An Interview with Estria, Urban Art Living Legend and Co-Founder of The Estria Foundation

Estria is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Estria Foundation, which raises social consciousness on human and environmental issues through public art and educational programs. He pioneered a number of programs, including Mele Murals, which focuses on Hawaiian lyrics (mele) that explore stories of place (mo’olelo ‘aina); Water Writes, which highlights critical water issues in 10 cities around the globe; and the Estria Battle, which served as the premier U.S. urban art competition and honored Hawaiian culture and community. Before co-founding The Estria Foundation, he received commissions from President Bill Clinton, MTV, Redbull, and others, co-founded Visual Element, a series of free-for-youth workshops which targets at-risk children, and presented the first ever TEDx talk on muralism. Estria used his 1994 arrest to speak out about graffiti’s sociopolitical impact on CNN, the National Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other platforms. He is the recipient of a number of awards, including Miami New Times’ Best Mural, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s Certificate of Congressional Recognition, and East Bay Express’ Best Graffiti Artist.

As I understand, you’re originally from Hawaii. How did you become interested in graffiti?

When I was a teenager, my mom sent me to the YMCA to volunteer after school and in the summers. My friends were break dancers, and they’d look for stuff with breakdancing. They’d see graffiti on jackets, in the backgrounds, or on trains, and they were like, “what is this?” One day, we got an airbrush kit, and we hopped the fence and went into the canal to paint it after school. It was bright daylight and people were walking by watching. No one was really freaking out over what we were doing. I don’t even think we really realized that it was… illegal. We tried to do the word ‘fresh,’ and because it was a little airbrush kit, we did ‘fr’ and then ran out of air. But, it got us juiced, so we went and got spray paint and started trying that. I fell in love with spray painting and just kept going with it.

Did spray painting speak to your friends too? Or did they just go back to breakdancing?

We spray-painted for a year– or maybe two years. I think I was 16 years old when we started, so I’m pretty sure by 18 they had already quit. But, when I went to college in San Francisco at 18, I think it was probably by the second week that I had gone painting at the project rooftops already. Back then, people had 110 film cameras and little flash cubes on top of them. For every photo, you would think, “it’s going to cost me this much to take this picture.” It wasn’t like digital cameras or cellphones nowadays, where you don’t even think about that– you just click away. So, these guys who I’d just met took me painting. But, at the end of it, no one took pictures of my piece. I was like, “Oh, I suck!” [laughing] I didn’t know I sucked until that moment! It was one of those turning points where I went, you know what? I want to get good at this. I want to be as good or better than these guys. I started painting all the time.

It sounds like you really channeled your frustration into positive energy and motivation, two qualities that undeniably show through your work. Do you think that particular experience shaped your belief in the mission of empowerment?

Oh, yeah! Writing is like a contact sport: you can run into cops, gangs, trains, trucks. You might even have to walk for three miles, in the dark, to get to a wall. It’s kind of crazy to think that we were doing those things. But, you know, it makes you feel alive. You’re in a train…you’re out at night trying to paint cold steel… and there are sound that you just can’t explain. You know they’re from the trains, but they just sound like eerie monster things, I guess as the metal is contracting and expanding with the temperature drop. And so, you’re just kind of freaked out. But, I also think you feel alive– your heart is pumping and your senses are hyper-aware. It’s almost this rite of passage for young people to do this dangerous thing, to know what it’s like to really be alive and out there. And it’s dangerous… so yeah, there was definitely that thrill.

And to be honest, I sucked at doing the lettering, which is the whole main part of style writing. But, I could draw characters and stuff. All of the guys that were really good at the letters were like, “Okay, I’m gonna do my name– you do the background….” Right? They wanted me to do the stuff around their pieces. [laughing] But because of that, I later ended up getting the commissions, because people would say, “Oh, can you paint this Middle Eastern restaurant scene?” or whatever scene their business needed–grapes, pizza, or whatever. The style writer guys could only do letters, so they didn’t get the jobs.

That’s just on a more superficial level. Maybe, looking at past lives, it was almost meant for me to be in a creative expression pathway. You know, having that experience, or working in the YMCA and giving to kids, or taking care of other people at an early age… it just infused that whole idea that you give back, that you take care of others, that you teach others. I always think I was trying to say more than just my name, or that I’m alive, you know? I did my share of that, but I reached a point where that wasn’t gratifying anymore. When you’re going out bombing, and you can bomb a billboard over the freeway or a tunnel of the freeway– you’re just like, “Wow, I’m alive. I can do whatever I want. I have power.” Then, you have to learn to be responsible with your power… like Spider-Man. So, I think that just pushed me towards using art for some kind of purpose– to say something.

What did your mom think of you graffitiing?

Back in the day, we had a Betamax, like a VHS recorder. I remember the first time the news covered graffiti, they were interviewing this guy from a different part of my island. To this day, he’s still world famous– he’s made a good career for himself. But, as I’m taping the interview on the Betamax, my mom is sitting next to me watching the interview, and she’s like, “I hope they catch these hoodlums!” [laughing] I’m not sure she even knew that I was doing graffiti yet. Then, years went by and she could see that, in college, I was trying to make a career of it already. So, she started to want to understand it: she took drawing and photography classes at the local museum just to have a deeper understanding of why I do these things. Now, she’s on my board, and to me, she’s my biggest fan.

On the Estria Foundation website, it seems like there’s a lot of emphasis on incorporating Indigenous themes and even preserving specific language, like mele (Hawaiian lyrics) or mo’olelo ‘aina (stories of place). Do you want to speak a little bit as to some central Hawaiian themes?

Yeah! I think there’s two things I could start with. One is the concept of ‘we. When we say the word ‘we,’ we normally refer to we in this room, or our family, or our friends– those that are living right now. And ‘we,’ in a Hawaiian and Indigenous perspective, doesn’t just go laterally– it goes up and down. It means connecting with the earth, connecting with the heavens, connecting with your ancestors, and the belief that you never walk alone: that your ancestors walk with you– your ancestors on your father’s side and your ancestors on your mother’s side. With the Hawaiian and Indigenous ‘we’ comes the idea of being mindful. Are you living a righteous life? Are you making righteous decisions? Being mindful is something that Hawaiians tend to think about a lot. Whereas, in Western society, that’s not always up for concern. [laughing]

Also, in the Hawaiian perspective, things aren’t separate: there’s no separation of church and state, or education and religion. Spirituality, cultural practices, environmentalism– all of those things are connected, not separate. So, the Hawaiian perspective means coming to understand that the Earth is a living thing and that you need to communicate with it in order to take care of it. Our role is not to have this ego and to conquer Earth; our role is to take care of it. Our position is between the heavens and the Earth. In that way, you always set priorities. Is this good for the land and the water? Is this good for people? And then, is this good for business?

That’s really how I think government should set their priorities too– in that order. But, politicians are allowed to say whatever at election time and then do whatever later… without any agenda that they’re actually held accountable to in a way that a CEO or a board of directors would be held accountable. If we held politicians accountable, a whole lot would be different– so many of our decisions would be different. The reason the cultural piece, the environmental piece, and the spiritual piece are all so important to us is because, if we keep going the Western way– we’re not an entire continent, where it’ll take you a long time to destroy it. We’re a small island. You could probably destroy it in our lifetime. So, we need to redefine our notion of ‘success’ from, “How do you go off to college and make a lot of money?” to “How do you become a guardian, or a caretaker, of this place?”

In Hawaii, we have what we call a ‘brain drain,’ where supposedly our best kids go to private school, because their parents will do whatever it takes to pay the tuition, and then private schools are always college-preparatory, so the best kids all go off to college. In my class, only one or two kids didn’t go to college. That’s less than 1 percent. So, a half of my class went to the continent for education. Then, out of that half, a huge percentage of my class never came back to Hawaii. We’re developing our best and brightest kids and then exporting them to the continent permanently, as opposed to using their brain power to solve problems here. For us, redefining ‘success’ would be shifting the idea of a successful person from one who’s financially successful to one who’s grounded in their place, who’s in tune with it, and who knows how to take care of it, or is willing to find solutions to fix it in sustainable ways. That would be successful for us because those people are going to be around for the future generations.

So, on one hand, lots of Hawaiians come to the continent to study and be successful in a Western, business sense. On the other hand, there seems to be a culture of Hawaiian residents who define success differently, who are maybe more community-oriented and in tune with the land. From what you see, how does that dynamic play out more concretely?

I see the hope for Hawaii in the young people. We have a lot of Hawaiian immersion charter schools. In the ’80s, they were saying that Hawaiian, as a language, was going extinct. Then, they started forming these charter schools and teaching the Hawaiian language– Hawaiian perspective and Hawaiian values. Now, it’s not weird to hear Hawaiian out in public.

With the language comes the perspective. In English, there’s usually one word and one meaning. A sentence is defined to be very specific so as to avoid confusion about what you’re saying: this person did this thing to this place. But, in Hawaiian, words are structured around a multitude of meanings. If you’re pregnant, people will say you’re hapai. But, hapai doesn’t mean ‘pregnant’– it means ‘to carry.’ The mountain could be hapai with waterfalls, or the land could be hapai with food growing. So, when you think with hapai in that multitude of ways, you should be seeing how it connects you back to the Earth, or back to ancestors, or back to the stars– it connects you to your place at all times with several different meanings.

For us, we didn’t have a written language. When people have written language, they have secret codes, secret ways to communicate messages to the troops, or from royalty to royalty. But, without a written language, our secret code had to be hidden in poetry. There was language structured for the common folk, or for everyday use, and then there was that poetic, riddlelike way of using the language that was taught to chiefs so that when they spoke in public, only the chief would get what they were trying to say. And the public was like, “Oh, everything’s okay!” [laughing]

How do you connect with your Hawaiian heritage now? Do you just bring the message along wherever you travel?

At this point, I can’t say that I’m a writer anymore– I just say I came from there. Now, the purpose of my artwork is to tell the stories of our places. Most of these stories have never been put down on paper, so they’re being cast from generation to generation. When Westerners came and started settling here, Hawaiians died off by the tens of thousands, and those storytellers went with them. So, they tried to tell those stories. At this point, Hawaiians are about 10 percent of the population in Hawaii, and I would say that most people living here know next to nothing about Hawaiian culture.

That being said, people living here don’t realize that a lot of the daily, little things are Hawaiian. The way we behave in this situation… that’s a Hawaiian thing. [laughing] I tell people that we may be 10 percent of the population, but we should be 100 percent of the voice on the walls. Using the walls as our visual storytelling medium, instead of books or other things, is a more powerful way of communicating our culture; it works perfectly for someone like me that’s a community-based artist, where my work is in the community. I don’t paint highbrow, high-end art. I don’t paint modernism. I’ve gone to archives and all these different art shows around the country, and my takeaway is that modernist art is about nothing and for rich people. It’s got nothing to do with the culture; it doesn’t talk about change; and it’s rare that it’s got really insightful criticism. I think art gets off really easy nowadays on having no content. It’s a shame because I think we’ve got to hold artists to a higher standard. Not to say that I’m better or higher than everybody else, but my art isn’t for that audience: it’s for the commonfolk in the streets, here in Hawaii.

When I see a Hawaiian family stand there and watch us paint, or start crying just by looking at the painting… then you know they’ve never been to an art gallery. They don’t have art. They haven’t studied art or art history. None of them can name five American artists, whereas in Europe, they can name all their favorite artists. But, when a Hawaiian family stands there and takes in what we’re doing, when they start crying and understanding it, when they come up to me and explain what they see, and when I start crying with them– it’s like, “yeah, this mural is for you guys.” If I painted in the gallery, they never would have seen it; I did it in the community, and they get to see it every day. It’s a different purpose, a different intention.

So, in your view, there’s a whole world of untapped potential for art–what’s the disconnect?

Oh, yeah. Art in a gallery is like, “man– get it out!” Even in discussions on a community organizing level… people around the country, and especially museums, talk about breaking the fourth wall and getting into the community– that’s because they tried to get the community into the museum, and they only had so much luck doing that. They know their sweet spot is really people who are over 40, white, and single. Those are the ones that are going to give them the endowment. Those are the ones who are going to sign up for annual membership and come to all the events. The sweet spot, for museums, isn’t Mexican family with 10 kids down the street, or the Black family across the way. These highbrow art museums just aren’t culturally, or historically, part of their daily life. So, instead of trying to get the community to the museum, they’re trying to take the museum to the community. What some museums will do is actually coopt what non-profits are doing. They’ll see what the non-profits are doing, they’ll write a grant for the same thing, they’ll get the project, and they’ll put that non-profit out of business. Then, when that project is no longer in vogue, the museum will move onto the next flavor. It sucks! Trying to do this by the people for the people in the community is a whole different thing.

When Banksy’s painting self-destructed during an auction and a highbrow art collector decided to pay even more for it, how did that make you feel?

Well, it’s a novelty, right? It’s an exciting thing. I think Banksy is cool– it’s a great example of using street art, in public, to exploring new ways of saying something. But, for us, it’s really about going back to who we are. The bulk of education in the United States was designed in the industrial age to create factory workers. And with Common Core standards still in place, we’re actually still trying to produce factory workers. But, we don’t have factories anymore, so it’s not benefitting us to create obedient soldiers: we need out-of-the-box, visionary leaders to do creative problem-solving. Our system doesn’t encourage that; it encourages potential leaders to use their heads, to learn how to take tests, and to study standards. All of that is using your brain, and we’ve forgotten that the other way to access knowledge, to tap ancestral knowledge, is through your gut, through activities like meditation, or talking to your ancestors, or praying. Rather than going through your head, you’re going through your gut to tap into that knowledge.

I’ll give you a good example. We have this canoe called Hōkūle’a, which means “brightest star.” Basically, they built a canoe, using mostly traditional methods, to navigate by the stars; they don’t navigate Hōkūle’a by newer instruments or GPS. So, they’ve gotten all these other nations–Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa–to build canoes too, and they’ve got this whole fleet of canoes to sail around the world. They just completed the trip about a year or two ago. They went all the way around the world to prove that Hawaiians didn’t just end up in Hawaii by chance; we were navigating to places. The message they were trying to spread, everywhere they went, was that we should take care of the ocean. But, the knowledge of how to build that canoe had been lost. There was no one alive who knew how to build that canoe, so they looked at artist drawings. Some of the things they had to figure out–how to carve a certain way, what to carve with, what kind of knots to make, all of these little details–they had to do so by going inside and tapping that ancestral knowledge. They had to meditate in the forest, where trees were chopped, to regain that knowledge. That’s not a project that Western thinking will even allow you to entertain.

It does feel like we’re kind of desensitized in the West, often thinking mechanically with our heads rather than our guts. Do you want to expand a bit more on the difference between the Western and Indigenous perspectives, especially with regards to Hawaii?

Think about how the average person can walk down the street, spit anywhere, and piss anywhere. Western thinking is like, “I want to climb the highest mountain, or I want to climb any peak, so that I can jump off of it with a snow board, or a parachute, or whatever.” Westerners just think they can go anywhere and do anything. But, Indigenous thinking is like, “These are sacred spaces. And you need to ask for your ancestors’ permission before you enter.” You can’t just go. Take Mauna Kea for example. They’re going to build this huge telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea that’s going to affect the wind patterns. It’s the start of the water cycle, so they’re going to pollute their own water on the island. And it’s because they don’t think the earth is sacred. They think that, in the name of science, we need to see farther… “Hello!” You can close your eyes and see farther than that telescope can see.

When we talk about what is ‘sacred,’ most people don’t actually know. I was trying to teach the kids the other day. I asked them, “who determines if a space is sacred?” A kid’s answer was “Oh, somebody said the space was sacred!” and another said, “Maybe somebody was buried there.” Okay. Those are good possibilities… well, what makes a person say a place is sacred? They’re like, “I don’t know, somebody just said.” The thing you’ve got to understand is that if you listen to the land, you will know what parts of the land are more sacred, because the land feels different in each space. So, I try to teach the kids to meditate in different places in order to start to feel the difference in the power, or the mana, of the land. In the olden days, when people built sacred temples, they all built them on portal sites, or on ley lines. I see it in Peru, I see it with the Aztecs, with the Incas, and with the Mayans. I think it’s because they had people who were more in tune and could feel like, “Oh, this is the spot right here!” So, it’s not a person telling you that the space is sacred; it’s the land telling you it’s sacred right here. The land has its power– you’re just trying to tap into that. Since we’re no longer connected to the land in that way, there’s no considering those things anymore. We need to start listening to the land again in order to take care of it, or we’re not going to be around for much longer.

We’ve covered a lot of topics conceptually, but I wanted to give you the chance to speak about projects like Water Writes, Mele Murals, the Estria Battle, or “Sin Armas ni Violencia.” It would be great if you could connect them with some of the central Hawaiian and Indigenous topics we’ve been discussing!

Well, the Estria Battle… Man… I did that out of pocket for five to six years. I was finally like, “Alright, I’m done!” and people just thought I was making money. I’m like, “Dude, it’s free admission! What am I making money on?” From there, I went to Water Writes. We went to all these different cities and countries, where we would partner with people in those places. And I couldn’t get it funded, because the funders couldn’t see how two weeks in a place could make a lasting impact. But Water Writes was the older sibling of Mele Murals, and Mele Murals had a deeper connection to the land and to the community, so that’s the one that’s gotten the most support, both in terms of finances and community support.

Really, people have to go to a Mele Mural, or come to an unveiling, or come to the meditation sessions with the kids, to really understand the project. To see a group of kids meditating outside and getting messages…. What do you think would happen if you got twenty to forty kids to meditate together, and I’m telling them, “Okay! Ask the land what message should be in the mural. Ask the land what it wants.” What are they going to come up with? I’ve sat with groups on the continent for three hours, trying to come up with a concept for the mural while no one has an idea, and I walk out of the meeting clueless. I’m like, “I’m not doing this project!” The groups aren’t grounded, they’re not based in anything, so they don’t know what’s important.

But then you get kids. I remember one kid said, “Oh, I see the hands of ancestors carrying the baby’s spirit to the body of one of our kings.” And then, eight people went, “Whoa, that’s what I got too!” You can’t make that up! Right? We weren’t even talking about that. How did you even get that? Your schools not spiritual, so you wouldn’t talk about spirits and ancestors in that way. But, it’s confirmation: that’s the message they want us to paint about. So, we keep going around, and I circle any ideas that come to more than one person. I circle those ideas because I know we have confirmation. Our ancestors speak in riddles. They don’t give us the message directly, so you’ve got to figure it out. That’s how we arrive at the concepts of the murals, but unless you’ve seen that process, you don’t know what magic it is, or how trippy it is.

Then, each mural is loaded with messages from the spirit realm, and so many trippy things happen that it becomes normal. The first time I did this, I was like, “Oh, please, please work! I’m going to meditate and ask for the concept, and I don’t even know where it’s coming from. Please work!” And now, I don’t even question it. I know it’ll come. The process has built faith in me, and so now we meditate on all the big decisions for our organization. The crazy thing is that I’m often talking to spirits, ancestors, or guardians. Sometimes I see stuff, and sometimes they speak through me. All kinds of amazing things open up once you accept that side of life. But, to accept that side of life, you’ve got to let go of the Western perspective.

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