Larger Than Life
Those who see Sean Yoro’s work up close often are in awe of the realism he portrays in his portraits and the street-art-meets-fine-art embodiment of the colors, shading and blending. But ask him to describe his process, from conception to execution, and it’s quite a different story.
“I would explain my ideas to them, and people would look at me like I’m crazy,” he says with a laugh.
It seems those people have a point: When he first was finding his way as an artist, his ideas sounded flat-out nuts.
After moving from Hawaii to New York, Yoro had the idea to paint murals along the waterline — not too insane, right? Tack on the fact that he intended to do this in the middle of winter and it starts to get a little bizarre. And — utilizing his skills on a surfboard — he would use his board as a platform to float along the water to create portraits that utilize the waterline as part of the final piece.
As a visiting artist for POW! WOW! Long Beach 2016, he created a large-scale mural (titled LUANA) under Queensway Bridge in which he balanced upon dozens of feet of scaffolding — all atop a floating apparatus on the water.
So, yes, Yoro is right. Listening to his ideas come to fruition is kind of insane. But sometimes insanity breeds excellence, and Yoro’s work quickly is gaining recognition. Best known for his giant portraits of women — often in out-of-the-way, abandoned locales — he currently has 118,000 followers on Instagram, has been featured in the likes of CNN and Wired magazine, and has a number of new projects in the works.
“It was pretty much overnight that happened — to go from classic starving artist to being booked up for the next year with projects,” he says.
Yoro is a self-proclaimed “typical Hawaii boy.” He spent most of his life in the water — surfing, of course, which is how he can spend hours balancing on a board while painting — and originally wanted to become a lifeguard.
But a spur-of-the-moment drop-in at a drawing class at Windward Community College changed the trajectory of his life. He recalls the charcoal and the live-model demonstration and how so much life could spring forth from instrument and paper.
His love of portraitures shone through with intensity.
“With landscapes, I never got that same satisfaction,” Yoro says.
With portraits, he is able to capture a moment of life, a specific emotion, that others can connect with.
“I knew I wanted to do this,” he says. “And I wanted to figure out a way to pursue it.”
That sparked his almost immediate move to Brooklyn when he was 21, where he spent five years self-teaching and honing his craft.
“I was painting almost every day during that time,” he adds.
And his choice to paint solely young women?
“It’s such a cool balance to see decaying, abandoned spots and bring life into them with these women,” he explains. “I would try to composite them with men, and it just didn’t have that same feel.”
When he moved to New York, he did so with the mindset that this was make-it-or-break-it for his art and any potential career that could spring forth.
“It was the farthest place I could go where I didn’t know anyone and I could just test myself,” he says.
Trickles of Hawaii followed Yoro to New York, as is evident in the traditional Polynesian markings that often grace his work, and in his street name — HULA.
Paying homage to his island roots, the moniker HULA parallels a symbolic history between hula and graffiti. Both were first done as a form of expression, but were made illegal — by the hands of city government for graffiti and missionaries for hula. Then, they came back with a vengeance, a chance to recapture what once could have been lost forever. This second-wave art form perpetuation is something Yoro hopes his work can inspire.
“My work in the beginning was technically illegal,” he says. “So it was pretty good to have an alias.”
Yoro encourages others to pursue their passion and test the boundaries of their comfort zones. It’s the only way, he says, to discover your skill and drive.
“I would rather fail going forward than stay comfortable in a little box,” Yoro says.
Although he’s based in New York now, Yoro still has work around the islands, including his MAHANA mural along Keawe Street in Kakaako. Most recently, he returned for a visit home to create a new mural at Saks Fifth Avenue’s Fifth Avenue Club in Waikiki, entitled Laule‘a, that features Miss Hawaii USA 2014 Moani Hara’s profile.
“I love having the figure kind of interact with the walls,” he adds. “I like to play with the space I’m in, so, with her, she’s going to be pressing up against both sides of the wall.”
During his recent stay in the Islands, he also spoke to a group of students to inspire them to continue pursuing art. It’s something he hopes to do more of in the future.
“I feel like there’s that mentality that life on this island is confined,” Yoro explains. “And there’s that saying about how there’s no opportunity here. And with all the news and successes that I’ve had, I’m fortunate to have a voice and be able to not only inspire, but also teach kids.”
His work has taken him all over the world, and one of the trips he’s most well-known for is his time in the Arctic — Iqaluit, Nunavut, to be precise — during a collaboration with The North Face. There, Yoro painted murals on melting ice. That might seem like a crazy notion, but Yoro jumped at the chance to try something new.
That trip also was a step in Yoro striving to further his reach as an artist by touching on subjects close to his heart. When he first started dabbling in portraiture, he gravitated toward oil-based paints, but as he began painting along the water — and for his Arctic adventure — he transitioned to nontoxic material to be environmentally friendly.
“I feel like, especially with the iceberg mural that I did, it was the kind of thing that had a deeper message to it,” he says.
Growing up, Yoro says it was instilled in him that it was his responsibility, his kuleana, to take care of the land.
“I felt like it needed a voice to it,” he adds. “And not too many artists use their platform to spread awareness.”
Next year will be a time of branching out for him, moving further from the ocean and water and toward other elements of nature. You’ll just have to stay tuned because he’s keeping most of his upcoming projects under wraps, but he does tease that he plans to focus future works on climate change and other issues.
“I’m excited because they’re all kind of finding new ways in nature to incorporate art,” he says. “And kind of spread awareness with what’s going on, not only with climate change, but also social issues that I want to touch on.”
Keep up with Yoro on Instagram (@the_hula) or check out byhula.com.