159: Sean Yoro – Painting Underwater


“If I was going to [make it as an artist], I wanted to prove that I could do without any favors or any connections.”
Sean Yoro

Welcome back to ONKEN RADIO (previously NION Radio) — the podcast where we explore the body, mind, and soul of the creative entrepreneur. It’s my goal to help you take your creativity, business, and life to the next level. I’m so glad you’re joining me on this journey.

Today, I’ve got an extra special guest for you. He’s a truly unique and amazing visual artist. Check out his Instagram page so you can understand the context of his incredible paintings.

His name is Sean Yoro, and he paints mostly from his paddleboard on water and out in nature, which he uses as inspiration for his artwork. Some of Sean’s most impressive projects have seen him painting on icebergs, painting underwater, next to waterfalls, and even on the stumps of burned trees. Sean’s initial insecurity about people seeing his paintings and laughing at them led him to search for remote walls to paint on. Let me just give you a little preview here:

I found this waterfront that was abandoned, and that’s the first time where I was looking at these walls and I [thought], ‘Why don’t I go out on the water?’ My original thought was to use some kind of barge system to put all my supplies and everything on and then the idea came, ‘Why don’t I just throw everything on my paddleboard?’ I lived on a surfboard, I’m comfortable on a surfboard — so it was a crazy idea. I ended up testing out doing some experimental trips, and it all worked out.
Sean Yoro

How incredible is that! The confidence he had in himself to stay stable on a paddleboard and paint on the water is what helped him overcome his insecurity about painting in populated places. By focusing on his strengths, he found the space where life started to flow smoothly and his creative alchemy could work itself out.

That’s just a little taste of the wisdom Sean has to offer. We’re about to dive into an extraordinary story about a unique career in art and creativity. Sean knows how to build a life you love by incorporating all of what you love into working in a creative industry. And today, he’s going to share how to focus on what you love as the way to feed your creative outlet. Let’s get started.

Who Is Sean Yoro?

Sean was born in Hawaii and feels privileged to have had the community life values in the countryside of Oahu instilled in him at an early age. 

Growing up on the east shore gave him the advantage of being close to the quiet north shore beaches while also close enough to Waikiki beach to become a surf instructor as a kid teaching tourists. 

When Sean wasn’t in the water surfing, he was going to community college. Sean felt uninspired at school, and for the longest time he believed his biggest dream was destined to be a lifeguard for Oahu’s north shore beaches — a very respected profession in Hawaii. He was passionate about lifeguarding, but something inside told him he was playing it safe. 

A pivotal moment came when he was failing community college and removed from financial aid — he had one more semester to choose an elective course. Sean decided to take a charcoal drawing class. On the first day of the course, Sean watched his instructor draw with charcoal and was filled with a sense of magic.  

That’s when Sean decided to give art a chance, knowing that even if nothing came of it, lifeguarding would always be waiting in Hawaii. The next summer, Sean moved to New York to try out this artist’s career. With just $800, he naively thought it would last at least six months. The money quickly ran out, and Sean had no choice but to sneakily live in his small art studio — without any bedding or cooking equipment. Sean slept on a yoga mat on a hardwood floor next to his easel for three years. 

During that time, Sean went into survival mode, and his absolute focus was to spend as much time painting to reach 10,000 hours. He was busing tables at restaurants and could’ve asked for more shifts, but had found his baseline to survive and was eating on $1 a day. All he ate were two eggs for lunch and a can of refried beans for dinner. Sean’s entire focus was painting.

Sean tells people this dedication and focus on a limited budget helped him in two ways: not only did he save money, but by eating the same thing every single day, he also removed any distractions of food.

Sean may have developed intense discipline, but it didn’t mean he didn’t have thoughts of quitting and going back to being a lifeguard. The beaches were waiting — he could just pick up and go, but he stuck it out, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Sean’s art progressed rapidly into different environments beyond the studio. He created street art for a while, then branched out to work solely in nature. He’s created in the  Arctic zone, in the wilderness, and even underwater recently. 

I admire Sean’s willpower and determination to do whatever it takes to become successful and pursue his artistic craft. His depth extends past his creative expression as he explores life hacking and entrepreneurship. Not only does he have an incredibly analytical mind to do the work he does, but he’s using his art to help people think differently about the beautiful planet we live on.

Lessons from New York

Sean’s initial idea to move to New York was actually based on what he’d seen in movies. However, moving to New York though was more than just for the typical  “art scene,” though.

“I wanted to prove to myself that I could [make a career in art] without any favors, without any connections. It was more of an ego thing where I was like, ‘Okay, I want to go [where] nobody knows me.’ I wanted the hardest plan to test myself for no reason. I did it naively; it wasn’t very calculated in the end.”
Sean Yoro

We’ve heard how Sean persevered for three years and how beneficial that became to master his craft — learning grit and determination in the process. It was also the perfect place to compete against some of the best street artists in the world.

“I had no training. I just started art at [age] 21, and I [had] so much catching up to do. ‘How am I going to do this?’ I realized it was almost easier to let go of this vision that I had of the success I thought was gonna be in galleries and doing realistic oil paintings. I thought that was the only way that I was going to be able to make it. I let go of that dream because I wasn’t having fun.”
Sean Yoro

Sean may have gained some success with exhibits and some traction showing his work in art studios, but it wasn’t fun to him, and he didn’t want to be cooped up in a studio all day just painting canvases. This was what forced Sean to think about combining all his passions to find a craft that he truly enjoyed. 

It also showed him what he was missing most.

The Origins of Painting on Water

Sean realized how much he missed the water and how deep its influence had been growing up. He had learned to respect it, and it taught him about his limitations. It was time to incorporate water back into his life again.

At the same time, Sean was also working on feelings of inadequacy. He didn’t like the pressure of other people’s opinions weighing on him as he painted. 

“I was just searching abandoned walls because I didn’t want people to see these big murals I was doing because I was so unconfident about what I was doing. I didn’t want to find a wall in Brooklyn [to paint and see] everyone laugh at it when I’m done.
Sean Yoro

Sean started exploring walls in abandoned waterways. Then he had the crazy idea to paint from his paddle board. Sean tested it out with some experimental trips, which worked out perfectly. 

“It was the first time where something worked out that smoothly. There’s [been] very few moments in my life where something so clear to me was made for me. It’s a typical path to leave your hometown and find a dream, but for some reason just standing back and looking at that first mural on the water [I knew] this couldn’t have been made for anyone but me to do. We have a saying in Hawaii called kuleana — it’s your role or responsibility in the community. That was my first kuleana, and it was the clearest direction I ever had in my life.”
Sean Yoro

Sean was hooked, and he went after his kuleana at full speed! He built a small team at the beginning with his twin brother, capturing his work with photos and documenting it in video. Rather than using his real name, Sean used his street name “Hula” to sign his artwork. 

One Wednesday, Sean launched a website and social media account to share his work — by Friday, his artwork was all over mainstream news! Having witnessed other things go viral online, this was Sean’s first experience, and to see it covered all over their internet was surreal. It changed everything in the fourth year of being in New York all the sacrifices and extreme tests he endured suddenly changed overnight. 

Hula was about to expand beyond Sean’s dreams.

The Evolution of Hula

While Hula started out as street art, Sean ended up combining this persona into everything that he does creatively now. The recognition of Sean’s work gave him the confidence he needed to stop shying away about what he’s passionate about and pull in every part of his passions without reservation. 

While Sean was finding tremendous fulfillment creating art on water, his own personal journey was growing and expanded into climate change and environmental issues.

“I also work in forests. I went out and painted these figures on these burnt trees that had regrown, [which] had a whole separate [meaning] behind it. From there, [I] went over to the underwater project, which was all about coral reefs and the destruction of them and how artificial reefs and so many [other] solutions happening [to become] aware about. … I’m always just actively trying to figure out new angles, new perspectives, and it’s fun to pull off all the limits that I thought were on the artwork itself.”
Sean Yoro

Sean invests in all his projects and is currently working on an underwater project which is fascinating. 

 “It was hard to explain to people the exact vision I had in my head especially when I’m saying, ‘I’m going to be down there free diving and creating these pieces.’ … I was trying to figure out a project for reefs and coral because in Hawaii, the amount of sunscreen that gets used on the islands, there’s all these studies coming out that were so detrimental [to the coral and reefs]. There needed to be immediate change, and I’m glad that the laws actually changed banning a lot of the sunscreens that they were selling.”
Sean Yoro

Chemicals in the sunscreen are the exact opposite of what coral reefs need — these chemicals block the coral’s photosynthesis and limit the nutrients from the sun, causing the coral to bleach and eventually die. 

Sean has managed to position himself in a unique way to partner with big brands and be able to take on such large scale and important projects to passionately tell another side of what’s going on. His art is inspiring true change in the world, and it was an honor to have him share that story on the podcast.

The Formula for Identity Alchemy 

Sean has so much wisdom to share, and I think that he’s given us a perfect formula for Identity Alchemy.

We learned the value of focusing on one thing at a time — to dedicate 10,000 hours to become a master — and how embracing everything that we love into our creative expression leads to the deepest fulfillment of our true self

So ask yourself today, “What is my passion? Where does my creative heart lie?” For me, it’s in my photography, it’s in my hats, and it’s in this podcast — but where is it for you?

Now ask yourself, “What am I good at? What are my talents? What creative skills do I already have? What skills do I need to develop?”

Once you’ve identified those, it’s time to get to work. Be tenacious — work at it until you’ve mastered your craft. Be the best you can be, and develop a personal style and voice that are unique to you. As much as you can, base your work around your passions, and create things you can be proud of.

When you tap into the pieces of the puzzle Sean laid out for us today, you embody Identity Alchemy. . You’re blending yourself into your work and creating beautiful pieces of art that make the world a better place. 

Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.

With that being said, I define Identity Alchemy as the process of deconstructing who you don’t want to be in order to realize who you want to become. 

Through it, you’ll be able to identify your shadows or the things you don’t want to be true about you and shed them slowly. I believe that the deconstruction process of life and your inner world is such a huge piece of understanding who you are so that you can curate who you want to become. In general, I noticed for myself that the more inner work that I do — the deeper shadow work that I do to understand myself — the better life becomes towards the path of wholeness.

This is exactly what Sean did with his art career, and you can do it too. Don’t miss out on the inner work — it’s what makes you who you are.

Thank you so much for joining me today, guys! I loved this episode so much, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk to and learn from Sean.

If you loved this episode, make sure to connect with Sean on social media. He’s on Instagram, and you can see a ton of his incredible pictures there! You can find Sean and his awesome professional work on his website.

And by the way, don’t forget to check out my website too. There, you can find a quick ten-question quiz designed to help you identify your Creative Type and get some of my best free content to help you out on your creative journey.

Thank you so much for joining me today, guys. I hope you enjoyed this episode — if you did, please screenshot it and post it to Instagram and tag me, @nickonken and Sean, @the_hula. And if you’ve got time, leave me a review on Apple Podcasts. I’d love to hear your feedback.

I’ll catch you guys next time — now go live the creative lives you were meant for.

Nick Onken

You can Subscribe and Listen to the Podcast on Apple Podcasts. And please leave me a Rating and Review!


“I saw what my instructor could draw with just charcoal and a model in front of him, and to me that was magic.”
Sean Yoro

Some things we learn in this podcast:

  • What kind of art Sean makes and what inspires him to use such a unique medium [4:46]
  • How Sean got interested in painting and art, and his first year’s in New York [10:23]
  • Why Sean’s naïvete and bullishness were so important in achieving his goal of 10,000 hours in his craft [14:36]
  • What New York taught Sean in all aspects of his life [23:44]
  • When Sean found his “kuleana” [27:54]
  • How HULA evolved from a small street art project to Sean’s main alias [31:24]
  • What Sean and his team have to think about and prepare for in working with mother nature [36:15]
  • How a passion project bringing awareness to the coral reef came to life [40:30]
  • What physical training Sean had to do to complete his underwater projects [47:09]
  • The meditation and yoga practices that Sean uses to prepare for his projects [52:39]
  • Sean’s morning routine [56:46]
  • What art Sean makes when he’s in his studio [58:47]

Links Mentioned:

A FREE email series to create a personal visual brand authentic to who you are.

  • Accelerate your personal brand growth through the Identity Alchemy Method
  • Discover the authentic stories you want to share with your audience
  • Build your personal brand vision and crystallize it with a photoshoot
  • Learn how to ideate and create storytelling visual assets to enhance and up-level your personal brand
  • .. PLUS! You’ll get access my brand building book recs and favorite resources

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