Removal of Koreatown Mural Put on Hold

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The Los Angeles Unified School District, which had agreed to remove a controversial mural at Robert F. Kennedy Schools in Koreatown, has backtracked and put the removal on hold.

At issue is a two-year-old mural by artist Beau Stanton depicting Ava Gardner, one of the celebrities who frequented the Cocoanut Grove, a storied nightclub that was located at the current site of the school. Behind the actress’ profile is a sun-ray pattern that a group of Korean American activists has likened to the Japanese battle flag — a reminder of atrocities committed by the Japanese military before and during World War II.

Both sides agree that it was never the artist’s intent to offend, and that it is important to remember the historical events associated with the flag.

Shepard Fairey has threatened to have his Robert F. Kennedy mural taken down if Beau Stanton’s mural is painted over. (obeygiant.com)

Stanton pointed out that the rays are a common motif in his works and those of other artists, and that the number, color and width of the rays are different from the Japanese flag. The Wilshire Community Coalition said that having the artwork in Koreatown was similar to placing a Nazi swastika in a Jewish neighborhood.

After LAUSD officials said earlier this month that the mural would be painted over, the decision was criticized by other artists, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and The Los Angeles Times, among others.

Artist Shepard Fairey, best known for the Barack Obama “Hope” poster, said that he would have his own mural removed if Stanton’s mural was removed. Fairey’s work depicts Robert F. Kennedy, the presidential candidate who was assassinated in 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel. The RFK Schools occupy the site where the hotel once stood.

In an email sent to people involved in the dispute, Eugene Hernandez, LAUSD operations administrator, said that after “extensive input” in recent weeks, “there is a need to have additional conversations.”

Hernandez wrote, “Therefore, we will not be taking immediate action on the mural at this time.” He added that the issue will be revisited at a stakeholder meeting after the winter break.

“Symbol of Hatred and Aggression

In a Facebook post on Dec. 19, the Wilshire Community Coalition said, “Our message is very clear! We don’t doubt that the artist Beau Stanton intended any offenses or harms on anyone with this rays. However, the fact is that it is a ‘mural’ which is displayed in public and forces everyone in the community to see. It puts the ‘Rising Sun Flag’ on their faces every time they walk by, every day they drive by. It hurts them to see it because it brings back the pain and suffering from the WWII.

“Now you know what it does & what it means to the people in Koreatown. Freedom of Expression should be respected as long as it does not offend or harm anyone. In this case, it does! To many survivors, victims, descendants and community members in Koreatown, this mural reminds them of pain and suffering.

“This is not just some distant people’s history. It is the American history and they are U.S. citizens. The Japanese military aggression killed, tortured, enslaved innoncent women & girls as sex slaves and tore their dreams under the Rising Sun Flag. This is a symbol of hatred and aggression, racism and imperialism.”

Asians Today: Re-imagining Asians Throughout the World, a Facebook group, posted a message on Dec. 18 supporting the LAUSD’s initial decision to remove Stanton mural. It reads, in part:

“The mural is in open public view of the entire community, not only to students. This symbol has no value, artistic or educational, in a place of public education and culturally diverse community of Koreatown.

“In addition, we wholeheartedly welcome the idea of putting up a new mural of portraits of the three great men, Cesar E. Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and Chang Ho Ahn. The history of these three men symbolizes the true heritage of the community in Koreatown. These men fought and dedicated their lives for civil rights, liberties and freedom. They rose above the history to change the world to which we live in right now.

“The Cocoanut Grove nightclub was the place of segregation and racial discrimination. Although it is a part of history, we do not wish to celebrate what it stood for. Even in the 1940s, the first black Oscar winner was not allowed to sit with her co-star but had to sit in the back and leave right after receiving the award.

“The world has changed so much since then. We live in a society which celebrates diversity and respect for human dignity regardless of race, belief, location, or other distinction of any kind.

“Once again, we stand united against hate crimes or hate symbols that undermine social cohesion, basic guarantees of security, and the democratic ideals of equality and non-discrimination. Such hatred strikes not only at an individual victim’s sense of identity but at the entire community as a whole, leaving the community to feel victimized, vulnerable, fearful, isolated and unprotected by the law.”

Aerial view of Beau Stanton’s controversial mural of Ava Gardner. The issue has received coverage from Korean-language media. (KBS)

“Perpetrating Another Injustice”

Fairey said in a statement on Dec. 16: “If Beau Stanton’s Ava Gardner mural is removed from the Robert F. Kennedy School, I have chosen to insist that my portrait mural of Robert F. Kennedy be removed also. Not only do I stand with Beau and believe that his beautiful and benevolent mural has nothing to do with the Japanese battle flag, I also believe that the action to remove his mural is a disservice to the man the school is named for and whose philosophies certainly diverge from censorship and intolerance as a course of action.

“I sympathize with all victims of injustice, including Koreans who suffered at the hands of the Japanese, but perpetrating another injustice by removing Beau Stanton’s mural based on false claims that it represents the Japanese battle flag where no such connection exists is foolish and selfish.

“Ironically, I think the only way to serve what RFK stood for is to use the threat of the removal of his portrait mural to stand up for artistic expression over reactionary misinterpretation and censorship. I’m very proud that RFK’s sons Max and Bobby Kennedy Jr. agree that removing Beau Stanton’s mural is the wrong decision …

“Contrary views, paranoia, and intolerance will always exist, but we are defined by how we respond to the challenges they create. I understand the LAUSD is in an uncomfortable situation, but standing for the right principles is not always comfortable or easy.”

Noted Korean American chef Roy Choi weighed in: “Shepard called me asking in true humility if I saw the concerns brought up around this mural so he can understand it if it did cross a line, but to be honest I don’t see the issue. I went deep into the well of subconscious and still didn’t see it.

“The rays felt more like radio signals to me than the rising sun flag and while the visual trigger may create the illusion of similarity, the piece does not represent that war-torn era of atrocities to me at all. I think instead of removal, the schools should teach the real histories instead and use this debate as a platform for more truths and not just reactionary rhetoric. The moment of truth has placed itself on our spiritual laps, see it as a gift versus a protest.”

Kennedy’s Take

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s letter to the LAUSD read, in part: “The destruction of art for political purpose is the signature weapon of demagogues and tyrants and the enduring emblem of fascist governments.

“Prior to World War II, fascist organizations in Germany and Japan organized book and art burnings in successful campaigns to glorify intolerance and bigotry and rally the darkest impulses of tribalism in their thirst for political power.

“The lethal barbarism of those incoming regimes brutalized their neighbors (including Korea) and touched my own family. My father lost his elder brother Joe and his brother-in-law, Billy Hartington, fighting the Nazi war machine. His brother Jack received the Purple Heart for wounds incurred during battle of Blackett Straights against the Japanese Imperial Navy. A Japanese destroyer, Amagiri, cut Jack’s PT boat in two, killing two of his crew and greiviously wounding two others. My uncle was lost at sea and presumed dead for ten days.

“As a seven-year-old boy in January 1961, I shook hands with the Amagiri’s Japanese commander, Kohei Hamani, at my uncle’s presidential inauguration. Jack had invited him as a characteristically American gesture of reconciliation with a former foe.

“My father was sympathetic to cultural sensitivities. But he understood that the central bedrock tenets of American democracy are freedom of speech and expression. As fiercely as they supported tolerance, and diversity, my father and my uncle loathed censorship.

“JFK’s passion for unexpurgated art inspired his family, friends and supporters to create the Kennedy Center (to celebrate the role of art and culture in democracy) as his principal memorial in Washington …

“The obliteration of Beau Stanton’s painting is antithetical to all the values that my father and his family believed were central to the American traditions of democracy, idealism and fearless free expression. My father and uncles considered people who destroyed art in the service of political agendas as the worst sort of scoundrels. My father’s lifelong celebration of unbridled expression and artistic creativity and his antipathy toward censorship make the destruction of Mr. Stanton’s painting a searing offense to his memory …

“LAUSD’s rationale for effacing Mr. Stanton’s artwork is based upon a mistaken presumption that, itself, is rooted in prejudice; the painting’s key detractor has charged that the work ‘depicts’ (not ‘resembles’) a Japanese battle flag, an assertion for which he offers no evidence and which both common sense and the artist adamantly deny. That highly subjective interpretation of the piece was a stretch from the outset.

“There is no evidence of Japan’s signature rising sun in the painting and, as L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight has pointed out, Stanton’s blue and orange light shafts number 45, in contrast to the 16 scarlet on white sun rays on the Japanese imperial flag.

“The star-rays emanating from the starlet’s portrait are a common artistic motif. Does LAUSD want to ban the painting of light rays? One might, in fact, argue that Stanton’s work no more resembles the Japanese flag then a crucifix resembles a swastika! If we suddenly begin silencing expression based on speculative and highly subjective interpretive musings of self-appointed thought police, it’s easy to see that there will be no end to the reach of the censors.”

Another son of RFK, Max Kennedy, also wrote in favor of keeping the mural.

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