the colorful, whimsical streets of kakaako

Michelle Liu
January 30, 2024

Smiling monsters lurking, a giant honu swimming in the ocean, the voyaging canoe Hokulea under the night sky guided by the stars. These are just some of the murals that bring the former industrial area of Kakaako to life.

Three of the murals you'll find around Kakaako.

“We envisioned a lively, exciting, and slightly gritty vibe reflecting the neighborhood’s character, creativity, cultural history, and sense of place,” says Gary Evora, spokesperson for Kamehameha Schools, which owns the nine city blocks where these vibrant murals adorn the walls.

It’s all part of the schools’ Kaiaulu o Kakaako Master Plan. The goal is to develop the community into Our Kakaako – a trendy, healthy, family-friendly neighborhood that also commemorates the area’s history.

Historic salt flats
In ancient times, Kakaako was home to fishponds and salt fields. A mural that welcomes visitors to SALT at Our Kakaako pays tribute to the cultural and historical changes that have shaped the area.

Artists Matthew and Roxanne Ortiz pay tribute to history with their mural.

The orange crystals near the bottom represent the salt fields and the blue represents the fishponds. The gears symbolize the industrial era of Kakaako, which began in the 1800s.

Inside SALT, you’ll find more murals that depict Hawaiian history. King Kalakaua sits in a horse-drawn carriage, returning to Hawaii after becoming the first Hawaiian monarch to tour the globe.

Taum and Beamer honor King Kalakaua with their art.

“The King had great visions for his people and aspired to unite the Pacific as one Oceanic nation,” says Cory Kamehanaokala Taum, who teamed up with another local artist, Kahiau Beamer, to paint the mural. “We hope to share stories that celebrate the greatness of our Hawaiian ancestors’ worldly achievements.”

There are also pieces that pay tribute to traditional Hawaiian celestial navigation, Hawaiian alii (royalty), and well-known islanders with deep roots in Kakaako.

“While each mural has its own distinct style, the pieces work together to tell stories of interest with strong ties to Hawaii,” says Evora. “We wanted to pay homage to those who came before us, including the early Hawaiians, generations of multicultural immigrants, and industries and small businesses that were instrumental in shaping the history of Kakaako.”

An art hub
Kamehameha Schools partnered with POW! WOW! (now known as World Wide Walls) and local nonprofits to create this community of art. At SALT alone, there are 16 murals.

Inside The Barn at SALT.

“SALT has become a canvas for large-scale paintings to express emotions, perpetuate Native Hawaiian culture, and share the moolelo of our kupuna,” says Evora.

More than 1,000 artists from Hawaii and around the world have created 100 murals throughout Our Kakaako. Sergio Garzan is among them. The Colombian artist was inspired to paint Oahu’s famous Pali Lookout. The scenic point offers panoramic views of the Koolau cliffs and lush Windward coast. It’s known for its strong, howling winds.

Garzan used a watercolor technique to create the Pali Lookout. 

“The Pali Lookout is a powerful and mystical landmark on our island,” says Garzan. “I wanted to convey that in this land of fertility, there’s always something soothing the soul and giving life a chance to grow, even in scary places.”

Life-sized cartoons
The murals aren’t limited to Hawaiian history. There are local flora, fauna, and the natural environment, as well as fantastical creatures, characters, and scenes. Derick Fabian chose to bring one of his favorite Japanese anime movies to life by combining two iconic characters with local culture.

Fabian's whimsical take on the film My Neighbor Totoro.

“Since Totoro’s body had a similar shape to that of a pineapple, I just turned him into one. For the Cat Bus, it was a no-brainer! I painted him with TheBus’ classic design and set them both against a backdrop of lush kalo leaves,” says Fabian.

While the mural is a whimsical take on anime, Fabian’s message goes beyond just watching the movie.

“Appreciate the gifts of fruits and vegetables our aina blesses us with!” says Fabian. “And take public transportation to decrease traffic.”

Fabian’s mural is often photographed and posted on social media. And it’s not the only one. Take a stroll through Kakaako on any given day and you’ll see people taking photos and selfies with the large-scale paintings.

Local designer Jana Lam's mural on Cooke St. was inspired by her son's artwork.

“Kamaaina and visitors appreciate and enjoy these unique street murals every day,” says Evora. “They give the area character and an extra dimension of interest.”

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