This is a sponsored post by Chase Ultimate Rewards. The content and opinions expressed below are that of truelane.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The best kinds of trips are the ones that change your life when you weren’t quite sure what you were initially walking into. With summer in full and beautiful swing during the second weekend in June, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Long Beach, California, to attend POW! WOW! Long Beach festival.
POW! WOW! is a celebration of culture, music, and art that originated in Hawaii. The festival’s founders were inspired by the traditional Native American pow wow. Native American culture is spread far, wide, and rich across Washington state, so I grew up around it as a Seattle native (a relative term in this context—as native as I can be being born in 1991). Reading about the festival, I was instantly hooked, and was stoked to see what artistic talents POW! WOW! would bring to light.
Mainly, POW! WOW! is a mural festival. Artists are invited from around the world to spend the week in sunny SoCal executing some of the biggest work they’ve ever done, and my sister Elyse and I got to see it all go down. As soon as we hopped on our bus tour of the in-progress murals, we were enchanted. Charismatic and down-to-earth John Hall, the director of the Long Beach branch of the festival, stood and introduced himself as our tour guide while the bus began to roll along, and I wondered if I heard right. The guys that actually make this event happen were the guys that were taking us around, introducing us to the artists, and giving us the inside scoop on what it takes and what it means to put on POW! WOW! Long Beach. I felt honored to even be in their presence. Our first stop on the tour was an half-finished mural by Japanese artist Dragon76, and John was the first one out the bus door. By the time we rounded the corner to the mural, John was mid-conversation with Dragon76…in surprisingly fluent Japanese. Elyse and I just looked at each other, dumbfounded, as we found ourselves doing practically every ten minutes the whole trip. Everything was the coolest.
As we stopped at more murals and learned more about each artist, their background, and the piece they were working on, it became clear to me that this was not just a group of artists and organizers that descended upon the city, made their mark, and vanished. POW! WOW! is an event for the entire city of Long Beach, and the municipal government and local business are one-hundred percent invested most of the year. It takes work to acquire sponsors, and even walls for the artists to paint on. The team has to negotiate with building owners and the businesses inside them to find an available wall, preferably with high visibility and not a lot of windows or other interruptions. At the same time, John explained that POW! WOW! isn’t trying to own the Long Beach art scene, stating, “We’re just here to be a part of it.” Wall and mural art are often mistakenly placed into the same category as graffiti, as there are a ton of noncommissioned art pieces across the globe that tend to rub business owners the wrong way. But this is different.
POW! WOW! Hawaii began in a run-down neighborhood that has since blossomed into a vibrant art hub with dozens of murals completed in the six years that POW! WOW! has been up and running. Art can truly change things and change people, and that is why the festival has expanded into so many cities over the years. This summer marks the second year for POW! WOW! Long Beach. Some of last year’s murals are still around, and others are not. That’s a natural part of mural painting, as John told us on the tour. People interact with it and add to it and make it their own, and that difference is why POW! WOW! is not a platform for budding artists. It’s a privilege to be asked to paint for POW! WOW! The team pays for airfare, hotel, and gallons upon gallons of paint that artists normally have to provide for themselves to express their ideas and their visions.
After spending the weekend in Long Beach, Elyse and I had plans to head north to Los Angeles. We spent a few days in West Hollywood and Santa Monica seeing the sights and the sun, and as relaxing as it was, we couldn’t stop talking about POW! WOW! Then, our trip came full circle when we checked into a random, one-night hotel back in Long Beach, the day before our flight home, and it turned out to be one of the locations of a POW! WOW! mural: the hotel was a partner for the festival. It had even been the home base of one of our favorite artists, Aaron Li-Hill, while he was completing his mural. We felt perfect closure at Long Beach Airport the next day, when Hawaii-based artist Kaplan Bunce was on our flight back to Seattle to spend a few days in his hometown of Olympia. Decked out in a POW! WOW! t-shirt and snapback, he was easy to spot in the crowd.
“Where are you guys sitting?” he asked me after I introduced myself in line to buy a water bottle before we boarded, “We gotta squad up.”
The funny thing? I didn’t even blink at the idea of this phenomenally talented and well-known artist wanting to spend some time with a couple art enthusiasts at a southern California airport—the sense of POW! WOW! community is real and alive, during the festival and beyond.
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