The simple act of painting walls opens up a whole community to the idea of graffiti.  Jasper Wong is the power house behind Pow Wow an annual event that brings international artists to a grungy neighborhood to transform plain walls to spray painted collaborations.   With a bunch of big ideas, a humble presence, and the will to put Honolulu on the map for art, Wong is all kinds of right!

A small idea can manifest, or so I’m learning as I’m talking to Jasper Wong.  He is the man behind an event that’s quite literally turned into a movement.  Pow Wow, is an event that brings worthy and talented artists (40+) from all over the world to transform an otherwise overlooked industrial neighborhood into a platform for art, conversation, and inspiration.

Jasper Wong, 28 is big.  By this I mean to track his record over the past 5 years he’s as Ron Burgundy would say –kind of a big deal.  Wong has worked for everyone from small time companies  to  big time clients like Nike.  Wong has become the ultimate artist— a paid one!  From owning a gallery in Southeast Asia to his art show at this years SXSW (2012), Wong is still humble and grounded.  He has taken a small idea– opening up the process of art to the public– and made it into a recognized event that is making international headlines.  After going to school in the artsy city of San Fransisco (California Center for Art), he spent a few mile marking years in China, where he created a gallery called Above Second.   When he became frustrated with the politics of art in the fast paced Hong Kong he says,  “I had a choice, complain about it, which I did, or do something about it.”


Pow Wow was born in Hong Kong. The first year consisted of five artist, live music, and an energy that became the fuel that has powered the two Pow Wows to follow.  “At first I thought about bringing Pow Wow to Berlin or Singapore, but then I thought why not bring it to my home town of Honolulu.”  Unsure of how the public would take his small idea of art for the masses, and graffiti art no less, he took a chance, paired up with someone who believed in his vision (Tiffany Tanaka owner of Fresh Cafe, where the second and third events were held), and flew out a bakers dozen of his friends that spanned a spectrum of different art mediums, gave them the tools, the wall, and let them spew out their style onto one wall in the industrial area of Honolulu known as Kaka’ako. February 2011 marked the second year of this event, and with a good response from the public, the governor, and the next generation, Pow Wow, was highly celebrated this year with over 40 artists, 10 walls, and over 2,000  cans of spray paint.  The actual event ended the three day stint of public art into a live art process witnessed by art enthusiasts and the random public alike.


A few questions with Jasper Wong

How’d you go from SF to Hong Kong?

I went to CCA (California College of the Arts) in Oakland and when you’re in art college they teach you conceptual thinking and critical skills but they don’t teach you how to segue that knowledge into a viable career.  They don’t teach you how to do business, invoicing, contracts, etc.  So when you’re in the game then you have no idea.  I really wanted to learn how to translate my visual thinking into physical product.  Like if I have an idea for a shoe or a bag, how do I make a physical product from that.  What is the process?  I moved there on a whim and tried to find my way around.  I then started working for Hypebeast(.com).  I ended up meeting a lot of people from that.  I was still trying to get in the art game in Hong Kong.  It’s a city that’s based on finance and trade.  And that translates to every aspect of Hong Kong including their galleries.  When you go through their gallery district it’s pretty much all painting inventory stores.  They don’t do openings or shows like they do in America.  I’d try to get shows in these galleries but at that time mainly Chinese art was the hot item.  So either I could complain about it which I did or I could do something about it and that’s why I started Above Second Gallery.  So that I could do my own shows in my own space, under my own rules.   Pow Wow started because a few friends of mine wanted to bring in some DJs from Tokyo.  But I thought why do you want to bring in another DJ, we get two or three a week.  Why don’t we bring in some visual art too.

How did Pow Wow start?

The first Pow Wow started in Hong Kong.  It started with 5 people just doing live art.  Me and my friend Yuie  challenged ourselves to paint 9 large paintings in a week.  We weren’t sure we were going to finish.  The second year I wanted to do it in Berlin, Shanghai, or Singapore but I had a friend who came to the first one from Hawaii.  She kept pushing me to do it in Honolulu.  I feel like there’s a lot of talent here but I was born and raised in Hawaii and I didn’t think that people would be receptive.    The first year was 5 artists last year was around 13 and this year it was around 50 artists.  This year it became more about educating too.  We tried to push a heavy education initiative.  It’s a three parter.. One, we teach mural painting and street art to high school kids.  The other part is we have a panel.  Panelists talked about how to make a career out of being creative.  And the last one we offered a tour around town to educate Pow Wow visitors about the real Hawaii.  Their image of Hawaii is hula girls, Waikiki, grass skirts or whatever they’ve learned from movies or tv.  This was sort of to educate them about the real Hawaii for example: Queen Lili’okalani, the Palace, the Pali look out.


What type of impact do you hope to make on the community?

Growing up here and going to public school here we never really had a lot of resources.  You don’t get exposed to a lot.  So your knowledge of art is limited.  It’s the same now. They cut funding and art is the first thing to go.  So it becomes important for individuals to educate.  I want to educate people from Hawaii on an international scale and even on a local scale.  People don’t know that some of the best graff guys are from here.  Guys like BuffMonster, Slick, Katch1 they’re from Hawaii.  But also to tell the world what’s happening in Hawaii.  That’s why I invited Complex and Hypebeast so they can go and tell everyone.  And even all the artists individually have huge followings.  I’m hoping this helps jump start the creative community on a grander scale through the simple act of painting walls.  Now people are walking around Kaka’ako looking for the walls, taking pictures, hanging out.  That’s a powerful thing.  That’s rewarding enough.

What music do you listen to?

I listen to everything.  At one point I was really into country, to hip hop, electro rock but sometimes I get into modes where I want to listen to audio books! Right now on heavy rotation I’ve got Xx, Elwood Black, the New Pornographers, the Roots, I’ll jump around based on my mood.  Sometimes when I’m painting I’ll listen to old Japanese music or movie soundtracks like Mission Impossible.  It depends on what my mood is.