So Shar, So Good
Punky Aloha artist Shar Tuiasoa celebrates her culture in her art — and everyone’s taking notice.
There’s a painting that Shar Tuiasoa, the artist behind Punky Aloha, singles out as a piece that’s special to her. Called Mother Pasifika, it depicts a statuesque, brown-skinned woman, gazing off into the distance as she gently rests her hand on her belly. Her hair and dress flow out as if caught by the wind. That dress is, like a lot of Tuiasoa’s art, brightly hued in greens and blues. However, intercut between those colorful panels are pieces of tapa cloth sewn into the canvas.
“That one is a painting that I created and I had sewn on pieces of tapa cloth from my grandma … I cut off pieces to fit into the painting and then I sewed it right on the canvas,” Tuiasoa says.
“For me, having a painting in Bishop Museum, I wanted my grandma to be a part of it. My grandma made maybe hundreds (tapa pieces) in her lifetime … I just wanted it to breathe and share my grandma’s artwork right alongside my own. That piece really means a lot to me.”
In many ways, Mother Pasifika perfectly encapsulates Tuiasoa’s art and ethos. Much of her motivation comes from sharing and celebrating her heritage, Hawai‘i’s culture — and that of the Pacific region in general — as well as reveling in her art and those of her fellow creatives.
Her work, which is created under the name of her studio, Punky Aloha, features a bright, happy palette, often filled with foliage, that showcases figures doing things you’d see your friends doing — just in a very beautiful way. The women are elegant, with hair often cascading or piled high in a “tita bun,” wearing oversized sunglasses and often bedecked in lei po‘o or gold jewelry. All her subjects emit an unapologetic confidence and grace.
Tuiasoa is an illustrator whose work ranges from prints to murals, chocolate bar wrappers to large-scale campaigns for companies like Amazon, Guess and The New York Times. And, while the recognition of those bigger brands are great, it’s the smaller, closer-to-home clients that she’s worked with that have her heart.
“Every job I get approached for, I’m always like, ‘Sweet! Punky Aloha lives to see another day … the art directors (from brands like Amazon and Sephora) know who I am, pat yourself on the back.’ But it doesn’t influence the way I work on the project because I get so excited about working with small businesses in Hawai‘i. That’s my bread and butter. That’s why I am where I am.”
The Kailua native grew up immersed in art. She remembers going with her mom to her art classes at Windward Community College, where her mom took classes from Snowden Hodges. Years later, when Tuiasoa was at Windward CC, the man she describes as “another father figure” taught her as well.
“He’s such a big, big part of my artistic journey,” she says, adding that she spent her early college years splitting time between the fine arts classes at Windward CC and the digital arts classes at Leeward Community College.
Along with her childhood surrounded her mother’s art, the Kailua High School graduate credits the strong arts programs at Windward and Leeward community colleges for her foundation in both fine and digital arts. After her matriculation, she moved on to Laguna College of Art and Design. She says that part of the reason why she chose the campus was because “it was super close to the beach.” But she points out that the school had a good foundational arts program.
“A lot of figure drawing, oil painting, drawing from life. That kind of stuff was really important to me, it still is.”
Once back in Hawai‘i, Tuiasoa knew she had to make a commitment to starting her business.
“I did it really out of desperation because we had no money,” she says.
So, in 2018, Punky Aloha was born.
“I think that first year, I made, $200, $500 … the whole year!”
Humble beginnings, for sure. However, Tuiasoa persevered. She is quick to credit partner Keali‘i Arakaki and their parents for supporting their family — which includes her 15-year-old daughter, Teisa Balsano, and 5-year-old son, Ehukai Arakaki — during those early years.
The 38-year-old notes that her art has evolved over time.
“I don’t know how to really describe (my style),” she explains. “I think the ‘aloha’ part of Punky Aloha is my ethos. That’s how I conduct my business, how I create my artwork, it’s the story behind my artwork. It’s how I live my life, how so many people here live our lives. And, ‘punky’ is just the description of the aesthetic that I use, how I approach design.
“But coming into this place where I am right now, where
everything is brightly colored, super-happy, super-positive, that is something that I had to grow into because I think I create work honestly, and when I was younger and didn’t know who I was and figuring myself out, things were a little more — glum, I think,” she recalls with a rueful chuckle.
“As I grew into myself and learned to love myself and my culture, it really started to inform this new style. I literally just felt alive. I put that on paper because I was feeling alive and so happy and grateful to be where I am and who I am.”
That ability to visually express her feelings and thoughts is no doubt why she was tapped for topical artwork like those for AAPI Heritage Month campaigns for Amazon, Sephora and AT&T.
Tuiasoa’s come a long way from that triple-digit profit first year. She had a full schedule of work and she was invited to create a mural at the “POW! WOW! The First Decade” exhibit at Bishop Museum.
“It was just too much amazing-ness coming at me at once,” she says, describing the experience of being surrounded by world-class street artists for the week that they were all at Bishop Museum, creating their murals for the exhibit.
It’s that spirit of camaraderie, along with a desire to lift up Hawai‘i, that inspires her work.
“I think my passion lies more so with working with Hawai‘i businesses because of that relationship we have with each other … building each other up so we’re not always so reliant on outside sources of income for Hawai‘i. I think that’s something I’m really passionate about. Keeping things really local and the community base. I get excited either way. Amazon’s cool, but you know, doing work with Mahina Made is also amazing.”
Tuiasoa isn’t about to slow down anytime soon. Her online shop is scheduled to launch at the end of September (learn more about her and where her work may be purchased at punkyaloha.com or follow her on Instagram at @ punkyaloha). She also has a new mural going up at the new Target in Līhu‘e.
“Target was actually a dream client of mine, a bucket list client,” she says of the store, which is slated to open in November.
Beyond that, Tuiasoa has a children’s book coming out in summer 2022, called Punky Aloha. It will be the first of two books she’s writing and illustrating.
When she reflects on how far she’s come, she’s quick to point out that she’s not one to take any of it for granted.
“I understand and recognize that I’m really blessed to be busy every day,” she says. “I’m so grateful.
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel like ‘Oh, this is my Cinderella moment: I’m here, I’ve arrived at the ball,’ you know? I don’t think that moment will ever come.”