Kamea Hadar: How This Hawaiian Artist Paints a 12-Story Mural

Written by Sherry Liang, CNN

Honolulu, Hawaii-based artist Kamea Hadar has lost count of how many murals he has painted in his career — his best guess is at least 50 in the past decade.

He painted a larger-than-life portrait of former US President Barack Obama on the side of a law firm in Honolulu and wrapped a Lamborghini with vinyl of his floral artwork. He once spent two months painting in an inverted spot when the owner of Honolulu’s Vintage Cave Café wanted him to paint his vaulted ceiling “like Michelangelo,” Hadar recalled in a telephone interview.

But for four weeks from October to November, Hadar painted a 12-story building on the corner of South King and Pensacola Streets in Honolulu, for his most intricate and largest project ever, in terms of square footage. (Its tallest is 15 stories.)

At 155 feet high and 18 feet wide, Hadar’s mural pays tribute to the “ambassadors of aloha”—surfing champions Carissa Moore and Duke Kahanamoku, each of whom are record-setters in their respective generations.

Moore made history as the first Olympic women’s surfing champion in July, when surfing made its debut at the Games. Decades before Moore was born, Olympic swimmer Kahanamoku earned his moniker as the “father of modern surfing,” as he popularized the age-old Hawaiian sport around the world. This mural shows the two Hawaiian icons side by side in Hadar’s signature photorealistic portraits – a cross between fine art and street art styles.

“Hawaii is a special place, and the people here are full of ‘aloha,’ that’s that love, that kindness,” Hadar said. “Carissa and Duke are very much ambassadors of aloha, and they’re spreading that aloha all over the world.” He added: “I try to do the same with my art. I think with positivity and aloha you can make the world a better place – a happier place.”

Kamea Hadar sits in front of his Obama mural. Credit: Thanks to Andrew Tran

Ballet meets break dance

Hadar, raised in Hawaii, has been painting all his life. In his teens, Hadar traveled abroad to France, Spain and Israel for a “traditional” background in the visual arts, he said. He was apprenticed to a French Impressionist painter in Paris and attended Tel Aviv University.

While he was working out, Hadar said his friends practiced other art forms at home, such as tattooing and graffiti.

“What I like to joke about is that while my friends were learning break dance, I was dancing ballet,” Hadar said.

Kamea Hadar's painting of Carissa Moore and Duke Kahanamoku will be his largest and most intricate to date.

Kamea Hadar’s painting of Carissa Moore and Duke Kahanamoku will be his largest and most intricate to date. Credit: Thanks to Andrew Tran

In 2010, Hadar and his high school friend Jasper Wong founded Pow! Wow!, a gallery-show-turned-mural festival. The festival has visited more than a dozen cities, created nearly a thousand murals and greatly influenced the development of Hadar’s visual style. The artists he worked with also taught him how to scale his paintings larger, he explains.

“That very traditional side of portrait painting, combined with this graffiti street art culture, has turned into large-scale murals of people,” Hadar said. “That’s where my world and the world of my high school peers who were graffiti artists intersect. And now we’re all muralists really.”

Create a mural

Painting a tall building requires painstaking logistical planning, from considering the vantage points of passersby to learning how to hang safely off the side of a 15-story building with swing stages — the same infrastructure used by window cleaners.

Kamea Hadar climbs buildings for weeks at a time to create towering murals.

Kamea Hadar climbs buildings for weeks at a time to create towering murals. Credit: Thanks to Andrew Tran

Then there are the elements that Hadar cannot control. Painting outdoors leaves Hadar “at the mercy of nature,” he said — wind, humidity, heat, sun and rain can all affect the painting and swing phases. While in Taipei in 2014, Hadar saw his painting of Taipei Dreams “go down the drain” on a particularly wet day, he recalls.

Kamea said physical exertion and planning aside, it’s gratifying to watch the progress from day to day.

“It’s nice to be tired at the end of a long day at work, but look at exactly what you accomplished that day,” Hadar said. “It’s nice to have that tangible reward.”

As for his inspiration, Hadar says it can take many forms. Sometimes it is a message, such as a public announcement of the turnout. Other times, it’s a person — like his two-story portrait of Obama entitled “Hapa” (the Hawaiian word for half or mixed race), painted over a transcript of Obama’s 2008 speech on racial equality.

Hadar also draws on his own personal experiences — after becoming a father in the summer of 2016 (while painting his Obama mural), he was drawn to projects that portray fatherhood.

“She’s now at the age where she knows this is daddy’s drawing,” Hadar said of his 5-year-old daughter. But he thinks she doesn’t yet understand the depth or scale of his murals.

Kamea Hadar .'s 10-storey mural "To search" represents a father and daughter.

Kamea Hadar’s 10-storey mural “Huli” depicts a father and daughter. Credit: Thanks to Ryu Yamane

A ‘sense of place’

Hawaii — as a place and source of inspiration — is ubiquitous in Hadar’s murals.

Hadar said a “sense of place” is important to native cultures in Hawaii. For example, the country is traditionally divided by natural water boundaries into areas called ‘ahupua’a’. Hadar explores these boundaries in his planning stages and is guided by experts to respect the country and its history.

“I grew up in Hawaii all my life…but I’m not a native Hawaiian,” Hadar said. “When I touch on a lot of these topics, I’m talking about old Hawaii, I’m talking about Hawaiian culture, with Hawaiian words. Those are all things I’ve learned. I try very hard to always be sensitive to the native Hawaiian community.”

A building mural will last five to 20 years before it wears out, Hadar said. In the meantime, he hopes the scale and subjects of his work can inspire people to “do what they want to do,” even if that means scaling a 15-story building.

“I think great art can come from love and aloha,” Hadar said.

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