keala naihe wants to preserve the oceans for future generations
i-D talks to the artist and surfer about perpetuating his Hawaiian culture by caring for the land and advocating for clean water.
Photography Keith Oshiro
Riding waves since the age of three, Kealamakia “Keala” Naihe has developed a deep and long-standing relationship with the water. “Almost as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been surfing, I’ve always been in the ocean,” shares Keala, a pro surfer, model, and multidisciplinary artist from Hawaii now living in LA. Coming from a deeply rooted surfing lineage, his name is historically rich in Hawaiian culture – he is a descendent of Chief Naihe on Kona (the Big Island) who during the time of Hawaii’s first kingdom was an orator and also a surf champion. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Keala was raised with a profound appreciation and respect for nature and our oceans.
From the North Shore to the Gold Coast, Keala has won numerous titles. He surfed on the National Hawaiian Junior Surf team until he broke his leg during a competition at age 19. This resulted in time out of the water, so he turned to different outlets of expression including painting and modeling (Dior Homme, Sperry, and RCVA). His expressive and ambitious spirit, along with a deep respect for nature and our oceans, has led Keala to utilize his impact within the surf community to advocate for clean water through his work with Surfrider and Lonely Whale. i-D recently spoke with Keala about growing up in Hawaii, the importance of keeping our oceans clean, and what he’s doing for Earth Day.
How are you today?
I’m doing good – I’m just hanging out with my son right now.
How long have you been in LA?
I’ve been living in LA for like four and a half years now.
You went from one warm climate to another. I’m interested in your background growing up in Hawaii – what was it like and how do you think it’s impacted who you are?
I was born and raised in Kona, Hawaii. I was surrounded by nature, and caring for the land and the ocean is a big part of our culture in Hawaii. My family has deep roots in Hawaii and as a native Hawaiian I want to perpetuate my culture by caring for the land and the ocean. I’ve always been drawn to the ocean as a kid and it’s a big part of my life. I spent nearly every weekend growing up at the beach and started surfing around three or four years old – and just growing up in Hawaii and completely surrounded by ocean – all of my friends are fisherman and surfers, they all do something with the ocean.
Your family has deep roots in the surf community. What are your first memories of starting to surf?
Before I even started surfing, I always went to the ocean with my dad. He’d take me out to swim and we’d just go out and surf. He said that I always loved when the waves would hit me and stuff like that, and when I was 3 years old my uncle got me a surfboard for Christmas and that’s pretty much when I started surfing.
What led to you competing professionally?
I started competing because I had a group of friends that all surfed. A couple of them started competing, so I wanted to compete as well. At first it was just for fun and then I got a little more serious and at 13 I won my first national title and then at 17, I won another national title and surfed on the Hawaiian Junior Surf Team. I broke my leg surfing in 2012 and I’ve stopped competing since then, but I still have some sponsors and I still surf all the time.
Can you tell me about that time in your life when you stopped competing professionally and how this led to other creative interests?
Growing up as a kid, I always loved drawing and painting and when I broke my leg I had a lot of free time. I wasn’t able to do much so I started painting again and fell back in love with painting and art. I had all of these cool ideas that I never knew I had for art that were inspired by nature and oceans and a lot of really cool places that I got to travel to through surfing.
Were there teachings passed on to you that impacted your outlook on the environment and how precious the oceans are?
Absolutely. Growing up in Hawaii, when I was at the beach as a kid my parents would have us clean the beach every afternoon before we left at sunset, and they said that they wanted to leave it just as nice or nicer so the next person could enjoy it as well. Every time I go to the beach, I try to make sure that I leave it nice — like how it was when I showed up or better for the next person.
And this deep respect for nature has led to your involvement with organizations like Surfrider. How did you get involved with them?
One of my family members got me a Surfrider subscription when was 8 years old and that’s how I found out what a Surfrider was. I also started getting into surfing around that time — I started learning more about what they did and the things they do to protect the oceans and the beaches and the waves, which was what I love. It was easy for me to be into that and want to get involved however I could. What they’re doing is awesome. They’re definitely the most recognized and active organization in the surf community and super easy to get connected with. They have local chapters set up worldwide and if you want to get involved with ocean activism they are a super great foundation.
Has there been a highlight so far, or can you share a memorable cleanup experience with Surfrider?
My most memorable beach cleanup was during a surf contest at my home surf break in Kona, Hawaii at Banyans - the Keiki Surf Classic - it’s put on by Shane Dorian, a pro surfer and big wave icon. In addition to hosting beach cleanups, the contest itself also encourages kids to do well in school. You must have a 3.0 GPA or higher to enter the contest and it’s free to enter — you just need to bring two canned foods to donate to the local food drive for the less fortunate. I think that contributing to something that you love is the best part and when you donate or when you go and volunteer, you’re doing something good. For me it’s important to do something for the next generation because I want my kid to be able to enjoy the ocean and I want my son to be able to go to the beach and find it the way I did.
You’re an artist and also committed to advocacy work. Is there anyone you look up to who you feel has done an admirable job of balancing creative passions with doing dong good for the environment?
I think Kelly Slater is a pretty good example of that. He’s a huge surf icon and widely known, but also a very big voice and advocate for healthy eating, clean living and sustainable choices. He’s trying to educate people through his social media posts about all kinds of different controversies going on in the world, and especially when it comes to the ocean he’s pretty good at posting different things that are happening. He also has a clothing company called Outerknown that kind of embodies all of his values and sustainable approach to life.
What message are you hoping to convey?
In addition to working with Surfrider, I’m also involved with Lonely Whale. I’m planning a PSA with them soon. I’m super stoked about that. Lonely Whale is all about inspiring ocean action and impact. Similar to the Surfrider they host a number of different campaigns, one of them being a youth powered educational program and that’s super cool because I think that the number one thing is educating the next generation and making them aware of the situation that we’re dealing with so they can make it better and make the right choices. The PSA that I will be working on is about single use plastic bottles and how getting rid of single use plastic bottles can really help clean up our oceans.
And what about your art – what are your plans?
A big goal of mine is to hopefully have an art show — maybe host a show and invite some other artists that I think have cool art inspired by nature and the ocean. I think it would be cool to even possibly donate proceeds from it, or sell art pieces, and donate the profit to helping clean the ocean.
Do you have anything planned for Earth Day?
I will most likely be going to the beach and surfing, and picking up trash at sunset before I leave. Hanging out with my family.
Photography Keith Oshiro
Styling Jake Sammis
Grooming Lauryn Tullio
Production The Hyphen8