Art as a way of expression and communication has always been present in the history of Easter Island. In addition to the moai, the giant statues that have given the island fame and that are the unquestionable symbol of Rapa Nui, there are many other artistic representations that, while remaining in the background, form in themselves an extraordinary catalog of Rapanui art.
The petroglyphs scattered throughout the island and that abound especially in Orongo, the cave paintings that have been found in caves such as Ana Kai Tangata, the wood-carved figures like the moai kava kava or the curious symbols still to be deciphered from the RongoRongo tablets are a good example of the creativity, talent and sensitivity present in the Rapanui people.
The current inhabitants of Easter Island have inherited the taste and artistic ability of their ancestors, so they continue to tattoo, carve or paint the classic symbols of Rapanui iconography or create new works inspired by them.
In recent years, the tourist development experienced on the island has favored cultural exchange and artistic miscegenation. Foreign artists arrive on the island interested in Easter Island tradition and culture, while Rapanui artists return to the island with influences received during their trips abroad.
A new Rapanui art
As a result of that exchange, a new artistic trend inspired by urban art that we can find in the streets of major cities around the world has emerged on the island. Perhaps the closest one is Valparaíso, considered the Chilean capital of graffiti, which exhibits in its streets, corners and stairs a large sample of Street Art.
The small town of Hanga Roa, despite having a more rural than urban character, offers interesting and varied samples of this street artistic expression made by island and foreign artists in different styles and techniques.
If you like urban art, we suggest you take a route where you can see some of the murals and paintings that have been emerging recently. This tour is perfect if you have already seen the most important of the island, if you travel accompanied by children or if you have had a rainy day and you do not know what to do. A good excuse to walk and discover other hidden corners of Hanga Roa.
1. A shark on an abandoned sailboat
We begin the route in the fishing port of Hanga Piko where the sailboat “La Rose” is located, which years ago crashed against the rocks when approaching port. On his battered hull that now lies on the ground, there is a magnificent and original painting of a great shark that looks out at the viewer through a huge rusty gap represented on the surface. The image is of great realism and high quality. The pity is that due to inclement weather, the paint is deteriorating rapidly.
2. Mural with a tuna bank
A few meters from Hanga Piko, on the way to Rano Kau volcano, is the Tataku Vave restaurant. On one of its interior walls they have painted a lively tuna bank. Tuna is one of the main components of Rapanui cuisine and is served raw in the must-have local cebiche or grilled. The Tataku Vave, commanded by Ruth Pakomio, is an excellent place to try those dishes and other exquisite preparations in front of a sea that breaks just in front. A lively and natural spectacle with which the sympathetic mural inspired by it cannot rival.
3. Rapanui faces with takona
If we take the road that returns to Hanga Roa, on Hotu Matu’a Avenue and then turn left we reach Atamu Tekena, the main artery of the city. Here a few meters beyond the headquarters of the Chilean Navy we find an expressive mural depicting a man and a young woman adorned with takona, the Rapanui body painting.
This type of painting is made with natural pigments called ki’ea and each of its different designs has its own meaning. Formerly body painting was used on very special occasions such as celebrations, religious events, battles, etc.
Currently during the Tapati Rapa Nui cultural festival, participants can be seen wearing beautiful motifs on their skin. Even tourists can apply the ki’ea during the final parade in the Tapati or live a Rapa Nui experience posing as the ancient natives for a unique photo shoot.
4. A Rapanui mermaid
Walking down Atamu Tekena street, on the left, at the height of the Taura’a hotel there is a small place decorated with striking marine motifs. This is the office of Meherio Rapa Nui, an unprecedented tourist service that offers boat rides with a transparent background to observe the seabed without getting wet.
Meherio in Rapanui language means siren, that is why this mythological being is represented, with a woman’s body and a fish’s tail, emerging from the waves near the motu or islets that are located in front of the Rano Kau volcano. In this magical scenario the competition of the bird man was developed. A beautiful illustration that invites you to dream and discover these places of legend.
5. The largest mural on the island
A few meters beyond Meherio Rapa Nui we leave Atamu Tekena and turn right on Tuki Haka Hevari Street, where we walk about 500 meters until we reach Tu’u Koihu Street. At the crossroads we turn left and move forward another 300 meters. After passing a mechanical workshop, we found a glassware shop on whose north facade a magnificent mural of almost 4 meters high is represented.
On a mustard-colored background and framed by two windows, a beautiful Rapanui girl appears in a mystical attitude. Dressed with rooster feathers, a necklace and a diadem of pure or shells, her eyes rise to the sky and from her hands in a prayer position, a whirlpool appears to arise surrounded by several fish. Perhaps she is imploring or receiving the mana or spiritual power that comes from her ancestors or thanking the abundance of fishing for some superior being. A beautiful and delicate work that contrasts with the industrial character of the surrounding environment.
6. Resting in the sun
A few steps beyond the glassware shop, on the right before reaching the church of Santa Cruz, there is a small house with a curious picture drawn on the wooden slats of the facade. This is a Rapanui boy lying on some stones in a relaxed and carefree attitude.
A huge and nearby orange sun seems to indicate the time of sunset. The young man who appears naked, adorned with Takona paint and with his hair in a bun or pukao, entertains himself by nibbling on a twig that he may have cut from the nearby plant. The image conveys a sense of languor typical of a hot subtropical summer afternoon.
7. Two girls waving under the palm trees
Once we have arrived at the church of Santa Cruz, a magnificent example of syncretism between Rapanui art and Christian symbolism, we descend through Te Pito or Te Henua, the other main street of Hanga Roa. Here on the left, there is an old house from whose facade two girls greet passersby. They do it with their hands in the position of the shaka, a gesture used worldwide by surfers and widespread among the inhabitants of Polynesia. It is a relaxed and informal greeting that expresses complicity, joy and good vibes.
The nearby palm trees merge with those of the drawing that seems to represent Anakena beach. Two small figures walk away in the sand carrying a backpack and a towel. Maybe the girls want to invite us to enjoy the beautiful beach located at the east end of the island.
8. Scenes from the past
If we continue down by Te Pito or Te Henua we cross again with the main street Atamu Tekena. Right on this crossroads on the right is the Lorenzo Baeza Vega School. On the outer wall that looks at Atamu Tekena, a series of paintings appear that portray the myths and legends of Rapa Nui’s past. The rough surface of the wall forces the viewer to go back a few steps to increase perspective and better appreciate the details.
Here you can distinguish several leading figures of traditional narratives of the island . For example, a sage with a painted face is represented consulting a star map made with branches and shells. These maps were formerly used in the islands of Polynesia to check the position of the stars which guided the sailors during navigation.
Other scenes show the legend of Moai Kava Kava at the time it is being carved by the ariki Tu’u Koihu, images of girls in their daily work, an old fisherman with his pora or reed float and two moai heads, and a great face with a feather headdress that could represent the first king Hotu Matu’a.
9. A cafe with a seascape
If we return to Te Pito or Te Henua street we will find the Henga Henga restaurant located in front of the municipal sports court. On the wall that separates the lively terrace from the kitchen in sight, we can see a colorful mural that shows some of the best known specimens of the local marine fauna, among which the swordfish, the lobster, the moray eel or the turtle stand out. Some of those fish and shellfish you can taste here. We recommend the Henga Henga Table that contains an excellent assortment of fish and seafood.
Under the name of the place appears the figure of a moai head submerged in front of the cove of Hanga Roa O Tai. This can be visited by hiring an immersion in one of the dive centers of the island, although it is essential to have accredited experience.
10. A landscape on wheels
On the streets of Hanga Roa you can see, without a fixed place, the Kai Heretea food truck that offers simple and tasty fast food. The surface of the trailer has been decorated with striking colors that represent the moai statues that lie today buried in the quarry of the Rano Raraku volcano. A recognized landscape of Easter Island that now circulates on wheels and exudes an appetizing aroma.
11. A great whale in Hanga Vare Vare
A few steps beyond Henga Henga coffee is the Hanga Roa O Tai harbour. If we turn right and walk about 200 meters we will arrive at the beautiful palm-tree spot of Hanga Vare Vare. Opposite there is a new branch of Tía Berta’s restaurant, famous for its empanadas, located on Atamu Tekena street.
To the right of its entrance there is a small house on whose side wall where a huge whale have been painted and it is accompanied by goldfish, lobsters, octopus and other marine animals that live in the nearby waters. Another example that reflects the great importance of marine life in the inhabitants of Rapa Nui.
12. A scenario that changes every year
We want to finish this route suggested by the urban art of Hanga Roa in Hanga Vare Vare. In this great public space, during the first two weeks of February of each year, the main stage of the Tapati Rapa Nui festival rises. Here much of the performances, songs and dances that the two rival teams will have to represent to obtain the jury votes take place.
Learn more about Tapati Rapa Nui
On such a special occasion as this one, local artists strive to design the background of the stage that exceeds six meters in height. The theme changes every year and there are always images that remind us of the historical past of the island, tributes to some important characters and references to some relevant fact or event in Rapa Nui.