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Hawaiian artist’s enormous murals are ambitious in scale and message

<i>Ryu Yamane</i><br/>Hawaiian artist's enormous murals are ambitious in scale and message.
Ryu Yamane
Hawaiian artist's enormous murals are ambitious in scale and message.

Sherry Liang, CNN

Honolulu, Hawaii-based artist Kamea Hadar has lost count of how many murals he’s painted in his career — his best guess is at least 50 over the past decade.

He’s painted a larger-than-life portrait of former US president Barack Obama on the side of a Honolulu law firm and wrapped a Lamborghini with vinyl of his floral art. He once spent two months painting on an upside-down site when the owner of Honolulu’s Vintage Cave Café wanted him to paint his arched ceiling “like Michelangelo,” Hadar recalled in a phone interview.

But for four weeks from October to November, Hadar painted a 12-story building on the corner of South King and Pensacola Streets in Honolulu, for his most intricate and largest project yet by square footage. (His tallest is 15 stories.)

At 155 feet tall and 60 feet wide, Hadar’s mural pays homage to the “ambassadors of aloha” — surfing champions Carissa Moore and Duke Kahanamoku, who are each record-setters in their respective generations.

Moore made history in July as the first women’s Olympic surfing champion, when surfing made its debut at the Games. Decades before Moore was born, Olympic swimmer Kahanamoku earned his moniker as the “father of modern surfing,” when he popularized the centuries-old Hawaiian sport around the world. This mural depicts the two Hawaiian icons side by side in Hadar’s signature photo-realistic portraits — a hybrid between fine art and street art styles.

“Hawaii is a special place, and the people here are full of ‘aloha,’ which is that love, that friendliness,” Hadar said. “Carissa and Duke are very much ambassadors of aloha, and they spread that aloha around the world.” He added: “I try to do the same with my art. I think that with positivity and aloha, you can make the world a better place — a happier place.”

Ballet meets breakdance

Raised in Hawaii, Hadar has been painting his entire life. In his teens, Hadar traveled abroad to France, Spain and Israel for a “traditional” fine art background, he said. He apprenticed under a French impressionist painter in Paris and studied at the Tel Aviv University.

While he was training, Hadar said his friends back home were practicing other art forms, like tattooing and graffiti.

“What I like to joke about is while my friends were learning to breakdance, I was dancing ballet,” Hadar said.

In 2010, Hadar and his high school friend Jasper Wong formed Pow! Wow!, a gallery-show-turned-mural festival. The festival has traveled to over a dozen cities, produced nearly a thousand murals and greatly influenced the development of Hadar’s visual style. The artists he worked with also taught him how to scale his paintings larger, he explains.

“That very traditional portrait painting side, combined with this graffiti street art culture has turned into large-scale murals of people,” Hadar said. “That’s where my world and the world of my peers in high school that were graffiti artists intersect. And now we’re all basically muralists.”

Building a mural

Painting a stories-tall building requires meticulous logistical planning, from considering the vantage points of passersby to learning how to safely hang off the side of a 15-story building with swing stages — the same infrastructure used by window washers.

Then, there are the elements Hadar can’t control. Painting outside leaves Hadar “at nature’s mercy,” he said — wind, humidity, heat, sun and rain can all affect the paint and swing stages. While in Taipei in 2014, Hadar watched his painting of Taipei Dreams “go down the drain” on a particularly wet day, he recalled.

Kamea said physical effort and planning aside, watching the progress day-by-day is gratifying.

“It’s nice to be tired at the end of a long workday, but see exactly what you achieved that day,” Hadar said. “It’s nice to have that tangible reward.”

As for his inspiration, Hadar says that it can take many forms. Sometimes it’s a message, like a public service announcement for voter turnout. Other times, it’s a person — like his two-story portrait of Obama, titled “Hapa” (the Hawaiian word for half, or mixed-race heritage), painted over a transcription of Obama’s 2008 speech on racial equality.

Hadar also mines his own personal experiences — after becoming a father in summer 2016 (in the middle of painting his mural of Obama), he found himself drawn to projects depicting fatherhood.

“She’s at the age now where she knows that’s daddy’s drawing,” Hadar said of his 5-year-old daughter. But he doesn’t think she understands the depth or scale of his murals just yet.

A ‘sense of place’

Hawaii — as a place and source of inspiration — is ubiquitous across Hadar’s murals.

Hadar said a “sense of place” is significant to Indigenous cultures in Hawaii. The land, for example, is traditionally divided by natural water boundaries into areas called “ahupua’a.” Hadar researches these boundaries in his planning stages and takes guidance from experts to respect the land and its history.

“I grew up my whole life in Hawaii … but I’m not native Hawaiian,” Hadar said. “When I touch on a lot of these subjects, I’m talking about ancient Hawaii, I’m talking about Hawaiian culture, using Hawaiian words. Those are all things I’ve learned. I try, very much, to always be sensitive to the native Hawaiian community.”

A building mural will last anywhere from five to 20 years before it wears out, Hadar said. In the meantime, he hopes the scale and subjects of his work can inspire people to “do whatever they want to do,” even if that means scaling a 15-story building.

“I think great art can come from love and aloha,” Hadar said.

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