Words from the Graffiti Pit: Melody Sakura + Emma Dold
As a girl from Hawaii, I had idealized any notion or mention of “The City” based on Frank Sinatra’s baritone swooning and Gossip Girls’, Blair Waldorf’s, wardrobe. Growing up in Hawaii where the seasons don’t really change, familiarity is as much of a security blanket as it is a crutch. Trajectories of a sun-kissed lifetime become mappable, predictable, even though they may conceivably run parallel to perfection, aligned with palm trees and the sparkling of the Pacific Ocean. Moving to New York from the islands, I was greeted with nothing but a contrast. But like most transplants I found that within this gray area there was room for growth and a chance to “make the city your own”.
Melody Sakura and Emma Dold, 19, grew up in Honolulu and attended Punahou School. The two are recognizably artsy, worthy muses of Frida Kahlo, complete with paint-stained Converse All-Stars and pink hair. Aside from hiking, an activity whose mantra arguably is that feeling lost is half the fun, Melody and Emma weren’t necessarily your basic “Hawaii girls” as defined by Instagram’s standards (i.e. skimpy bikini bottoms, peach emojis representing butts and captions containing the words, “salty”, “mermaid”, and “vibes”). Emma grew up tagging instead of tanning. Melody knew she wanted to move to New York City, “since 9th grade, I was like I’m gonna go to New York City, like bye,” she said.
The two girls, now Sophomore, college roommates, reside in Williamsburg, Brooklyn though they attend different institutions — Melody is at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) and Emma is enrolled at the Pratt Institute. Their friendship dates back to their Sophomore year of high-school when they both became involved with 808 Urban, a non-profit organization that mentors Hawaii’s youth “through urban arts and cultural education”. “It kind of changed how we made art; before you’d make it at home, alone, and then you start to make art with other people and understand how everyone else works and then it’s very much like a partnership, working with other people, it’s not just about you anymore,” said Melody.
Previously the two knew the art scene in Honolulu only to exist in crusty lofts and piddling art galleries in the Chinatown district of the city. Their involvement in 808 Urban took them from painting bus stops in Waikiki, to the Aulani Hotel on the west-side of the island. It gave them a community, mentors, friends and an inkling that they belonged in Hawaii. When the wave of Pow!Wow! first hit Hawaii in 2011, according to Melody, “it changed everything.” Here was something that put Hawaii on the map not only for its massive waves during the winter months or hip-shaking wahine in coconut bras, but because of a sprouting art scene that would take the rest of the world by storm with festivals in the likes of Taiwan, Japan, SXSW and Long Beach. The girls were able to watch the whole thing happen, to see the festival grow and evolve. They first participated in Pow!Wow! as artists in 2015 and got up again this year, in 2016. In it’s fifth running year, Pow!Wow! has made itself known to hypebeasts and laypeople alike as a gathering of individuals, artists, musicians and creatives from a sundry of continents that serves as an open-dialogue, facilitating an exchange of ideas and culture mainly through the painting of outdoor murals.
From fangirls with camera phones to legitimate artists on the roster who didn’t need to buy their own gallons of paint, the in-betweens of flying in a for a week to add some Pow! to all the Wow!, throwing up the deuces to classes in the process, to sleeping in parking garages with paint-coated hair for pillows, Melody and Emma have thrived. Since our first meeting on a cold, spring morning in Manhattan a year ago, as we huddled around a small table in the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street, the girls have rode the “roller coaster” that is New York and weathered its extremes. The transition from high-school senior in Hawaii to freshmen at art schools in New York demanded that they grew up and grew up fast. The city served as a pressure cooker turning passion into grades and the lugging of paintings across 2nd Avenue while fending off cat-calls into character building exercises. Though Melody mentioned the very real reality that is crying for no reason with no explainable onset and Emma dropped out of her art-history class, they have adapted to life there well enough to consider it “home”. A newfangled sense of direction has been established as they orient themselves in a universe where New Yorkers create their own compass; the Empire State Building could be my North store, your local bodega could point West, the guy on the E-Line you see every morning could understand East to equate with Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Bridge could be your professor’s South. Ironically, Melody and Emma’s understanding and placement in this universe wouldn’t be possible without Hawaii — its unmistakable culture and who it made them. “Hawaii is never going to leave me, I definitely wanna go back when iIm older just because it’s such a great place but I need New York for my very ambitious side and my artistic side to grow,” said Melody, “I mean I’ll go back and forth. Probably when I’m 60 and burnt out I’ll go back and have a farm and cows or something.”
Much of their transition from Subway-noob to New Yorker coincided with adding a hint of that salty enough, Hawaii, home-town feeling to every cup of estrangement. As roommates, Melody and Emma have given each other a home, in the form of blankets to share, someone to ask what the wifi password is and ultimately a friend to walk home with at 4 AM, post-pizza. Amusingly enough, upon leaving Hawaii, Emma commented that “since I’ve gotten here, I’ve pretty much only hung out with Hawaii people. This year’s [Sophomore year] been a lot better than the last one because when you start to meet people and create a base of comfort for yourself, you can fall back on that even if it’s the worst fucking day.” Melody echoed, “growing up and knowing the culture is pretty important in understanding someone.”
New York has opened up in front of them just as art has become not just a labor of love, but a mirror for spiritual growth. “Just being in New York and being able to go to all these exhibits — to constantly be surrounded by new ideas, there’s just so much to do, so much to look at and so much to experience that, from that, I think our idea of what art is, or what it means to paint a wall, or what a mural even means in terms of what we want to do with our art it’s just like yeah… a lot of exposure; and that’s changed how we think about art in general,” said Melody. Following that, Emma said ,“before I was like art’s dope because it’s like nice to look at… But now it’s more like actually being aware of what you’re doing and thinking about the way you want to communicate with people and how they’re going to receive that information— so I think right now for me, art is communication.” With that said, the girls who went to paint at Pow!Wow! this year, were very different than the wide-eyed mural virgins who attended last year. The girls this year were now vetted New Yorkers, who would have a visibly different conversation with their home than they ever had before.
During the first week of February this year, from a graffiti pit tucked into a mountainside, we spoke with Melody and Emma about how the world of mural art has become synonymous with pop culture. In turn, they shed light on how the muralists themselves, through their own distinctive styles and images, essentially become their own brands per say. Through Pow!Wow!, Melody and Emma have been given a glimpse into this exclusive community of muralists (which is ironically super accessible by nature) and are now able to form their own ideas about it from the perspective of (high-brow) fellow-artists. Living in Williamsburg, they have been able to distinguish a “good mural” from the likes of an Andy Warhol mock-up and god forbid, another stencil of Marilyn Monroe. “They [Muralists] get famous because it’s a nice image and it’s very recognizable and now that person is pretty much stuck, or they get stuck, painting the same thing over and over again just to be recognized,” said Emma. And thus a brand is born and what was once “art”, what was expressive, now becomes meaningless. “I think that’s the whole issue, to where it’s on a wall and it’s in a public space and you need to be aware of the fact that you’re going to be affecting people whether they want to see it or not it’s going to be there. You have to balance being unsafe [experimental, progressive] but also keeping people happy with things,” she said continuing.
It took Melody and Emma six days to complete their wall, located adjacent to Hank’s Haute Dogs. Speckled with internet-inspired elements betwixt with fauna and females, their mural would be seen by people from all walks of life — from the homeless in Kaka’ako, to teenagers thirsting for Instagram-likes, to hot dog snobs, to business people in slacks who turn up their noses to anything that looks like “vandalism”, their work would remain long after they boarded a plane returning to JFK-International Airport. Although their initial sketch for the wall wasn’t approved by KS (Kamehameha Schools) due to the presence of nipples within its workings, the piece of art left on those walls is very much so a reflection of the girls’ current identity as artists and as young people. “I think with art making in general, at least for me, it’s been a lot of discovering who I am,” said Melody. Although they both are growing, learning, changing their minds, forming new opinions, this piece done on this wall during this period of time will be a testament to just that: creation need be synonymous with maturation.
When asked if they ever got homesick, they both replied, “never”. Being back home if anything serves to show them just how much they had shed any notion of tan, for thicker skin that can withstand below freezing temperatures and art-school-esque critiques. Yet they have taken Hawaii with them, manifesting in inner-growth recognizable only through increments of hindsight. I asked them if they felt like New Yorkers and a smile shone through each of their eyes. Melody replied, “it’s the small things. Like how jaywalking is seen as normal [in New York] like if you don’t jaywalk you’re kind of an idiot. It’s like what are you doing standing? But coming back here in Hawaii and everyone is waiting for the stop sign, I notice myself inching towards [the crosswalk] I’m like what am i doing? I’m not in New York.” The girls agreed that going back and forth between home (Hawaii) and home (Brooklyn, New York) is a necessity — consciously for the sake of sanity, as well as subconsciously as they realize that there is no place quite like home. For Melody and Emma have found, home is not just a place, but a feeling.