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Pow! Wow! Brings Out San Jose's Happy Side

Ben Henderson and Lacey Bryant painted a massive mural along the wall of Recycle Bookstore and ArtWorks
Ben Henderson and Lacey Bryant painted a massive mural along the wall of Recycle Bookstore and ArtWorks, which are located on The Alameda in San Jose. Photo by Gary Singh

The kids have taken over Recycle Baookstore. Figuratively, of course.

Thanks to local painters Ben Henderson and Lacey Bryant, a gigantic mural of kids on bicycles now stretches along the side of the Midtown bookstore in San Jose, the same structure that houses The Alameda ArtWorks.

Each of the children have a happy expression on his or her face, and the bikes come in all shapes and sizes. The mural is HUGE. Artists needed a scissor lift to accomplish most of the work, and when I arrived to interrupt their work, a version of "Everyday People" by Sly and the Family Stone softly emanated from a music player. The song seemed apt, as many of the children featured were born to local artists or community boosters.

The mural, titled "Choose Your Own Adventure," is one of many that went up last week for Pow! Wow! San Jose, a global street-art-influenced community cultural project. Headquartered in the Kaka'ako district of Honolulu, where the event regularly brings more than a hundred international and local artists together to create murals and other forms of art, Pow! Wow! has recently expanded to: Taiwan; Long Beach; Singapore; Israel; Washington, D.C.; Guam; and many other locales. San Jose hosted the global event for the first time last week.

As Bryant and Henderson worked on their mural, the Sly Stone tune nailed the scene. The mural depicts everyday people and dovetails perfectly with the preschool across the parking lot.

"So far, the dozens of parents and onlookers that came by gave us a dozen different responses," Henderson said, adding that the Pow! Pow! brand dramatically elevated the project, much more than if it were just some local impresario trying to commandeer the whole thing.

This seemed true. While we talked, an intermittent but steady stream of people wearing shirts from various Pow! Wow! events—San Jose, Long Beach and other locales—walked up and took photographs. Some carried printed map booklets in hand, while others blasted Instagram shots like there was no tomorrow.

Farther down the building, as the parking lot gave way to a back alley, just past the doorway of Alameda ArtWorks, another local muralist, MESNGR, was painting a separate mural. This one, titled "Catch 22," depicted a graffiti-stained VTA bus, Route 22, plowing down the road, jalopy style, with the Sharks mascot at the wheel. Several cartoony characters, including a skater doofus and a roller derby girl, are racing the bus down the street. As the artist worked on the lettering, Slayer's "Mandatory Suicide" blasted from a music player sitting on the scissor lift, a tune that somehow perfectly fits the 22, at least if you ask regular riders.

Last week, many other murals popped up around town, most of which are here to stay. Over in Japantown, Empire 7 Studios, one of the main organizers of Pow! Wow! San Jose, hosted several artists, local as well as from out of town. Down the road, Nichi Bei Bussan on Jackson Street provided a wall for another artist. Next door to Poor House Bistro, three sides of the Poor House Studio building are now covered with separate murals. Many others now grace various buildings in downtown San Jose.

As the week unfolded, I infiltrated several Pow! Wow! events. Founder Jasper Wong flew in from Hawaii to talk about how it all started and how he found common ground with indigenous communities angry about his use of the term "pow wow." At Forager on South First Street, a hip-hop event took place with drone footage of the murals projected behind the stage as people performed.

On the last day, back in the parking lot beside Recycle Bookstore, Carlos Velazquez led approximately 90 bicyclists on a tour of all the murals. Everyone gathered in the parking lot, psyched to hit the road and see the colorful goods.

Alicia Forbrich, who owns the Alameda ArtWorks building, was one of those participating in the ride. As we stood there, she gushed about Bryant and Henderson's artwork. "It's a mural that just makes people happy," she said. "Everyone loves it. The children love it, the tenants love it, everyone's happy."