When we write about oceans here at Uproxx, we usually spend more time focusing on the gorgeous white beaches that the waves lapping upon them (unless Kelly Slater is involved). And, why wouldn’t we? Many of the world’s beaches are breathtaking examples of nature’s majesty, and visiting them can be transformative.
However, as human beings, beaches do more for us than provide destinations to take hot pics for Instagram, soak up the sun, and drink cocktails served in tropical fruits. The ocean provides 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe and one-sixth of the animal protein people consume — not to mention providing ingredients for many of our medicines, vitamins, foods, and drinks. They are the planet’s largest ecosystem, full of biodiversity. So… yeah, kinda important.
Non-profit PangeaSeed Foundation — run by a crew of dynamic, young creative artists — is looking to attract attention to oceanic conservation, and they are doing it using street art. In the past three years, people walking the streets of cities in Mexico, New Zealand, and ten other countries have been treated to vibrant, artistically singular murals that translate facts about our oceans into engaging visual stories. Sharks the size of airliners appear to sway above parking lots. A modern mermaid reaches into the darkness, her blue hair feathering around her face in undulating waves. A riff on a mid-century advertisement declares “Plastic: The Modern Miracle That Never Breaks Down” as a smiling woman’s black-and-white visage is enveloped by sea life.
With a roster of over 300 artists contributing their time and talent to the organization, the spectrum of work is vast. Founder and director Tré Packard terms what the organization does “artivism.” It’s not just a fun portmanteau; it’s a movement by which “art, design and new media can transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries inspiring positive global change.”
Packard started PangeaSeed in 2009 as a passion project. At the time, he was a photographer documenting the illegal wildlife trade in Asia and decided he had to share what was happening with the world. He knew that death and destruction are a hard sell and recognized the need to find a positive way to boost the signal.
“If you don’t give people a reason to care about something, they’re not going to,” Packard says. “My whole concept for starting the organization was to give the oceans a makeover and take them into the street in a way that would really inspire and educate people and want them to be better ocean stewards.”
Packard grew up among artists; with an art teacher for a mother and a professional musician for a grandfather — there was always a paintbrush or a guitar ready. He oozes the energy of someone whose coming of age was steeped in creativity. When it came time to make a stand for the environment, he put his faith in art’s ability to speak volumes.
In those early days, Packard’s was on shark conservation. It’s estimated that over 100,000,000 sharks are killed each year for their fins alone, a stat that seems outrageous considering how important they are to balancing ocean ecosystems. He wanted to highlight the animal’s importance while reminding us that despite the pervasive fear fed by media, toilet seats and vending machines kill more people every year. He organized an art show in Tokyo in 2009 with the support of 50 international artists.
The show was a success and a light bulb moment. Packard realized that art could be the medium for his activism.
In 2012, so Packard took a leap of faith, following his instincts and his dreams. He relocated to the US, applied for PangeaSeed Foundation’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, and built out their programing.
“I wanted to do something that inspired me. If I’m going to dedicate my time to something, it has to be something that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning.”
These days, PangeaSeed Foundation operates under three major pillars: artivism, science, and education. “Seawalls: Artists for Oceans” is their public art program. But, they also have an Oceaneers Program, which is youth outreach connecting with kids around the world and getting them excited to be future ambassadors of the seas.
As a big fan of the contemporary art scene, Packard knew he wanted to get artists he loved involved. But as an unknown, that meant a lot of cold calling, reaching out to artists, and explaining why his concept was unique. His vision resonated and PageaSeed attracted strong talent as ambassadors and supporters in the early stages. This allowed them to collaborate on the larger level with artists and organizations around the world.
These days, the tensions of connecting with artists have been eased. As more projects succeeded on an ever-growing scale, the talent has come calling. Packard says that every morning welcomes global submissions, from Africa to the Galapagos. Artists are anxious to declare, “I have a creative voice. I care about the oceans. How can I help?”
“We’re building this global community of concerned creators who want to give a voice to the ocean,” he says.
Despite scoring some big names in the art community — with muralists like Amanda Lynn, Aaron Glasson, and Cryptik on the roster — PangeaSeed Foundation always tries to work from the bottom up. They feel it’s important to support artists that may not have opportunities to work on large-scale projects like the ones they’re creating and to work within local communities.
“If you come in with a bunch of international talent and you’re trying to paint a small community to raise awareness of specific issues,” Packard points out, “it’s difficult for the community to take ownership of the messaging and the murals.”
So far, smaller cities have been a better fit for the organization’s work. PangeaSeed Foundation wants to maximize the number of people who get their message, and that is harder for the art to do that when it has to compete with the distractions of a bustling metropolis.
“There’s no blueprint for what we do,” Packard says. “It’s a work in progress — a lot of trial and error. At the end of every project we have a strong debriefing with the core team, we look at the good, bad, and the ugly and we take that to heart and we relaunch the next project and try to apply what we’ve learned.”
Still, there’s been enough of “the good” for the organization to blossom. A recent partnership in Australia with PADI, a scuba diving certification organization, gave PangeaSeed a chance to paint 22 murals addressing a wide range of topics connected to the Great Barrier Reef — including local species that are threatened or endangered, coral restoration, climate change, and coastal development.
The scale of this project, and it’s immediate ability to resonate with the communities where the murals were painted, has set the stage for these upstart creatives and painters to contnue expanding their work.
“It’s about following your passion,” Packard says, reflecting on PangeaSeed’s growth and success. “Then putting good work out into the world and creating some positive change.”