808 Urban uses graffiti writing to create bright, vibrant wall art throughout Kaka'ako

Building brands within Kaka'ako's development boom

Text David Goldberg

Condominiums are slowly growing in Kaka‘ako, assembled by Godzilla-sized red and yellow exoskeletons that sway in the wind. At the end of the day, construction workers walk past site walls bearing large-format, color photographs of the future they are building. Images of gleaming glass towers promise limitless ocean views, retail convenience and high-end leisure. In addition to architectural renderings, some construction sites are decorated with abstract tropical motifs or portraits of sea life. Others evoke the landed Hawaiian aristocracy and a deeper indigeneity through place names, giant archival photos of taro patches, coconut groves and salt flats.

The three biggest landowners, Kamehameha Schools, Alexander and Baldwin and Howard Hughes, use these visual strategies to sell their developments. But Kamehameha Schools broke the “fourth wall” of promotional brochures, scale models and mural-sized renderings with “Our Kaka‘ako,” a marriage of Waikīkī’s tourist economics, Disney’s cultural truthiness and the privileged isolation of the Waterfront Towers. Kaka‘ako’s first wave of hip businesses, galleries and studios created a living prototype of the modern and local urbanism Kamehameha Schools imagined for future condominium dwellers.

Though “we” live this projection as our present, “Our Kaka‘ako” is not exactly a simulation, as rents and revenues are not paid in Monopoly money. But to call it “real” is perhaps an overstatement of finely honed irony. Everyone involved knows that none of the construction workers, owners of displaced businesses, or local creatives that frequent the area can afford units in these buildings-to-be.

Nevertheless, “we” have grown accustomed to Kaka‘ako’s blend of millennial bohemianism, laptop entrepreneurship, and contemporary art—in a temporary situation that will see today’s flexible warehouse infrastructure consumed by the developers’ next phases. After this taste of what people in other urban cultural centers take for granted, what are we to do with our heightened expectations?

I interviewed three individuals from art and culture projects that contributed to Kaka‘ako’s development and popularization: John “Prime” Hina of 808 Urban, Aly Ishikuni of Art + Flea, and Noah Matteucci of the .5PPI printmaking project. I chose them because their projects are (using a slightly strained word) sustainable.


Ishikuni, Matteucci and Prime are not trying to exploit these unique and sometimes treacherous conditions; rather, they are trying to amplify what these conditions make possible: a transformative amplification of proven, locally supported forms of art, culture and commerce. Their projects do not succeed because of patronage but because their roots predate, and will survive, Honolulu’s development boom.

In Hawai‘i, hip-hop graffiti started in the streets, industrial zones and channelized waterways of O‘ahu, and Prime has been writing for 30 years. 808 Urban, an eight-year-old, youth-driven arts organization, represents graffiti‘s transition into a career path. Raised in Chinatown, Prime bridges the philosophies of, as he says, “the kūpuna who left us everything we need to succeed on the land” and hip-hop’s “hustling mentality that teaches you to stop making excuses.”

Prime's murals sometimes take on political and social elements, such as sovereignty, as in this mural of Queen Lili'uokalani. (Courtesy Suburban)

He uses the Hawaiian expression li‘u ka pa‘akai (“salting of the fish”) to describe the project’s program of cultural preservation. The murals his students plan, design, paint, document and promote today are deeply informed by and precisely aligned with a Hawaiian worldview. They are meant to inspire later generations of city-bound youth (including those who will live in the new high-rises) who will look to the walls for the true history of these islands and their people.

The idea for Ishikuni's Art + Flea pursues a similar strategy. This regular showcase for “pent up creativity” was born during her tenure in Chinatown. In 2010, Queen Street’s Fresh Café brought the creative underground to light. But this early success drew on existing support for swap meets, craft fairs, garage sales and thrift stores. Five years later, the project migrated from a Cooke Street warehouse to one in Ward Village and, today, Ishikuni’s vendors run public workshops in Momi, Art + Flea’s formal retail space.

Just as 808 Urban’s “youth boards” are professionalizing hip-hop graffiti, Ishikuni offers business development tutorials to her vendors. “It’s all going to come down,” she says, gesturing beyond the slick environment of Momi to include all of Ward Village’s shops. “But the only way to keep [Art + Flea] alive is to grow it, to feed local artists to the rest of the world.”

Many hundreds of people show up to shop, explore and appreciate art at Ishikuni's monthly Art + Flea event. (Courtesy photo)

With Art + Flea vendors starting local ventures and building internationally-recognized brands, Ishikuni has also “salted the fish” and developed the mind share that can support those doggedly pursuing the rare full-time, arts-based career in Hawai‘i.

Noah Matteucci is a print maker, a lecturer at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a freelance art teacher. He wryly notes he wouldn’t be able to live in Honolulu as a practicing artist if he hadn’t moved in with his girlfriend. Matteucci has found some professional stability as a member and co-manager of .5PPI, a printmaking collective whose photo-based mosaic murals are immediately recognizable for their pixelated style that resolves into landscapes and portraits when viewed from a distance.

Though Matteucci is not an Art + Flea vendor, he, too, is a part of the same demographic. .5PPI is a loosely affiliated offshoot of the 80-plus year-old Honolulu Printmakers collective. Born at Kaimukī’s (now-defunct) Ektopia gallery, .5PPI sought to increase public participation in the printmaking process and saw tremendous success during an immensely popular installation at Kaka‘ako Agora. Matteucci has since seen the project take off: Alexander & Baldwin sponsored a historically-themed mural at the South Street and Ala Moana construction site.

Like graffiti and swap meets, printmaking’s popularity predates the boom by decades, and feeds audience engagement with .5PPI’s particular mix of interactivity, accessibility and site specificity. Success in Kaka‘ako has provided Matteucci with opportunities at Hanahau‘oli School, a studio space on Auahi Street, and an invitation to the Artists of Hawai‘i exhibition. His is an evolving success story that represents the efforts of many creatives that are trying to make the best of the opportunities that development has introduced.

Honolulu’s real estate developers are not obliged to demonstrate this “sensitivity” for the creative community, and doing so does not mitigate the political, social and thermodynamic impacts of selling the dream of paradise at a time when it has never been more tenuous. However, faced with constrained resources and their projects’ relative differences, Ishikuni, Matteucci and Prime demonstrate that the inherent asymmetry of the development vs. community game can be played according to deeper principles that real estate can neither represent nor control. After all, it is people who respond to the challenges and opportunities of the built environment and it is people who live it and make it real. These three projects remind us that a sudden influx of cash and attention will not make all of our dreams come true, especially if they have been looking right at us all along.


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