In 1984, when many teenage boys were playing Pac-man after school, Hawaii-born Estria Miyashiro began perfecting his artistic style through graffiti, the street aerosol art that emerged as a pillar of hip-hop culture. Now living in Oakland, the muralist who works under the name Estria is also a designer, educator and hip-hop activist whose commissioned and community art projects can be seen all over the Bay Area.
With more than 400 murals on his list of accomplishments, Estria paints all over the world, but when he spoke of his childhood in Hawaii, his voice softens and his eyes light up.
“My mother made me go to the YMCA everyday. I went for the girls, but ended up learning leadership and community service,” he recalled.
Estria can still name his first piece of art, a crude attempt at the word “FRESH” with a cheap airbrush kit on a concrete wall. He left the island at 18 to attend the Academy of Art and Design in San Francisco, where he remembers spending every waking moment drawing.
“My friends and I would have these contests to see who could get the most hours drawing. I’d always win,” he said. “If I had a 15-minute lunch break, that was fifteen minutes of drawing. Riding the bus-drawing. Waiting on the bus-drawing.”
Through his extensive practice, Estria’s talent expanded from “tagged” words to larger spray-painted “pieces” to full-scale aerosol murals, which have allowed him to engage communities around the world in art-based empowerment and healing.
He remembered the mural that had the greatest impact on him, a community art project in El Chamelecón, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in remembrance of 28 men, women and children who were shot to death on a bus by gunmen. The 2004 massacre was officially blamed on a notorious gang, Mara Salvatrucha, according to the LA Times.
“There was no one in that community who was not touched by that massacre. Everybody knew someone on that bus,” Estria said. “We were saying good-bye [with the mural] and honoring the people who lost their lives.”
“Their families came out to thank us. It was the most impacting mural I’ve ever done.”
Now, at the age of 40, Estria considers himself a “serial entrepreneur” because, aside from running a design company, Samurai Graphix, and planning a yearly graffiti battle with Youth Speaks, Inc., he often has several artistic ventures going at once.
“I’m working on a major project to honor the 100th Battalion in Hawaii,” he said. “But I’m also finishing up the mural at East Bay Asian Youth Center and starting a new one on the building next to the community center.”
Estria’s work in Oakland has come in many forms. He co-founded a youth mural workshop through the Visual Elements program at EastSide Cultural Center, combining art technique with political education as a vehicle for youth to empower their communities. Estria said this program allows young graffiti artists to articulate feelings of disconnect while helping them discover that their voices matter.
Evolving his art from tags, lettering and smaller pieces to a graffiti mural form incorporating hip-hop and other cultural elements has allowed Estria to build relationships in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, Honolulu, Mexico, Italy, Peru, Honduras and Japan. Every mural is unique to the population it represents, he said.
“Without the support of the community, there is no purpose in the art,” he said.
“The art brings everyone out and they get involved, even if they are just standing and watching it happen, they are a part of it.”
“They talk and hang out and sometimes they help paint. The art belongs to the community,” he said. As our country moves into a time of change and rebuilding, Estria believes that the responsibility of the artist is to challenge and to push.
He said, “Art should be confrontational and controversial and artists should be at the vanguard pushing for change.”