POW! WOW! Uses Art as a Tool While Brushing Sides with Gentrification

Photos by Brian Addison. Above: Tristan Eaton paints his mural at the Varden Hotel in DTLB as part of POW! WOW! Long Beach’s inaugural festival.

Long before Jasper Wong founded one of the world’s most influential contemporary art collectives, he had to watch his mother’s frozen meat business, their family’s source of income and sustenance for the single mother and her three children, shutter as Costco moved into his small neighborhood Kalihi, just outside of Honolulu.

That small business was soon forgotten, like many displaced things in the world, and it left a mark on Wong, a mark that would ultimately result in acknowledging the privilege of having a mother who pushes you toward your dreams, what it feels like to be displaced, and the effects that being forgotten has on the future of those who have to directly deal with its consequences.

And seven years ago, he looked to the warehouse-filled Kaka’ako district of Honolulu in a project he dubbed POW! WOW!, a project that had one simple goal: paint some walls.

“Kaka’ako was a forgotten district,” Wong said. “And by forgotten, I mean forgotten—it still lacks a lot of necessary infrastructure to this day. I’m talkin’ sidewalks and a functional sewer system and… But the simple act of putting paint on walls has helped to transform the district—or at least how it is perceived. There is a lot more foot traffic, which has led to it being safer and that has brought in a lot of small businesses into the area.”

In a sense, Wong was powerfully stating that though his mom’s business may be gone (and many others along with it), that the people are still here. The culture is still here. And there are ways to better the world, even in the places that most of the world has forgotten.

The creation of POW! WOW!—what Wong describes as action-to-reaction, akin to “a punch in the face, like in comic books: pow! And the wow!, well, that is sort of your reaction to that work”—has been so successful that it has launched into other places around the world: Taiwan, Japan, the Antelope Valley, D.C., and yes, right here in Long Beach (PWLB).

It’s impact in Long Beach has been beyond influential. Per usual, its initial descent into the city prompted ill-reasoned cries of foul play and invasion: “Where are the local artists!?” pundits screamed (and still do), not realizing that POW! WOW! bringing its artistic power to Long Beach would only help the city’s stature as an arts-supporting municipality.

Jeff McMillan paints his mural during the inaugural PWLB.

“Like it or not, it forced local artists to up their game,” said Long Beach artist and POW! WOW! veteran Jeff McMillan, who went solo in year one of PWLB and then joined fellow artist Gary Musgrave to create The Draculas for PWLB 2016 and 2017. “You have to look at worldwide players coming onto your turf to create art as something worthwhile, as an honor, as something that is truly great for art in Long Beach.”

These bits of misinformation, like the lack of knowing the details of Wong’s storied past, lead to the downsizing if not outright fighting against what he and other arts organizations are doing. Wong views it as beautifying; opposers see it as cultural encroachment, an indirect form of displacement, and somewhat amusingly, as a tangible example a corporate takeover.

“It’s odd, looking back at the origins of street art, but everyone knows it now: street art can be viewed as a tool for gentrification,” Wong said. “No doubt. But, we don’t come in with that intention. We are not painting walls in hopes to garner interest with developers and then displacing businesses that have been there for generations… POW! WOW! is still a passion project for myself and a lot of the team. I don’t really get paid to do it, so these developers aren’t lining my pockets with silver. Our intentions are pure and we want to work with the communities that the projects are in and not be invaders to their livelihood. We don’t want art—especially public art—to be seen in that light.”

Sometimes, it is only viewed in that light: Boyle Heights, arguably the epicenter of the Southland’s art-as-gentrification sentiment with groups like the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement and Defend Boyle Heights, has ousted what they view as elitist art galleries and even nonprofit arts organizations.

The protest of the Nicodim Gallery, where activists scrawled “white art” on its metal door, led to its closure. Unfortunately, the owner of that gallery, Mihai Nicodim, is a Romanian refugee who had to swim across the Danube River in 1983 in order to escape communist persecution and become, in his eyes, a free artist. Coming to the US, he was homeless until he saved enough money to achieve his dream: opening an art gallery.

In another instance in Boyle Heights, nonprofit PSSST—an interdisciplinary art space dedicated to providing money, space, and tools for underrepresented artists—was ousted by what founder Pilar Gallego called “constant harassment” by those who deemed them part of the gentrification process.

“This persistent targeting—often online, often highly personal in nature—was made all the more intolerable because the artists we engaged are queer, women, and people of color,” Gallego said. “We could no longer continue to put already vulnerable communities at further risk.”

These stores are two of many that complicates and convolutes the issue of art and its intersection with gentrification.

When it comes to Long Beach, Wong was no imperialist; in fact, he claims “Long Beach chose us.” After all, it wasn’t until Julia Huang, owner of Long Beach-based interTrend and a believer in the power of public art, directly called him and told him that PWLB must become a reality.

“The answer was an emphatic yes,” Wong said. “There are always a string of logistical challenges to make it a reality, but there is a ton of support from the people of Long Beach. Thanks to them, we are now entering the third year of the festival.”

Felipe Pantone‘s mural on Frontenac Ct. just north of Broadway; completed during PWLB 2016. 

PWLB has single-handedly altered the streets of Long Beach: murals, whether they are there for years or only there for weeks, some from of the world’s leading artists like James Jean [pictured top right] or Tristan Eaton to locally-renowned artists like David Van Patten [pictured above left] and McMillan, some hidden or some in the wide open… They all line the streets of Long Beach.

The result? The region’s coolest, largest, most unique free outdoor museum—and the new course of PWLB becoming its own sustainable organization.

Huang, with the backing and blessing of Wong, knows one reality of this very complex endeavor: there are no definitive avenues for profit project and therefore sustainability becomes the essential cog in keeping PWLB alive for future generations of artists to participate in and viewers to enjoy. Within each POW! WOW! across the globe, securing walls to paint on, raising funds to pay artists and score equipment, and gathering community support doesn’t come without a price—and more than just sweat’n’tears are required to make it all happen.

“PWLB doesn’t just magically happen,” Huang said. “Artists need the ability to travel and sleep because they’re human. Businesses need to be assured that their walls will become beautified—not vandalized. People in the community need to be assured that there is value included for them, not just artists and businesses. PWLB deserves to be an organization in and of itself… That’s what we plan on doing.”

Huang’s vision is no walk in the park: beyond the focal point of the summer festival, she hopes PWLB will become a year-round organization that employs artists with opportunities, influences policy when it comes to public art, and be the home of events beyond the much-famed mural festival.

And this work, though hipsters and art lovers alike may find it glamorous, isn’t easy to come by.

“That’s one of the toughest aspects of organizing a POW! WOW!: finding passionate individuals to make it happen,” Wong said. “We are lucky to have a whole group of passionate individuals for PWLB—they are family to us.”

Huang and her crew have chosen none other than First Fridays co-founder, Live After 5 curator, and overall Long Beach lover Tokotah Ashcraft and Huang’s right-hand creative powerhouse Dani Concepcion to head PWLB through 2017 as it looks to become a more formal, self-running organization.

“There’s a strong pride in the Long Beach community—I know this first hand with my experiences in Bixby Knolls and Downtown,” Ashcraft said. “And the best part about PWLB is that it gets that; it understands the beauty in that pride and takes it to the next level. Having artists from Long Beach and all over the world come together to beautify the city we love is nothing short of a powerful thing.”

Telmo Pieper of Telmo-Miel sketched before he painted this wall at The Promenade just north of Broadway in DTLB during 2016’s PWLB.

This year’s roster includes its largest bunch of Long Beach-based artists: the aforementioned Van Patten and Draculas along with Noelle Martine [pictured above right], who helped Benji Escobar paint his now-covered mural on the backside of the Edison Lofts in DTLB, Ryan Milner, Sparc, Nate Frizzell, Bodeck Hernandez, and Ezra One.

Other States-based artists include:

While PWLB keeps up the international reputation by bringing on:

“At the end of the day, our goals and mission are centered around the arts and the artists. We are always keen on supporting local artists and exposing their work through our festivals and projects. We just want to paint murals and beautify communities.”

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food to politics to urban transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 12 nominations and an additional win for Best Political Commentary. Born in Big Bear, he has lived in Long Beach since college. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.