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Artists paint murals to revitalize Pahoa 
By KELSEY WALLING Hawaii Tribune-Herald | Wednesday, August 17, 2022, 12:05 a.m. 

Taking advantage of sunny weather last Friday, Keoni Alvarez smiled as he put the finishing touches on a large mural at the Pahoa Aquatic Center.

Alvarez’s mural is one part of the Paint Pahoa Town revitalization project, where artists are designing and painting murals on businesses and community buildings to depict Puna’s history and culture, and to refresh the town.

The goal of the project is to enhance the buildings and integrate artwork that celebrates the community’s values and stories, as well as the natural and cultural resources found throughout the region. The idea came about from recovery action teams after the 2018 Kilauea eruption as a way to revitalize the town and stimulate the economy.

“Paint Pahoa is designed to transform the town’s built environment as well as instill a greater sense of community pride,” said Ashley Kierkiewicz, County Council member for District 4. “This collaborative project celebrates what makes Puna special and empowers local artists as well as residents to be part of creating a vibrant community.”

Revitalize Puna’s Economic Resilience Capacity Area, co-chaired by Kierkiewicz and Susie Osborne, and the Rotary Club of Pahoa Sunset are spearheading Paint Pahoa, with help from East Hawaii organizations including the rotary clubs of South Hilo, Hilo, Hilo Bay and Volcano.

Sixteen businesses have agreed to be part of the project, and artists have been designing a series of murals that depict the mele, “Ke ha‘a la Puna i ka makani,” or “Puna dancing in the breeze.”

“The idea has been able to evolve into a way to create a nice, cohesive theme to Pahoa town with an even color palette and murals that tell the story of the mele,” said Osborne, president of the Rotary Club of Pahoa Sunset.

“Ke ha‘a la Puna i ka” is ubiquitous to Puna as it tells the story of the landscape, trees and ocean being stimulated by the wind. It is the fir host ula the Hawaiian goddess Hi‘iaka learned from her friend, Hopoe, and performed for her sister, Pele.

“When people walk through the town, they will be intrigued by what they see and want to learn more,” Kierkiewicz said. “We’ll put up plaques honoring old businesses that have since closed, as well as QR codes that lead to a website where people can learn about the story depicted on the building’s mural.”

The Pahoa Mainstreet Association is hoping the project can help stimulate business at local shops and eateries downtown as visitors spend more time in a welcoming environment.

“People are hungry for educational, cultural experiences, so having these murals, the Lava Zone Museum and other venues in the Main Street corridor will give visitors a sense of place,” said Amedeo Market, president of Pahoa time in town, which translates to people stopping in stores nd eating at the local restaurants.”

There also is a desire to bring more residents downtown.“For businesses, having any type of stimulation in the economy is a good thing and will help bring in more people,” Marko􀀁 said. “There is a real push for sustainability and having businesses that can survive and provide services for visitors, but more importantly, residents. We want mom and pop stores to keep going, so we’re all happy this project can get started.”

Four local artists are involved in the project and have been designing art pieces that depict the mele.

Alvarez, Susan Champeny, Anthony “Hawkeye” Donahos and Nainoa Rosehill all have roots in Puna and have expressed their love of the region in their art for years. The murals will stretch along Mainstreet in between Post Office Road and Akeakamai Loop. The project is being funded through grants and private donations, and volunteers are needed. Groups and individuals are welcomed to participate in workdays where they can power-wash, assist the artists, paint portions themselves and be part of the whole experience.


“The project from beginning to end will ultimately increase that sense of community pride and help people be more connected to their home,” Kierkiewicz said. “That will hopefully help people recognize that we have so much to be proud of.”

The first mural was completed last weekend. It is on the back of the Pahoa Aquatic Center and depicts the sea, the mountains of Hawaii Island, and a kalo patch.

“I chose this spot, because my brother and I painted the first mural here 20 years ago, so it is already very significant to me,” Alvarez said. “I started with kalo, since the kalo plant is the beginning of everything in Hawaii. The design is simpler, because I think we should all be going back to the basics. Focusing on family, food, friends and our necessities.”

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