Jasper Wong – Founder of POW! WOW!
Currently in the midst of their sixth year, POW! WOW! Hawaii is one of the world’s preeminent public art festivals, and has become the proving ground for both emerging and established artists as the place to showcase their craft on an international stage. Founder, lead director and curator Jasper Wong has been one of the driving forces of the festival since its humble beginnings in Hong Kong in 2010, tirelessly working to make each event one of the best art activations of the year.
What began as a way to bring his friends together to create art in public spaces has expanded into a roster of hundreds of artists over the past three years and in the process has created a global community of artists, fans, collectors and media. Locally the event has turned the dull and gritty backdrop of the downtown area of Kaka’ako into a colorful cross section of rotating murals by both international and local artists. With an army of dedicated staff and volunteers, POW! WOW! has helped artists create nearly 200 murals around the world. Read on below as founder Jasper Wong discusses the festival in an previously unpublished interview with 1xRUN’s Pietro Truba…
1xRun: For those who may not know, tell us a bit about Pow! Wow!, when did it come about and how has it progressed year by year?
Jasper Wong: Pow! Wow! Hawaii 2015 is the sixth year that we have put on the event. When it first started the idea was to find a way to bring all my friends in one place and just paint together, jam a bit together, stuff like that. Since then it’s evolved into something a lot bigger. So now it’s become a way for us not only to educate the youth about art and music, but to help beautify a neighborhood.
We also help to expose locals in Hawaii to the arts and to these international artists. We try to do a number of different things. Education, beautification and just bringing people together. A lot of these people that we bring together, a lot of them have never met in person. For example, 1xRun has worked with many of these artists, but it’s so hard to get them all together in one place. I think that’s a big part of it, getting all these people together in one room to hang out. So what we do is we try not to have them in hotels as much, because when people are in hotels everybody tends to just be in their own little private zone, they don’t really talk to each other as much. So we try to have everybody in one big house, so that everyone will be interacting with one another and build these long lasting relationships and connections that really bring people together through the medium of art.
In the end it’s really about bringing people together. That is actually where the name came from. If you break it up, it’s like POW, which is like the reaction that you get from seeing art, it sort of hits you in the face because it’s so powerful. Then the WOW is the reaction to that work. Together it’s the term to celebrate this culture. I think it really works for what we do. So that’s sort of how Pow! Wow! got started.
1xRun: Let’s talk a bit about the first year of the festival, where was that?
Jasper Wong: The first year that we put Pow! Wow! on was in Hong Kong in 2010. I had moved to Hong Kong after living in the Bay area for six years. When I lived in Hong Kong I was really disappointed with the art scene there. It is really finance based. All the galleries wanted to talk to you about was “investing” in art, opposed to getting a piece of art that you would want to get to put in your house to look at everyday. It’s like buying wine or collecting wine, you buy it so you hopefully can just resell it. That’s how a lot of the galleries in Hong Kong were operating. I couldn’t really keep complain about it. So I thought I would do something, and I started a gallery in the boondocks. It was maybe 20 minutes away, you had to walk up this huge hill. To get to the gallery was a bit of a trek. If you wanted to go to the opening you knew you really wanted to go there, because it was a pain in the ass to get there. That’s where the first Pow! Wow! started. I invited a few of my friends from Europe. I brought in Wu Yue who is a music video director and an artist. We brought Will Barras from London, who is an amazing artist. Jahan Loh from Taiwan and Pat Lee used to do all the posters for stuff. I partnered up with Chris and Jian from GarageWorks, who had just done all the toys for Ron English. We all just painted a crap load of canvases within 9 days. It was a great experience for me, because I had never painted that much in that short amount of time. I grew a lot. There’s a big value in bringing people together to just enjoy creating artwork together.
When that was successful I was thinking about what we should do next. I was looking at Berlin, Singapore, Shanghai and then my friend Christa Wittmier said that I have to bring it back home to Hawaii where I am originally from. To be honest, growing up in Hawaii I never felt that it was a great place for art, I went to school here, but there wasn’t really much going on. But she convinced me to try it, she said I’ll need your help and we can make it happen. So in 2011 I came back to Hawaii. We had a few spaces, so we made it happen. We had to bring in some buddies, Meggs, 123Klan and Suitman, along with a few friends from the street/fashion world, a few other friends that I’ve met from my travels.
The event was getting going and I was getting these brands that wanted to do sponsorships, but then less than a week before we were about to kick off they decided to pull out. They didn’t really see art as a good vehicle for promoting their brand, whatever they were doing. At that point I had a few options to just cancel the event, sort of half-ass it, or just go balls out and pay for everything myself out of pocket. I decided to pull out my credit card and just started buying up flights. I mean I racked up a giant ass debt with a couple of hours. It was gnarly and it was a little scary. I was a little nuts. I dropped all this money, next thing you know all these guys are in town, it was a wild ride on the edge of my seat. We didn’t have any sponsorship for anything, so if we needed paint we just went to the paint store, and I grabbed paint again.
One of my buddies (Pow! Wow! director) Kamea Hadar let everybody stay at his family’s house, Utopium on the North Shore. The drive was a little long to get out there, but I thought it was great and brought everybody together. Then we all just painted together, it was amazing. It was great to get support from the guys at Hypebeast and Arrested Motion. I used to work in the media, so I’ve known those guys for a long time. They came through and really helped push it, and it really worked. That first year in Hawaii Pow! Wow! was just in one space, just the side of the gallery. We didn’t make money, but I had to live off peanut butter sandwiches for a while.
After that it was “What are we going to do in 2012?” We decided to take it to the street. We thought we could take over one street, then the next year another street etc. but we just sort of skipped a few years and jumped into the whole neighborhood. We went from 10-15 artists to around maybe 80 or so. It really blew up on it’s own. We wanted to take it to it’s complete maximum and see where that is.
So we’re going to keep seeing where it’s going. We just kept pushing and thought we should keep growing. Last year we had the arts education program talking about can control and colors. The education system just keeps cutting out programs and lots of them are arts programs. A lot of these kids don’t give a shit about still life paintings, they are interested in this culture, this genre. They want to do street art and paint graffiti. How about we teach them that and segue way that to typography and color theory. But let’s get them to paint first. So I partnered up with Prime and we did a one year course where we taught kids how to paint. This way Prime is teaching these kids and we’ve got some money coming in to be a resource for them. It’s amazing thing how much all these students grow. In 2013 painted their very own mural. Many of them are some really motivated young female artists that are rockin’ walls. We’re pretty male dominated, so that was good to see.
We also put together a music program in 2013. I’m not a musician, but we’ve had all these people coming together. These kids would come together to create these bands over a 10 day period, and they have to create an original song that they will play live at the finale party. At the time it was about 2000+ people, each year there are always more. Hopefully it will turn into a year round course. Another big thing is that we’ve opened up a creative community center. We’ve got this old warehouse, Lana Lane, which is roughly 5000 square feet, and we’ve turned it into a place for art studios, screen printing, darkroom, all that kind of stuff. We wanted to do that because we felt like there are a lot of kids that are fresh out of college or any artist in general, there are no resources for them. There are no public darkrooms in Hawaii. So we signed the lease on it in 2013 and we’ve slowly turned it into a community center. It’s been a long process. It sort of evolved into this whole organization centered through community through arts and music. Now we’re thinking we will bring it world wide, the education is such a huge part of what we do now. I have no idea what I started, but I’m glad I don’t have to pay for too much out of pocket. It’s crazy it all started from hating Hong Kong galleries.
One thing that has been an issue with past events is that we’ve had people fly in, paint, party a little bit and leave. That kind sucked. We felt that nobody was really connecting with the locals. Each year we end up extending it before and after. Now it is a good half week before and after where everybody can just connect with one another. We have a several of amazing art shows, a tour of Hawaii, barbeque… etc. We do our best to do all these things for everyone to connect with one another before they paint. Trying to connect everyone together. So officially it’s one week, but unofficially it’s the two weeks or more for some people. We do the whole nine. We try to give everyone a taste of real Hawaii, that way they get a sense of where they are and hopefully they’ve made some friends with locals, maybe they will, maybe not, but at least they’ve got these connections with local people. Then the locals have these new friends all over the world.
Even for 1xRun coming down, meeting so many of these people that you’ve talked to via email or on the phone, you know it’s different to hang out on the beach. To me that’s a big deal. We’ll just take hours doing stupid crap. It’s just basically like a bunch of kids and we have all these crazy experiences. You know, people getting so drunk they put a box of beer and do these robot dances, all this minute stuff you never would expect. It’s a close-knit family. Post-event, everybody hangs out outside of this, but it’s all built up from this experience here. That’s a big deal for me. We’re all just trying to have fun pretty much. I think that’s the big thing we’re changing is just creating more time to hang out.
1xRun: So what do you have planned coming up for the future of Pow Wow?
Jasper Wong: Well we definitely are going to keep doing one each year in Hawaii, but we would also like to take it to other cities. We would like to bring it everywhere. Australia. New Zealand. South Africa. Everywhere, really connect all these cities together through art. That’s the goal. We recently did our first event outside of Hawaii (since Hong Kong in 2010) with Pow Wow Taiwan in the summer of last year, so I think we’re going to try to do it more in the next year or so. We really just want to keep building it into a global event. So we’ll see. We’re definitely going to keep trying each year.