It’s become a familiar sight in downtown Kailua-Kona landscape: an artist in paint-smeared clothing, tools in hand, laboring on a mural below Big Island Harley-Davidson on Palani Road.
The cement retaining wall has drawn attention all summer since renowned graffiti artist David Choe’s eye-catching mural was painted over roughly 72 hours after it was painted. Both the mural and its removal sparked spirited debate in West Hawaii.
Prior to Choe’s creation, Kailua-Kona’s self-described “Crazy Mural Lady,” Alice St. Onge, had started a mural.
Now 52-year-old Kailua-Kona artist Dennis Westerlund hopes to put the controversy to rest by bringing a breath of fresh air to the wall with his mostly black-and-white creation. Under way since Saturday, his work has already caused those passing by to stop and comment.
Even as an incomplete work, onlookers Tuesday morning took time to appreciate it, often offering praise or stopping to talk about the importance of saving or allowing community murals. Over an hour, more than a dozen people honked their car horns, flashed shakas or yelled words of encouragement.
“The overwhelming response of aloha has been amazing and unexpected,” Westerlund said. “There have been so many mistakes, bad problems, negativity and opinions about what belongs on this wall. This is more than just creating something pretty and giving people what they want. It’s about creating hometown pride, capturing the spirit of Hawaii, feeling the majesty and grandeur of the Big Island, showcasing how important our culture is, reminding people where we are at this time — and contributing to something positive.”
The mural will have an old Hawaiiana feel to it with pops of color, Westerlund said. The mural pays homage to his roots. As a young artist, Westerlund created and sold black-and-white ink pen drawings at Uncle Billy’s Kona Bay Hotel.
The image will be complex, featuring mountains, South Point, whales, dolphins, canoes and lava. But most importantly, it highlights Loihi, the newest Hawaiian volcano about 20 miles off the Big Island’s south coast that’s yet to breach the ocean surface. Westerlund claimed few have seen Loihi and this was the first artistic rendering of the seamount on a mural.
“Someday, (thousands) of years from now, Loihi will emerge from beneath the sea like a gift. Similar to this new island, this new mural is my gift,” he said. “My heart for the Big Island is pouring out on this wall.”
Westerlund approached Big Island Harley-Davidson about doing a mural with an old-school look that would be more appealing to the community and fit in better with the area than Choe’s, said General Manager Mario Medri.
The business has “fans of art.” With all the murals, it just wanted to offer something beautiful for the public to look at. Also allowing artists to use spaces like this one for art was just another opportunity to give back to the community, Medri said.
Westerlund is doing the art piece for free, and Big Island Harley-Davidson is supplying the paint, he added.
Westerlund has lived in Hawaii since 1978. He studies island geology, and he learns and perpetuates as much as he can about the culture. His work can be found throughout Kona. His murals include those at Quinn’s Almost by the Sea, Hale Halawai, Tante’s Island Cuisine and World Square Shopping Plaza.
His mother, Diane, recognized his talent for painting when he was growing up and helped fuel his passion for art and encouraged him to create. All six of his brothers and his father were painting contractors. Westerlund recalled the first time he got paid for his art. He was 13, helping his father on a job in Southern California, and painted a whale on a garage door that wowed the homeowners.
“Art has tremendous power,” he said. “It moves people. It inspires.”