If your lucky enough to be on a Hawaiian airlines plane flying to the Islands or the mainland this month, check the seat pocket for this Hana Hou article on Estria and his path to finding purpose.
Story by Samson Reiny
Photos by Olivier Koning
In 1984 Estria Miyashiro was a 16-year-old at ‘Iolani High School. Goofing off in algebra class, he’d taken to writing his name in fancy fonts. One day another student glanced over at his notebook. “So,” he asked Estria, “you do graffiti?” Is that what this is? Estria wondered, looking at his inscriptions. Soon after he decided to make it official and sprayed his first tag on the walls of a canal tucked under a busy overpass. He doesn’t remember exactly what he wrote, but whatever it was, he’s certain it looked awful. (Aside from his lack of skill, he used the wrong paint on the wrong surface, which only made things worse.)
What he can easily recall, though, are the sensations that surged through his body: an adrenaline rush, a thumping heart, senses roused to peak alertness by fear of the police. He couldn’t resist the newfound buzz. “Writing,” he remembers, “gave me the feeling of being alive.”
Flash-forward twenty-seven years to 2011. Estria is in Honolulu’s Kalihi neighborhood, standing on a scissor lift and hoisted nearly twenty feet above the ground. A sense of ceremony fills the air. The ‘Iolani Palace Royal Guard—present only at the most important events in the Hawaiian community—marches in and stands at attention. A pü (conch shell) is sounded as a call to the ancestors, and a kahu (priest) splashes a water-soaked ti leaf while invoking a prayer in the Hawaiian language. Next to Estria on the scissor lift is Honolulu artist John “Prime” Hina, and the pair are preparing to cut the ties of a tarp covering the centerpiece of a mural that is so vast it extends two-thirds the length of a football field.
The moment is the culmination of six months of planning, two weeks of sketching and four weeks of painting day and night, and when the tarp falls, everyone finds themselves face to face with a portrait of Hawai‘i’s last reigning monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani. She is seated on a lush mountain throne, and a stream flows diagonally across her chest like a sash. A tag that runs the length of the wall reads, “Flow Mauka to Makai,” or “flow from the mountain to the sea.” The tableau—which shows a torrent of mountain water rushing into kalo lo‘i (taro patches), upland fishponds and small farm plots and finally emptying into a flourishing ocean—depicts the bedrock of the traditional Hawaiian system of water management. Other images on the wall illustrate the history of water in Hawai‘i, highlighting the diversion of mountain water for sugar and pineapple. The queen, seated in the midst of it all, radiates a quiet confidence; she represents not only the Hawaiians’ spiritual connection to the environment but also everyone’s basic right to fresh water.
“Brah, you look out and everyone is crying,” says Estria. “Prime was crying under his shades.” He chuckles softly. “I was crying, too. This was the single most important and fulfilling experience in my career.”
How does one go from a street tagger worried about the cops to a graffiti artist so renowned he’s received commissions from MTV and Toyota? How does one go from the deep underground to a mural unveiling so public it’s attended by the ‘Iolani Palace Royal Guard? For Estria Miyashiro it’s been a road on which he’s been both labeled a felon and celebrated as a master—all within a culture that has seen graffiti both labeled a social ill and celebrated as an urban art form.
It began in the City by the Bay: After his tagging days as a high school student at ‘Iolani, Estria headed to the University of San Francisco to study art and illustration. It was in the 1980s—during what he calls SF’s “Golden Age” of graffiti, an era of high-octane output and creativity— that he came of age as a graffiti artist. He was practicing on the streets rather than studying in the classroom, and that honed his abilities. “You couldn’t learn that kind of art in a traditional school,” he says of a form that demands superb arm control and dexterity with a spray can.
Crayone, a fellow Bay Area artist, was an early mentor. While most graffiti artists at the time were drawing their inspiration from the subway art of New York City, Crayone, who is half Korean, was utilizing Japanese anime and other Asian motifs in his pieces. He also possessed a can-do attitude on which Estria came to depend. “He didn’t seem to know you couldn’t do things,” Estria recalls. “He would just think, ‘What’s the biggest, craziest thing to do to create the most visibility?’ He pushed the limits of our creativity.”
Over the years Estria refined his skills, and his personal style matured. He became known for his clean execution and bold use of colors. After graduating from USF, he began freelancing as a muralist for businesses in the city. And as someone who had volunteered at a Honolulu YMCA long before he had touched a can of spraypaint, Estria decided to offer free art classes to students at a continuation school.
The class was a hit, but it came to an end in 1994 after Estria was arrested for graffiti. His case made national headlines both for his work with young people and because, thanks to a new law, he was the first person in San Francisco to be tried as a felon for the crime. In the end he was sentenced to a year of community service.
Nearly twenty years on, Estria, now an elder statesman in the graffiti world, says the arrest wasn’t the major turning point in his life some have made it out to be. What it did do, he says, was cement ideas that had already been forming in his mind, ideas that challenged commonly held notions of ownership. While he doesn’t endorse tagging private property and hasn’t done it himself for years, he does note that graffiti has been used as a form of public expression—a literal way for people to leave their mark—since the beginnings of civilization. “The Pyramids had graffiti,” he says, “and so did Pompeii, even Vienna during the height of classical music.”
After he finished his community service, Estria decided to continue working in the community. He taught kids at Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center for four years and held workshops at high schools in the city. In 2000 he co-founded Visual Element, a free program at the EastSide Arts Alliance in Oakland that encourages community activism through public art. In 2002 came Tumis, a marketing firm dedicated to serving nonprofits and foundations, and after that Samurai Graphix, a custom apparel print-screening company that employs Oakland youth.
In 2007 Estria collaborated on a project that inspired him to set his sights even higher. That fall he traveled with a former student, Josué Rojas, to the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras, where a group had asked the pair to work with local kids to paint a mural. When they got to Honduras, Estria wasn’t satisfied with either the location or the proposed mural’s subject matter. He and Rojas drove around looking for new ideas and happened upon a wall that had a small metal cross hanging next to it. Rojas explained that this was the site of a massacre: Four years earlier, three vehicles had surrounded a city bus and opened fire. Twenty-eight people died. Gangs were blamed for the killing, though some speculated that the military had a hand. Estria and Rojas stared silently at the scene. That night they talked about their fears of retaliation if they decided to put up a mural there. They agreed to move forward anyway.
They soon knew they’d made the right decision. As they worked, passing buses honked their horns, and passersby stopped to ask questions, share stories, say thank you. Politicians came for photographs. The finished wall portrayed a winged yellow bus ascending to heaven and the inscription “Arte es la Vida … Sin Armas ni Violencia,” “Art is Life … Without Weapons or Violence.” The mural, Estria believes, brought closure and hope to the community. It changed things for him, too. “After Honduras,” he says, “it wasn’t enough for me to paint my name on a wall. I wanted to paint messages.”
The Kalihi mural unveiled last July was the third in the series of ten murals Estria is now creating around the world. The project, Water Writes, is run through Estria’s newly formed Estria Foundation; all ten murals are being painted to highlight the importance of access to fresh water across the globe. Before the Kalihi mural, Estria painted the first two in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles and downtown Oakland; the remaining seven will include murals in the Philippines, El Salvador and Colombia. From the need for clean drinking water in Palestine to tribal protests against water pollution in Arizona, each will feature struggles specific to its region.
The Estria Foundation was established, its founder says, with a simple mission: to leave things better than they were. To that end Estria has also established the only national graffiti competition in existence, the Estria Invitational Graffiti Battle. The one-of-a-kind competition offers artists an outlet for their skills and creativity; it begins with several regional competitions in cities across the country, and the two top competitors from each locale then travel to Oakland to vie for the overall title of Battle King.
Last September Honolulu played host to one of the regional battles, and the theme for the day was hänau, the Hawaiian word for “birth.” One of the top finishers, who goes by the tag name CKaweekS, came up with his own interpretation of the legend of the birth of the Hawaiian people. He depicted two fetuses: one the human ancestor of all Hawaiians, the other his stillborn brother, the sacred kalo plant, both growing in the womb of a mountain-like mother goddess.
The power that legend and the natural world evoke in these Islands isn’t lost on Estria. When he worked on the Kalihi mural, a yellow butterfly would visit the crew each day before fluttering away. When a group of social workers from the Queen Lili‘uokalani Children’s Center arrived to check on the mural’s progress, he told them about the butterfly.
“You do know those butterflies were a favorite of the queen’s, right?” they asked. Later, scouring the state archives for a more detailed photograph of the queen, Estria found a jeweled butterfly adorning the monarch’s upswept hair. He decided to paint a yellow butterfly on her portrait in honor of the message he felt the little butterfly was bringing. “It’s like the queen was saying saying, ‘Aloha,’” he says. “She was telling me I was meant to do this.”