The Sasakis — Entrepreneurs Who Nurture Hawai‘i’s Creative Community
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
How do we break the stereotype of “the starving artist” here in Hawai‘i? With the high cost of living in Honolulu, it is tough for creative minds to flourish when a career in the arts is not taken seriously. That’s why Aly Ishikuni-Sasaki and Travis Sasaki strive to create opportunities for local artists and creatives. Mori by Art+Flea is the couple’s way of encouraging and supporting Hawai‘i’s community of creatives. But the talented couple’s contributions to the local arts community is just beginning!
Mori by Art + Flea: the Beginning
In 2010, Aly and her friend Nicole Franco started a popular swap-meet-type event called Art+Flea at the former Fresh Cafe on Queen Street. The idea came from Aly’s frequent jaunts to New York City. Seeing the NY art scene thrive through flea-market-style events encouraged her to start germinating a similar gathering for Hawai‘i’s local artists. The monthly Art+Flea events at Fresh Cafe opened up a new world for Aly and evolved into the Mori that exists today — a brick-and-mortar store tucked in a little corner of the Ward Villages’ South Shore Market.
The little shop of goods from various local artists features housewares, stationery and music on vinyl and compact discs, and wearable art in the forms of apparel and jewelry. The vibe is fresh, new and eclectic with a dash of retro.
The revamp of Art+Flea in 2014 brought an artistic community to the Ward area with First Friday block-parties. The street fronting South Shore Market was shut down and a village of white pop-up tents housing vendors embellished the roads. From no more than 10 vendors, participation of the islands’ local artists eventually grew to nearly 800!
While Aly was charting the waters of running a store and building her brand, her husband Travis was moving into an architectural profession with WanderXWonder. Traversing from his BFA in printmaking into architectural graphic design, Travis found the transition rather seamless. His artistic eye and years spent doing carpentry with his father in Kona aided the change from printing to architectural-design projects.
Clean lines and exactitude with a Japanese sensibility exude from all of Travis’s projects. He always goes the extra mile to make something feel special and have every angle covered. His most notable achievement was an Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects for the design of the now-closed Cafe Lani in Ala Moana. His experience is an important weapon of mass construction now at his wife’s disposal. With every new storefront display Aly dreams up, come one-off builds by her architect husband.
Mori at HiSAM
In 2017, the couple ventured a project with the Hawai‘i State Art Museum. Recognized for their hard work and innovation that brought new life to the Ward Village area, they were charged with revamping community events and overhauling the gift shop for the downtown museum. Aly curated First Friday events month after month using HiSAM’s facilities to display local up-and-coming talent.
The new and hip Friday scene became popular at the museum. Fridays brought lively gatherings into the art gallery that would otherwise have laid dormant in the evenings. And the art pieces were now given their chance to shine. The dynamic duo worked hard to garner a name for their ideas and businesses; they quickly gained recognition locally and internationally.
The Hawaii Music Life Festival in Roppongi, Japan
The crowning accomplishment of the Sasakis was an event in Japan called The Hawaii Music Life Festival – a festival that brought Hawai‘i’s up-and-coming artists and musicians to Tökyö’s bustling party center of Roppongi.
In three days, all the display booths were hand-built by Travis and by Aly’s family members in Inawashiro, Fukushima, then driven to Tökyö and assembled in time for the festival. Whilst the displays were built Aly was coordinating the arrival and lodging for all participants flying over from the aloha state.
No one would have guessed that it had been the couple’s first international festival, judging from the smooth way they tackled logistical details. Aside from flying about 20 artists in, the Sasakis also had to safely bring participants’ goods and wares in to Tōkyō. Things like delicate ceramic trinkets to fragile full-sized sculptures and paintings were transported without a scratch. The potential logistical nightmare was well-handled by Aly and Travis, leaving the artists to enjoy their experiences in Japan.
Creatives exported from Hawai‘i for the HML festival included visual artists John Koga, Duncan Dempster, Lawrence Seaward, Mark Kushimi, Satoru Abe, Mark Chai, Abigail Romanchak and Kamran Samimi; and musicians the OG Sons, Scott Ohatoro featuring Cookie and Nick Kurosawa. Hawai‘i vendors — such as ceramicists, painters, fashion designers and more — at HML included Beachcake (Mariko Merrit), Ari South, Mistprint (Mistee Uyehara), Lauren Roth Art, Kim Seilbeck, A-crew Apparel (Julius Bravo), Aloha Got Soul (Roger and Lei Momi Bong), SOHOM (Cheryl Soohoo) and Lyrichawaii.
Coming off of two successful years of running the HML festival in 2018 and 2019, the future looked bright for the duo. From the positive traction they earned from the events’ success, they hoped for a 2020 festival in Japan and further expansion of Mori. Aly even gained a position at the University of Hawai’i at Mänoa as a lecturer for fashion-show production. The next year, 2020, was to be quite an eventful time for the power couple — until the world was hit with a medical haymaker.
COVID-19: The Sasakis Get Back to “BĀS”-ics
Life seldom goes as we plan. Speed bumps and roadblocks can be debilitating and often spell turmoil if one is not equipped to deal with unforeseen hardships. The global predicament we find ourselves in is a perfect example. But the challenge of isolation helps illuminate what is necessary and can separate the wheat from the chaff, if one is willing to be adaptable.
COVID-19 hit Hawai‘i’s business community like a freight train. Honolulu has one of the highest business-closure rates — second only to Las Vegas, Nevada. Our economic machine has been powered by tourism, so businesses began to drop like flies with the closure of the airways. With no visitors, there is no revenue; with no locals allowed to leave home to shop frequently, small mom-and-pop stores vacate first, then virtually all else follows as time ticks on. With all that said one would think now, of all times, is the worst to start a new business venture. But for the Sasakis it was time to create a business they had always wanted and thought Hawai‘i lacked: a specialty bookstore.
BĀS, pronounced “base,” is a bookshop located on Nu‘uanu Avenue in Chinatown – a district in Honolulu that had become designated for the arts and was begging for a space that could offer artistic and design inspiration in the form of pages of books. With the art community hurting because of the pandemic, Aly and Travis felt a sense of kuleana to revitalize the arts and its patrons once again.
BĀS is a foundation where readers in the community can gain an artistic sensibility. The store serves as a base to research complex ideas and explore ways to build and bring them into the world. Whether you are an art veteran or someone looking to dip a toe into the pool of creativity, this store is a brilliant place to start.
The establishment focuses on books that display art and design images. Every selection is painstakingly curated by the Sasakis to conjure forward momentum for the creative mind. To design its interior, the couple found inspiration within the bookstores of Japan. The store has the spirit of a boho neighborhood like Shimokitazawa with its vintage bookstores and indie cafés. The excitement of navigating the store to find hole-in-the-wall gems full of inspiring sights and ideas permeates the walls of this Chinatown space.
The book covers that adorn the shop are chock full of ideas and suggest amazing works of art from creators across the globe. The large hardcover coffee-table books sit on rectangle glass tables like city blocks and come from as far as Japan and Europe displaying prices competitive with those of online sources. But why buy on the internet, when there is value in the tangible, especially in deciding on a book’s utility. As the crisp leaves turn in your hands and the smell of newly printed pages jump into your nostrils conjuring ideas, the yearning for creativity grows into unabashed expression. The moment you cross the threshold into the store you’re gaining knowledge of yourself from the inspiring work of others, and your rebirth passing back out through the store threshold into the world is the moment creation begins. Once the floodgates are opened by the magic within these four walls, it is difficult to silence the artistic gasoline burning in your heart and mind.
Honolulu’s source for artistic inspiration is not only in its natural environment but also in the physical beauty of this space. The interior décor combining wood, metal and glass brings a warm feeling of nature to this modern industrial book boutique. This new place with its many spine-bound inspirations and knowledgeable owners has created a hub for the meta-cognitive mind looking to express itself.
To enhance your arts experience, BĀS also sells “synth funk” music on vinyl records by artists such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Logic System and Nick Luscombe.
Once the pandemic settles down, the Sasakis plan to host events and gatherings. Film screenings and in-store music shows are amongst the exciting ideas Aly and Travis have tossed around. Even before these activities get underway, BĀS’s collection of literature and images is one of a kind in Honolulu, well worth a browse. Stop in and say hello to meet the humble cornerstones of Honolulu’s art scene, the Sasakis, who are usually there on the weekends.
Mori by Art+Flea is located in the South Shore Market (1170 Auahi St., Ste. 105). Shop hours are 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily. For more information, call (808) 593-8958, or visit Mori’s website at
BĀS bookshop is located in the Chinatown Arts District (1154 Nu‘uanu Ave.). Temporary shop hours are 11 a.m. – 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Sunday; and closed on Monday. For updates visit the shop’s website at basbookshop.com.
Nick Kurosawa is a writer and a singer/songwriter. He was raised in Mänoa and graduated from Chaminade University with a B.A. in English. As a soul-pop artist he has written and produced several original albums and is a music instructor at Mana Mele (manamele.org/about-2).