Exploring the Artistic Soul of Hawaii: Local Artists and Their Inspirations
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Exploring the Artistic Soul of Hawaii: Local Artists and Their Inspirations

March 20, 2024

Hawaiʻi’s artists interpret the vast beauty of the islands using shadow, light, and color through mediums such as printing, painting, sculpting, photography, and etching. Hawaiʻi craftspeople and artisans create masterpieces that are both elegant and timeless, with interpretations that showcase the immeasurable beauty of each of the islands as only locals can.

Traditional Art

Both pre and post-European colonization, Hawaiʻi offers a rich and unique culture overflowing with arts such as bark cloth (kapa), feather work, stone and wood carvings, tattoos, and petroglyphs. Painstakingly crafted and imbued with profound meanings, these artworks are more than mere decorations; they often fulfill spiritual, social, and practical ambitions.

Once owned by the aliʻi and considered invaluable, male nobility wore feather capes and cloaks for both battle and ceremonies. This prestigious attire was known as ‘ahu’ula and took an incredible amount of industry to create. In ancient times, the art of capturing birds and gathering their feathers (hulu) was a task entrusted solely to the Kia Manu, the bird catchers. The Kia Manu would collect a tremendous amount of feathers, from more than 20,000 birds. After taking a few feathers from each, the birds would then be released. The crafter would devise a unique design that held special meaning to the chief and bind it together on olonä, a fiber netting set in straight rows, with pieces cut and joined into the chosen shape, much like a modern-day dress pattern. Feathers were also used to create lei and kāhili.

Kapa, a soft-textured cloth, was made by beating and felting the paper mulberry plant (wauke). Stamped with bright, geometric patterns, kapa was once the main material used for bedding and clothing. Making kapa was a labor-intensive process that started by growing plants, some for as long as two years, to be harvested. Pounded with a wooden mallet into paper-thin layers, the kapa would then be stained and imprinted with symbolic designs.

Carving objects, such as stone, bone, or wood, was another prevailing form of art in ancient Hawaiʻi. Old petroglyphs carved into stone are a common sight around the islands, although their meaning is still a subject of historical inquiry. A lei niho palaoa, an ornamental necklace worn around the chief’s neck, was made of whale teeth or walrus ivory carved into an upward curve or crescent, likely a stylized reference to a tongue. The incorporation of these pieces into the necklace indicates the significance of eloquence in chiefly endeavors. The crescent design was crucial to the embodiment of the divine and served as a counterpoint to the chief’s crested helmet. Threads of delicately woven human hair propose a genealogical connection between the chief and his ancestral gods.

Stone and wood were also used to represent gods. Numerous masterworks, all intricately carved, can be viewed at the Bishop Museum alongside more workaday objects, like fishhooks, which were carved from bone.

Traditional tattooing in Hawai’i is a process in which a needle is tapped by hand into the skin. This sacred method of tattooing is rife with traditional protocols in order to instill the recipient with the design’s spiritual power. This time-honored method of marking the skin is experiencing something of a modern renaissance. The designs, linked to the wearer’s heritage, social hierarchy, and ancestry are researched and chosen by the tattooist.

Modern Art

When Western explorers first came to Hawaiʻi, they brought with them artists who could document both the landscape and those who lived there. A wildly popular topic was that of erupting volcanoes, which eventually gave rise to the Volcano School, whose student body consisted of non-Native Hawaiian artists, such as William Twigg-Smith, Louis Pohl, and Jules Tavernier, to name a few. Others chronicled everything they observed, as evidenced in drawings and paintings by artists including Robert Dampier, Joseph Sharp, and Jean Charlot.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, the Art Deco movement brought pieces featuring native scenes by painter Arman Manookian, as well as the work of Eugene Savage, who painted murals to entice tourists to visit Hawai’i aboard ships owned by the Matson Navigation Company.

Georgia O’Keeffe, renowned for her paintings of flowers, visited Hawai’i in 1939. She spent two and a half months completing no less than 20 paintings of landscapes and flowers during her visits to Maui, Oʻahu, Maui, Hawai’i, and Kauaʻi.

Today, many prominent photographers and artists from all over the islands highlight every aspect of Hawaiʻi’s metropolitan life and unique tropical beauty. Many of these creators also incorporate Native Hawaiian culture into their work. The co-leading director of the international street art festival Pow! Wow!, Kamea Hadar, is known for placing portraits and murals in unpredictable areas throughout the islands. Hawaiian fiber artist Marques Marzan uses traditional weaving methods to produce modern, wearable art. Solomon Enos, a mixed-media artist, has curated expansive collections themed around the island’s future.


Museums in Hawaiʻi celebrate both contemporary art and the art of our rich culture and heritage. O’ahu’s Bishop Museum is the largest museum in the state, devoted to the study and preservation of Hawai’i’s history. It is also regarded as the foremost cultural and natural history association in the Pacific. The galleries of the Kauaʻi Museum portray the works of multicultural craftsmen, sculptors, and artists along with displays showcasing Hawai’i’s monarchy, early native life, and the geological formation of the islands.

On the other side of the art world lies the Honolulu Museum of Art. Boasting an adjunct campus that overlooks Honolulu and features cutting-edge sculptures and paintings, and an art-house theater, the museum maintains the largest collection of fine art collection in the state and one of the largest collections of Pan-Pacific and Asian art in the country.

Art Events


What started as a month-long celebration of native practitioners, artists, and arts, Maoli Arts Month has evolved into a campaign that now includes trunk shows, art markets, exhibitions, and the impressive MAMo Wearable Art Show. MAMo started in Honolulu but has since extended its reach across the islands.

Pow! Wow! Hawaiʻi

For nearly a decade, Pow! Wow! Hawaiʻi has held a yearly street festival in Kakaʻako, Oʻahu. This extravaganza unites contemporary artists from around the world with local talent. The awe-inspiring, large-format murals have turned this once-industrial district into a thriving urban sprawl with a street gallery of art that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Honolulu Biennial

Connecting artists from the mainland, the Pacific, and Hawai’i, the Honolulu Biennial spotlights modern art every other year in various locations throughout Honolulu.

From ancient wonders to modern masterpieces, Hawai’i has something for every art lover. Whether you are new to the art world or have spent your life in it, the rich culture of the islands is overflowing with creativity.

Our law firm has been helping people who live and visit the Hawaiian Islands for several decades. We hope you never need our services, but if you or a loved one were seriously injured while vacationing in Hawaiʻi, it is in your best interests to speak with an experienced Hawaii personal injury attorney as soon as possible. Contact the law firm of Leavitt, Yamane & Soldner at (808) 537-2525 or fill out our online contact form to schedule a free consultation.



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