will appreciate the area’s Banksy sensibility – yet all the art can be seen outside the confines of a traditional museum.
But the Kakaako murals are not just colorful paintings. Many have political messages and social commentary well beyond anime references and bright spray-paint colors. And while you can spot most of the artwork easily by walking around, some of it is hidden down alleyways and backstreets.
Kakaako also has a smattering of good restaurants including Hanks Haute Dogs (gourmet hot dogs), Highway Inn (Hawaiian plate lunches) and Cocina Hawaii, which serves Mexican cuisine, along with a craft beer brew pub (Honolulu Beerworks) and a hip corner bar (Bevy Bar) serving Spanish tapas and specialty cocktails.
And for spectacular views of Waikiki and Diamond Head, visit the Kakaako Waterfront Park, down Cooke Street and across Ala Moana Boulevard, about 10 minutes from the murals. Surfers and body boarders regularly catch waves right in front of the park’s promenade.
According to Wong, the murals are replaced with new art every February. But with much of Kakaako slated for redevelopment, the old warehouses and buildings that now serve as canvases will eventually be demolished and replaced with residential high rises.
POW!WOW! Hawaii is working with landowners to create initiatives to keep the art alive as the area changes. So visitors to the area might not catch the dancing banana or the faces of Hawaiian royalty, but there’s hope that as time goes on, they'll still be able to see new and equally exciting murals.