By DAVID MONKAWA
The L.A. Unified School District changed their mind about removing a controversial mural at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools that looks like the Japanese imperial war flag after artist Shepard Fairey expressed support for the mural and its creator Beau Stanton.
Fairey threatened to remove his mural of RFK, also painted on one of the school’s buildings, if Stanton’s mural is removed. The mural depicts actress Ava Gardner with blue sunrays emanating from behind her profile to celebrate the old Cocoanut Grove in its heyday. The school is located at the former site of the nightclub and the Ambassador Hotel, where RFK was assassinated.
A coalition of Korean groups have demanded the mural be removed because the sunrays look enough like the flag of Imperial Japan. Fairey stated, “The mural has no relation to the flag graphically. It’s stupid to me…and its removal is the path of least resistance to accommodate the ‘most extreme voices’ of the community. It is censorship of public art.”
As a Japanese American artist, I support the Korean community. The mural should be removed. It ignites traumatic and tragic memories for Koreans who were forced to kneel before the flag of Imperial Japan, which invaded 22 countries during WWII and left in its wake atrocities and devastation.
The so-called “comfort woman” sexual slavery system is an “open wound” now due to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to bury Japan’s war crimes in school history textbooks and refusal to officially apologize and redress the “comfort women” who were taken from the Philippines, China and many other countries as well as Korea.
Despite Fairey’s opinion that the sun rays do not resemble the imperial flag, enough Koreans passionately feel otherwise, and that’s enough. There’s a wide historical and international backdrop as to why people are so angry, and Stanton and Fairey need to respect that.
The students should also have a chance to hear the community as well. With large concentrations of small businesses, community institutions, cultural resources and voters that drive and shape the area, the Korean community has a right to whatever self-determination it can muster to get rid of offensive reminders of oppression, which the mural triggers.
In the mid-1980s, a hair salon in West Hollywood named itself “JAPSS” and installed a 10-foot neon sign atop its roof on a busy corner on Santa Monica Boulevard. Most Japanese Americans were angry and sought its removal, but the West Hollywood City Council refused. Some folks set up a weekly picket line in front of the salon for months until the business changed its name, then closed.
The owners of the salon said their name had nothing to do with the offensive “JAPS” because it was spelled with two S’s and was not used as a historical racial slur. Its removal, they said, would be “censorship of free expression.” But recent victims of racial slurs felt that racism continues today, is not just a historical event, and that the “JAPSS” sign must go.
The individual rights of artists who live elsewhere must take a back seat to an entire community’s rights to determine what they have to live with and see every day. If Fairey wants to remove his mural of RFK and “take his ball home,” so be it. There are plenty of local Latinx or Korean artists who can replace it in their own style at much less than what he would charge.
David Monkawa is a social-change visual artist who contributed the comic strip “On the Edge of the Pacific” to The Rafu Shimpo and past co-chair of the National Coalition for Redress Reparations (for identification purposes only). The Rafu Shimpo’s management and staff continually strive to maintain high editorial standards for professionalism as well as accurate and balanced news coverage. The inclusion of a particular piece, including columns and op-ed submissions by contributing writers in print and/or digitally, does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the owners, management, individual staff members, and editors. The Rafu Shimpo welcomes responses to any article published in print or digitally. Responses may be sent to author directly or emailed to [email protected]