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Bailey Onaga, KSM'09, has been making a name for herself as a muralist and public artist. Her work can be seen everywhere from the streets of Wailuku to Maui beach parks.

Alum Bailey Onaga Is Revitalizing the Community Through Public Art

Dec. 7, 2022

From Bailey Onaga’s early days at Kamehameha Schools Maui, art was her passion.

“I didn’t play sports, I didn’t dance hula. For me, art was the way I expressed myself as a Hawaiian,” said Onaga, KSM’09.

Onaga has been making a name for herself as a muralist and public artist. Under the tutelage of her mentor Philip Sabado of Sabado Studios, Onaga’s work can be seen everywhere from the streets of Wailuku to beach parks.

She recently unveiled a mural at Lihikai Elementary School in Kahului — a collaboration with local artist Matt Agcolicol — which draws upon imagery associated with the school’s ahupuaʻa. And she's getting raves and media attention for her recently completed lifeguard tower mural, which honors the ocean safety personnel who save lives everyday, at Kamaole Beach Park.

So why public art for Onaga, when there are more lucrative or glamorous forms of expression?

“Even as an artist, I’ve never felt fully comfortable in art galleries,” Onaga said, reflecting that museums and galleries can be elitist and exclusive. “With murals, your audience is your community, it’s the people going for walks or driving by. Murals don’t have a price of admission.”

Public art, Onaga said, has a way of revitalizing communities, too. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s broken window theory, small instances of vandalism can hasten the decline of a community’s atmosphere and safety.

“Murals give the community something to be proud of. And, practically speaking, they’re deterrents of vandalism and crime,” she said.

Beyond public art, Onaga is working on a collaborative project called Itsy Bitsy Keiki, a series of books and toys that promote ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and ʻike Hawaiʻi.

The road to becoming a working artist wasn’t easy — it was paved with concern and skepticism from peers and relatives about whether she was giving up a career in something more financially stable.

Those concerns never deterred her from pursuing her dream, though. Onaga’s formal training in art started at the age of 8, when she stepped into her first class with her current mentor Sabado. And then continued when she attended the University of San Francisco.

For students thinking about studying art, Onaga said expensive art schools aren’t the only avenue for honing your skills.

“A lot of the most successful people in this industry didn’t go to art school. They just practiced their craft, drawing every single day. For me, I needed the structure of school, but there are other ways.”

She encourages budding artists to keep their passions lit while staying realistic.

“I’m doing the Hawaiʻi three-job dance. I’m not an artist in demand at the moment, but I’m on my way,” she said. “I do this because I think it’s important that indigenous artists have a presence in Hawaiʻi. We have a unique perspective to share that’s rooted in this place.”

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