On an overcast Wednesday afternoon, a few dozen Kealakehe Elementary School students walked to the bottom of the ramps in the middle of the campus to take a glimpse of art in progress.
The busy elementary school last week became the latest Hawaii school to house a large piece of aerosol art — in this case, a large mural by Hawaii-based artist Ken “East-3” Nishimura and his crew. The piece features brightly colored sea creatures, flying fish and a message written in the stylized lettering that has become identifiable with graffiti artists around the world — large, pointed letters in bold colors.
This time, the letters declare a positive message, encourage students to stay away from crystal methamphetamine, to not try the drug, “Not Even Once.”
The message is the theme of a collaborative partnership between the Hawaii Meth Project and Nishimura, called the Not Even Once Meth Project.
Nishimura talked with the students for a few minutes, during a painting break, explaining the design choices.
“The ocean-based mural relates to youth and everyone,” Nishimura said.
Children, listening to Nishimura, then began offering stories of aunties and uncles who died of drug overdoses.
Those stories are familiar to Joe “Joski” Baxter of the Kona youth organization Floorox. Baxter grew up on the mainland, in a community where he saw his relatives doing drugs. He said he wants kids to know how important it is to stay away from meth and other negative influences and actions.
“This message, it’s for anything, alcohol abuse, disrespecting somebody,” Baxter said.
The medium of aerosol art is part of the message, Floorox’s Michael “Reptank” Sato said.
“We want to try and re-educate the hip-hop community,” he said, adding that hip-hop has a history of clashing with society. The music form came from people attempting to find something positive, though, he said.
Nishimura has been involved in similar community projects for several years. He said his goal is to create positive messages while giving back to his community. Originally from Oahu, he has traveled the world creating aerosol art. More recently, he’s taken a few young artists under his wings, first teaching them the artistry of mural making, then letting them take the lead on the business side.
For this round of Not Even Once murals, the two Kauai teenagers called businesses and asked for sponsorships and in-kind donations to fund the travel and purchase materials. The Kealakehe mural is one of four Nishimura and his students were painting.
His students are now mentoring a young artist of their own.
“I couldn’t be happier with this movement we’re creating,” Nishimura said. “I’m slowly building this cycle. It’s exciting.”