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Oahu street artist paints anti-meth mural

March 8, 2014 - 12:05am

Oahu multimedia artist Ken “East3” Nishimura left more than spray paint on Kealakehe High School’s cafeteria wall. His mural created communal pride while also highlighting the power and dynamism this art form has to convey messages. It captivated admirers, young and old.

Bright, colorful and bold, the mural consists of two students surrounded by stars, rendered in quickly applied yet thoughtful puffs of aerosol. In between are three words in bulky letters: “Not even once.” It’s Hawaii Meth Project’s well-known campaign tagline, aimed specifically at those thinking about trying crystal methamphetamine.

While this mural is intended to be a public service awareness art piece with an anti-drug message, Nishimura thinks it’s cool if it provokes other thoughts that lead viewers to forego negative actions and instead engage in the positive.

The mural, completed Thursday, was part of Spray Away Meth, an art campaign aimed at keeping teens off one of the most addictive substances known. Nishimura plans to create three murals. The first was made last month on Maui, the second here in Kailua-Kona, and the third will be on Oahu.

Hawaii Meth Project Executive Director David Earles said the idea for this latest series of street art-style murals came from the organization’s 20-member teen advisory council. Those teens felt the best way to get messages out to their peers in a fresh, unique way was through art.

“We have learned that this style of art resonates with the youth,” Nishimura said. “They feel inspired and connected to it.”

According to the Hawaii Meth Project, the drug is powerful, addictive and quick to destroy lives and communities. The financial and social consequences are devastating, causing an overburden of jails and prisons, reducing employee productivity and increasing foster care, health care and treatment costs. Meth is also increasingly gaining popularity among teens and young adults.

Earles said Hawaii has the nation’s highest rate of meth use in the workplace and is among the top in the nation for the percentage of meth-related treatment admissions. Nearly 20 percent of teens here say they can easily obtain the drug.

Last year, Hawaii Meth Project had 950 teens and 311 adults who volunteered in various efforts that strive to combat meth abuse in Hawaii, he added.

Nishimura has been painting and engaged in street art for 31 years. About five years ago, he started working with youth and during collaborations with the police department on Kauai learned about Hawaii’s meth epidemic.

Nishimura felt that he could help through art, believing it could be a powerful vehicle for expression and education for the younger generation. Art, he said, was a way for him to give back. Nishimura has donated his time teaching teens street art at anti-meth workshops and judging Hawaii Meth Project’s art contests.

Besides communicating the dangers of meth use through public art, Nishimura teaches youth aerosol art techniques and gives them the opportunity to freely express themselves in a supportive, inspiring environment.

During a free hourlong workshop Wednesday, a wall of the school’s library was the canvas for Kealakehe High students, who temporarily left their marks in a variety of formats, from name tags to intricate designs. Their art was immediately painted over once the exercise was completed.

Floorox, a collective of artists and community contributors who promote the positive side of hip-hop culture, held a rally that included music and break dancing. The goal was to empower youth to know the possibilities that exist for them and to raise awareness that hip-hop offers much more than just its notorious traits often display through entertainment, said Joe Baxter of Floorox.

Both Baxter and Nishimura spoke about how the elements of hip-hop, from rhyming, emceeing and deejaying to b-boyin’ and doing street art, can be used to make valuable contributions in the community. This includes youth empowerment and development, as well as social service.

As Nishimura painted the “Not even once” mural, Baxter noticed students were “completely mesmerized” and drawn to the art piece. One girl kept taking the long way to class just to continue observing the work in progress, he added.

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