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Big in Hawai‘i—Artist Kris Goto shares how she levels up

Creating art is Kris Goto’s passion.

She nevah really thought about ‘em, but artist Kris Goto, 36, she been living in Hawai‘i half her life now. She wuz born in Kagoshima, Japan, den she wen live in New Zealand and Hong Kong before she wen finally settle down in Hawai‘i in 2006.

She been featured in art exhibits in Japan, in California, and at various galleries all ova Hawai‘i. In recent years mo and mo of her murals have been popping up and mo and mo companies have been approaching her for do collabs. Whether it’s teaming up for make t-shirts with T&C Surf, shoes with Vans, or bags with Uniqlo, her brand has been blowing up big time!

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So I know your answer going be different, but what school you went, what year you grad?

So I went to an international school that no longer exists in Hong Kong and I graduated in 2006.

You get lotta Japanese iconography in your pieces like sushi, origami, and sumo wrestling. An’den you also get lotta images that signify Hawai‘i like Spam musubi, flower lei, and surfing. You draw these tings cuz you identify as one Local Japanese person?

(Correcting) I identify as a Japanese person. But, you know, until I was in my late 20’s, I wasn’t really fond of the idea that I am from Japan. I think because as a youth I grew up in foreign countries so I was always trying to fit into the place that I was living in at the time. But in my late 20’s I decided, I realized that Japan is a beautiful country with a very rich culture. So I felt that I just wanted to reconnect with my identity more in terms of where I’m from and the country that I was born in and the culture that I was raised in until I was nine. I think from then on I put more focus on re-establishing my relationship with my own heritage.

So you tink you would eva call yourself Local?

My Hawai‘i inspired art is definitely me trying to explore Hawai‘i and what it is and what I see and what I feel. So that’s when you’ll see a lot of my Hawai‘i inspired art. But I don’t really feel like I’m a Local Japanese person, because I wasn’t born here. You know what I mean?

Try talk about culture shock when you first came here.

My first discovery was that somehow the Japanese food here is very different from the Japanese food that I was familiar with at the time. And it’s an amazing proof that Hawai‘i has a very unique melting pot of cultures. When I first came to Hawai‘i and ate poke for instance, I had never really had maguro in that style before. So I was like, “Whoa, this is really good!”

So I heard you nevah went art school. So how you wen teach yourself art?

I used to do a lot of mosha, which means to copy in Japanese. I have spent a big chunk of my school years just tracing manga characters from my favorite artists. Do you know Slam Dunk, Lee? Takehiko Inoue is the artist. I really love the way he draws the human form. When I say tracing, I’m not tracing it with tracing paper. With mosha I’m looking at it and then trying to copy the same exact thing on a sheet of paper. So I definitely learned how to draw human figures and hands from copying Inoue’s work, and then taking that knowledge and applying it to my own style.

How you knew you you wanted for be one artist for one living?

I never really thought about selling my art or that I could make a living off of it because it was just something I’ve always done. But in 2009 or 2010 I saw a call to artists ad in the window at Mark’s Garage [in Honolulu]. So I just like made some very random thing on a piece of paper. I got in the show, but I didn’t have enough money to frame it. I didn’t even have the knowledge to even think of framing it. So I just gave them this piece of paper and they just stuck it on the wall for me and then it sold for like two hundred dollars.

This was before I understood the importance of keeping records of everything in case I wanted to make a portfolio or a book one day. (Pleading) So if that person still has it, I kind of want to see it again and reconnect with it.

You get some pretty whimsical illustrations like women surfing with umbrellas, women using giant nene goose-es as handgliders, and women being engulfed by giant Spam musubi. Where you get these fantastical ideas from?

It definitely comes in the moment. So sometimes I would be lying in bed trying to go to sleep, and I’m like, oh my god, this is a great idea. And then I would just text it to myself. So when I have ideas, I like to write it down and put it away, like on a post-it or in a notebook because I will forget five minutes later, you know (Laughing).

You get lotta artworks that depict women surfing, surfing with umbrellas, surfing with Spam musubi, surfing with balloons, surfing with origami cranes, surfing with jellyfish, surfing with strawberries, surfing with flowers, surfing with pineapples, and even surfing with papers from work. So Kris, I kinda feel like I gotta ask you, do you like surfing?

(Laughing) I do! I used to surf a lot. I used to surf like twice a day, every day, when I had the leisure of time.

So your first time surfing wuz when you came hea?

Yeah, I had never surfed. The longer I live, Lee, I realize that I’ve lived a very closed life until I came here. And it kind of shows in the progression of my artwork. I think living in Hawai‘i with all its different people, different cultures, it has exposed me to a lot of new things, like new emotions, new sides of me that I never knew existed before.

Mostly all da peoples in your artistic world stay wahine. So how come you gravitate toward da female form?

I think because I’m a woman, so I resonate best with the female form. This is just my personal preference, but I just feel like I can only illustrate what I know. And I know women. I know women’s bodies. I know how they think, how they feel. I think that’s why I primarily want to work with a female figure—because I am one.

Um, almost all your pieces stay family friendly, but every once in awhiles you unveil some risqué kine pieces wea da women stay topless or get lotta women's butt cheeks showing. You trying for be provocative for those pieces or you wuz just too lazy for draw da clothes?

(Not laughing at Lee’s joke). I don’t think they’re provocative. I think it’s freeing. I think it’s a way to express oneself. If a woman wants to cover up that’s her prerogative, but if a woman wants to show her butt cheeks, that’s her own right to do so. So for me it’s about liberation.

I tink da first time I saw your art I saw your signature as KT Goto or maybe K Goto. Den later on I noticed you wuz signing Fumie Goto. But lately seem like you been going by Kris Goto. Wassup with that?

So Kris was a name giving to me in Hong Kong because my Japanese name is Fumie. But my Mom thought that I should have an English name because apparently some people had a hard time saying my name correctly and my Mom got tired of correcting people.

I think there’s like four different ways that I’ve signed my artwork before. I know it’s definitely kind of confusing for my fans. I just like to sign it depending on my mood at the time when I finish something (Laughing). 

Lately you coming more famous for your murals. Wuz it daunting at first for do your work all giant-size? Explain da feeling.

It kind of feels like you are with a friend of yours that you don’t want to see more than like twice a month, but then you suddenly have to spend time with that friend for like 24 hours a day for five days straight!

So my typical sizing is like within the twenty inch dimension, right? My first mural was for the group formerly known as Pow! Wow! Hawaii, it is now Hawai‘i Walls. They asked me to do a mural in 2013 and I had never really done a mural before, but I said I could give it a try. And it was such a stressful and painful experience that I still remember it very vividly till this day.

Kris Goto working on her “Kotoba” mural for Hawai‘i Walls at Palama Settlement, 2023.

But in the end, I actually enjoyed the challenge. I think I’ve become a better artist after every mural.

You been getting lotta collabs with big companies. Wuz there one particular project that really got your name out there and made these companies seek you out?

I don’t know. I guess I would have to ask them and say, “Hey, how did you find me?” But I think one of them was definitely when Target, Ala Moana [Shopping Center] asked me to do artwork for their store in 2017. That helped me greatly in kick-starting my career.

My family loves shopping at Target, but I get bored cuz we go so often. I gotta say, da Ala Moana Target stay my favorite cuz I get for look at all da custom wallpaper dey made of your art and it keeps me occupied. I always try for see if I can count how many hidden Spam musubi you wen draw. You know anybody else who counts your Spam musubis or das just me?

Kris Goto’s artwork adorns the walls of Target at Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu.

I do get that every now and then (Laughing). But I’m always just surprised in general when people even notice my artwork and say, “Oh, I really love your artwork at Target,” because I thought when people shop they wouldn’t really focus on anything else other than the things they needed to buy. Because when I shop, I have a tendency to buy more things than I need, so I don’t look around the store—I stick to my list!

How you want people for feel when dey looking at your work?

I want people to wonder. I want people to question. I want people to think about what’s going on. I want people to feel any emotion. I don’t want indifference when people look at my artwork. I prefer to have the viewer either love it or hate it.

Who you grateful to for supporting you in your journey in becoming this superstar artist extraordinaire?

I am grateful for every person that resonates with the world I create and is willing to take a stroll through my creativity and share in these stories with me. I am thankful for their support and love.

Eh, for one future, even mo big bomboocha kine goal, instead of doing just one wall mural, you eva considered doing one whole side of one super tall building like da famous muralist Kamea Hadar?

Oh my god, that’d be really fun! Hopefully, I do get that offer one day. It’s good to have to get yourself out of your comfort zone and do something that scares you. And bigger murals scare me every time. However frustrating and stressful doing murals may be, everytime I finish a mural I learn something new and I come out of it feeling leveled up!

Photos are all Courtesy of Kris Goto.


© 2024 Lee A. Tonouchi

artists graphic arts Hawaii identity murals painting United States
About this series

In this series, acclaimed author "Da Pidgin Guerrilla" Lee A. Tonouchi uses the language of Hawai‘i Creole, a.k.a. Pidgin, to talk story with accomplished and up-and coming Japanese/Okinawan Americans from Hawai‘i. Interviewees discuss their passions, their triumphs, as well as their struggles as they reflect and express their gratitude to those who have helped them on their journeys to success.

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About the Author

Lee A. Tonouchi, Okinawan Yonsei, stay known as “Da Pidgin Guerrilla” for his activism in campaigning for Pidgin a.k.a. Hawai‘i Creole for be accepted as one legitimate language. Tonouchi stay da recipient of da 2023 American Association for Applied Linguistics Distinguished Public Service Award for his work in raising public awareness of important language-related issues and promoting linguistic social justice.

His Pidgin poetry collection Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son: One Hawai‘i Okinawan Journal won da Association for Asian-American Studies Book Award. His Pidgin children’s picture book Okinawan Princess: Da Legend of Hajichi Tattoos won one Skipping Stones Honor Award. And his latest book stay Chiburu: Anthology of Hawai‘i Okinawan Literature.

Updated September 2023

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