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Urban Legend

Artist Jack Soren’s slick surf art comes with a streetwise edge.




You’d recognize the balmy, tropical world in artist Jack Soren’s work. It looks a lot like your Hawai‘i, after all: beaming skies filled with rays, water an ethereal blue, surfers and hula dancers, pineapple and lei.

But there’s something surreal about Soren’s universe, something stirring beneath the surface. Stylized silhouettes and color-blocked backgrounds, swaths of paint layered over swaths of paint, create a pervasive sense of abstraction. Touches of unrealism (faceless, navy-skinned figures and salmon-colored mountains) complement a nostalgia-tinged cast of characters, and the effect is that of diving into a dream.

Soren’s upbringing left him with a particular appreciation for style with an edge, a style he developed in the unlikeliest of places: the gutter. “My background for art started in graffiti and going out and painting with my friends in the gutters in different areas of the island,” Soren says. “We would go and search for abandoned buildings or walls and try to get our hands on spray paint. I did a lot of that for most of my life growing up.”

A North Shore boy at his core, Soren’s adolescence was a blur of riding waves and roaming the streets doing graffiti art. The ocean played a central role in his life, and it’s an ongoing influence that finds its way into his art no matter where he goes, whether that be the waves of Kahuku or the sidewalks of urban Kaka‘ako. As Soren grew as an artist and an adult, getting married and setting his sights on a career in the commercial art scene, the ocean continued to inform his work.

A year ago, Soren moved his painting operation to Lana Lane Studios in Kaka‘ako, a collective of artist workshops in the heart of Honolulu’s exploding urban art scene, and started developing the idiosyncratic style that defines his work today. Adapting his aesthetic and medium to resonate with a wider audience, he found himself gravitating toward the surf imagery and cultural motifs that pervaded his upbringing on the North Shore, with a few cheeky twists: A playful affinity for nostalgia and a taste for unexpected details (think skull-faced hula girls and chunky skyscapes made up of geometric shapes) add a distinct sense of individualism in the highly saturated genre that is surf art.

Soren’s inspiration comes from all over: his fellow Lana Lane Studios artists, his North Shore apartment, his wife’s outfits of the day, figures of the past. “My recent work has been really focused on history and using color,” he says. “Historical icons, events, or timelines and bringing them back to life with the use of color.” A Blue Hawai‘i-era Elvis Presley appears in a mural Soren recently completed for the annual street art festival Pow! Wow! Hawai‘i. Surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku is pictured tandem surfing in a painting set in Waikk. (Soren referenced archival photos of the Duke for the piece.)

Both these ambassadors of aloha got Soren’s signature technicolor treatment. “In my perception, color represents life,” Soren says. “When something is bad or on the way out, the color starts to fade and eventually comes muddy or gray. So when bringing back different icons and historical events and different lessons that mean a lot to me, I’ll use color to brighten them up and bring a modern twist.”

Soren’s style is all about brightening—both literally and figuratively. “I just like to have fun. Life is too short to be stressed all the time and you really have to enjoy it,” he says. “The colors and the figures are really playful and happy, and I think a lot of people resonate with that.”

Look for Soren’s work at, on canvases and prints at Greenroom Gallery Waikiki, and on International Market Place tote bags (design shown at right) and barricades in the coming season.