Mele Murals


Internationally recognized artist and community organizer Estria Miyashiro returns to Our Kaka‘ako for a series of collaborative murals inspired by song and grounded in tradition.

Text by Sonny Ganaden | Opening image by John Hook | Interior images courtesy of The Estria Foundation

Estria Miyashiro is a bona-fide celebrity in the world of community urban art. His Estria Foundation has nearly completed its Water Writes series, which brings together youth, artists, organizers, and environmental activists to create imagery that reflects the relationship between communities and waters that sustain them. The project took Estria far from his upbringing in Honolulu: murals have gone up in Palestine, the Philippines, El Salvador, and the West Coast of California. A massive collaborative piece was completed in 2011 at the nearly acre-long wall fronting the parking lot of Honolulu Community College. “It was so much work!” Estria says of the murals. “I thought it was going to be my swan song, but pretty quickly, I realized wasn’t about me. It’s about teaching and sharing and having others tell their stories. The Mele Murals project sort of evolved from the lessons we learned from Water Writes, and for me, it’s about getting back home.”


Estria’s medium, graffiti on walls, and its recent iteration has roots in the hot bed of 1970s New York as one of the five pillars of hip-hop culture. Since then, versions of graffiti have evolved as the visual aesthetic for those at the bottom of social hierarchies: people of color, immigrants, kids—what’s been called the “hip hop generation.” Once a target of broken-window theory (which viewed it as urban blight), aerosol art is now receiving institutional support. Landowners and businesses commission work, and some lucky programs have received a modicum of governmental support. Popular graffiti artists blow up walls across the globe.

As for the history of graffiti, and its acceptance into mainstream culture, Estria has seen all that. He’s become something of an ambassador for the communal aspects of the form when he began throwing “battles” a few years ago, in which graff artists step up to walls for timed competitions. One went down in the summer of 2011 on the lawn of Linekona, the Honolulu Museum of Art School, one of the most attended events at the location in recent memory. “The graffiti battles bring the most attention, but bring the least back. It’s rare in the graffiti culture. We’re trying to figure out how to make it at least sustainable, as a way to be more participatory as opposed to a spectator event,” Estria explains. “Battles increase visibility of the name, but we always thought that we’d fight on other topics. That’s where Water Writes and the Mele Murals come in.”


In association with friend and collaborator John “Prime” Hina and his organization 808 Urban, Mele Murals will be a Hawai‘i-based, youth development and community-building project. Over the course of five years, 20 large-scale outdoor murals will span the eight major islands of Hawai‘i, with the base of operations in Our Kaka‘ako. “Prime and I have been building this vision out for almost seven years now,” says Estria. Each mural intends to explore mo‘olelo ‘āina (stories of place) and cultural and historical heritage through an interpretation of traditional Hawaiian mele, or song, under the guidance and approval of kūpuna (elders and ancestors).

Mele Murals will officially kick off in January with a mural done in collaboration with charter school Hālau Kū Māna, but the project is already well underway. Last October, Estria and Prime held a two-day orientation at Fresh Café where high school-aged youth participated in workshops on meditation, mele, oli (chanting), and sketching. “The goal is to build and sustain a public art movement across all the islands, grounded in Hawaiian culture, by training youth to be visual storytellers,” says Estria. The work of Mele Murals, according to the website, attempts to honor the last commands of King David Kalākaua: “Look to the keiki, teach them, groom them, show them wonder, and inspire them.”


Mele Murals is going to be documented in ways few arts programs have been. Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker Tad Nakamura will be producing a feature length documentary on the project through Honolulu-based production companies Pacific Islanders in Communication and ‘Oiwi TV, who will also be filming the process of every mural and broadcasting them online and television. “All this local talent, of artists not ignoring their past but embracing it,” says Tad, “their process is as important as the product for both the film and the murals.”

Though the murals will be Hawai‘i based, the issues each mural will address have universal implications. “There are global problems that are affecting us here in Hawai‘i,” says Estria. “The rising oceans, pollution, the loss of culture—we’re going to try and tackle much of that through the program.”

Finding itself within the traditions of Hawaiian song and the modern vernacular of hip-hop, the Estria Foundation is bringing the dialogue of arts education and cultural preservation to the community through music and large-form visual art. Mele Murals, like the Water Writes program that preceded it, will be as much a community art projects as statements of resistance.

For more information on Mele Murals, visit estria.org/melemurals.

Mele Mural 2014 Schedule

January 2014: 1st mural with Hālau Kū Māna (O‘ahu)

March 2014: 2nd mural with Kanu o ka ‘Āina (Big Island)

August 2014: 3rd mural with Donkey Mill Art Center (Big Island)

November 2014: 4th mural with Kamehameha Schools (O‘ahu)