Kamehameha Schools - Hawai`i Campus - Class of 2007
Artist: http://www.aaronkai.com | @aaronkkai
More than a wave.
Embedded within the artwork of Aaron Kai is the storyline of a boy who grew up in Hilo surfing, drawing, and discovering the ingenious history of his Hawaiian ancestors. Aaron’s bold waves delineate an experience and call out to the memory of youthful days spent in motion.
It all began when he was four years old. Aaron’s older sister (nine years his senior) was creative and would allow him to use her art supplies. He would eye his older brother’s drawings, and being a year and a half younger, Aaron was determined to draw just like him. Throughout his school years, when other subjects were looking down, art was always looking up. His mother encouraged him, classmates reacted to his abilities, and Aaron never stopped practicing.
After graduating from Kamehameha Schools Hawai‘i campus in 2007, he opted to study film and made the move from Hilo to San Francisco. He earned his degree and after a series of jobs in editing, graphic design, and printing, Aaron decided to turn up the volume on all that he had been creating in those in-between moments that artists crave. He posted his work on Instagram, attended art shows, and literally took marketing into his own hands by creating hand-drawn sticker labels to share. He sold his first painting four years ago for the value of his monthly rent. Shortly after, Aaron would make the pivotal, mental decision to never look back.
He describes his art as “post pop” - with an air of Warhol, Campbell’s Soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles, but “less pop looking and more free” and reminiscent of the mid-nineties cartoons he grew up watching.
Take a look and hear more from Aaron Kai below.
How would you describe yourself as a teenager in and out of school?
I was always interested in art, so I would draw rather than take notes. Outside of school, I would hang out with my friends and throw little get togethers. Surfed a lot. I’m from Hilo, so it’s a small town and not much to do except go to the beach and hang out with your friends. I did a lot of drawing and I used to make print t-shirts when I was in high school. I was active in things that interested me. I guess it kind of worked out for the better that way.
There’s a quote by Picasso, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” How did your artistic talent grow from childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood?
When I would go over to my grandmother’s house, it would be my older brother and my older cousin, and they would draw. This is one of my earliest memories, I remember wanting to draw how they could. So I would try to copy them and impress my older family members. As I got older, my mom really encouraged me to draw, kids in school were like “wow, you’re really good,” and people around me were like “you’re better than we are at this.” When I realized that about second grade, I just kept drawing my whole life. It was definitely my family and my friends who noticed first. I wasn’t very into school. My mom and dad would be pissed at me for a lot of school stuff, so being praised when it came to the art part, I knew they were obviously not telling me that I’m good at everything, because I wasn’t.
How did you pursue art with the responsibility of having other jobs?
I graduated film school and was looking for a job editing videos. Long story short, the economy tanked and the guy I was working for started editing his own videos, so I got laid off. I was trying to freelance for a while and it was really slow. I got a job at OfficeMax and the lady who was working at the print and copy center got fired. My manager was like “does anyone know how to do copy and print stuff?” I knew how to do it. I ended up working full-time at the copy center. In the downtime, I would use the computer and try not to get caught. I would go home and work on designs on my computer or draw.
Eventually, I moved backed to Hawaii for four months because my lease was up. I was doing a clothing brand at the time, Lemon Hawaii, and I was promoting it that whole summer. I moved back to California and my sister said she might have a graphic design job opening up in the city. I went, got the job, and worked with my sister for a year, and continued to do graphic design and art at work. Then I got a job at a law firm working in the copy center. I basically worked to support what I really wanted to do which was art. I’d bring my computer and sketchbook to work. During downtime, I would whip out my computer and do some graphics or draw in my sketchbook.
I knew I needed to post my work on Instagram - and not just draw to just draw. I started posting it to my IG and grabbing little sticker labels from work, drawing on those, handing them out at art shows, and being really active in and out of work. While I was working at the law firm, I sold two paintings and had the opportunity to do some walls for Tiffany Tanaka of Fresh Cafe. I was like alright, I sold two paintings, I’m going to go do this work in Hawaii. I’m going to do this art thing and never look back.
What was the seminal moment where you realized that people outside of your family and friends would appreciate your art and eventually buy it?
Definitely when I was making shirts and classmates were buying them from me in high school. That’s when I noticed that I could make money off of it one way or another. It wasn’t until three or four years ago though, when someone actually bought a piece from me, I made my rent. In selling a painting, I made what I would make in two weeks at my 9 to 5 job. The fact that I could make that, I was like I can do this.
How would you describe your art?
Post pop art - basically pop art for millennials. Contemporary art for this generation, but you don’t need to be a millennial to appreciate it. My style is inspired by cartoons when I was growing up - mid-nineties Saturday morning cartoons, so a lot of people will be like “this reminds me of (insert cartoon).” That’s what I express it as, post pop art - it’s the evolution of Warhol, Campbell Soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles, less pop-looking and a more free, cartoon-y style.
Is the artistic life lonely and how do you counteract that?
I like to be alone when I paint sometimes or when I’m coming up with ideas - as to not have any outside voice have a play in anything. It can be lonely, but it depends where your head’s at and what kind of space you’re in. I make sure I spend an even amount of time on working and enjoying my friends, girlfriend, and family. I like to create stuff either early in the morning or late at night, because usually no one is around. It definitely helps to be alone, it doesn’t hurt at all.
How do you differentiate between the work you want to do and work that may not be as desirable creatively, but is more lucrative?
There’s always going to be that balance between stuff that you want to do and stuff that you don’t mind doing, but definitely want to get money for it. It’s a balance of making sure that for one, all your financial ends are met at the end of the month, but more importantly, it’s about how you want to be looked at as an artist; what you stand for and what you can show people through your art and the projects that you’re doing.
What’s your definition of success?
Happiness and freedom. Freedom - to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Happiness - being with people that make you happy. Success for me is to continue doing what I’m doing until I can’t anymore and when I’m gone, have people still remember the art and appreciate it. That to me would be success.
How does your art reflect Hawaii?
I think it’s kind of a thing with local boys from Hawaii when you surf, you draw waves at school. Who can draw the best wave? That’s where it started for me. For me, it wasn’t necessarily about surfing, it was more about - -the motion. Going to the beach, getting picked up by your friends, going to the store, grabbing food and a drink, going to the beach early in the morning - that connection you have with your friends, because at the end of the day, we’re all in charge of each other’s lives.
I went to Kamehameha and we were always in a class that taught us about Hawaiian history and studies. We were in the middle of the ocean when Captain Cook came to Hawaii, we were thriving, we were doing perfectly fine. We had an ecosystem and everything made sense and we were self-sustaining. For us to be in the middle of the ocean, and to be able to do that, is pretty astonishing to me. It’s why I’m proud to be Hawaiian - my ancestors did that. Everything came from the ocean; our people came from the ocean and landed in Hawaii. Ultimately, that’s where we are from. That’s where everything comes to Hawaii - from the ocean - and that’s how it ties into Hawaii.