By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Something beautiful is happening in the Chinatown-International District (ID) and it’s never happened before.
The faces of two legends, Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, are painted side by side at the Tai Tung Restaurant storefront. Half a block down, Breonna Taylor’s portrait graces Eastern Cafe’s panel.
She was killed in a police shooting in Kentucky. Across the street, goPoké is decorated with “Black Lives Matter” in four Asian languages. These are historical firsts for Black images to be fully displayed on the front doors of Asian-owned businesses in the ID.
Another first, the first protest in Washington state over the unjust death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, was held in the ID on May 29. Looting and destruction followed hours later, causing damage to over 20 storefronts and properties.
While many U.S. cities look like ghost towns from boarded up after the protests, ID storefronts have been transformed into colorful and vibrant scenes with messages of unity, hope, and multiculturalism.
The day after the protests, several volunteers from Seattle and elsewhere streamed into the ID to clean up broken glass, garbage, and graffiti, as well as shop and support. But the latest group of visitors descending on the ID on June 5 brought with them a different set of tools—paint, brushes, notepads, sketching pencils, and, above all, inspiration.
Boarded storefronts turned into murals
Scenes of a boarded up ID sparked something in Che Sehyun—he wanted to paint murals on the storefronts’ plywood. In less than a week, Sehyun, founder and executive director of Experience Education, reached out to the art community. Over 100 artists volunteered to paint. Sehyun raised $10,000 for the project in less than five days, including $5,000 of paint from Home Depot. Over 100 storefronts signed up for the free project.
On June 5, a diverse community of artists arrived in the ID, rolling up their sleeves. Some brought family members and friends together, and they poured their imaginative juices to transform ID into an open art gallery. In just a few days, the ID has been reborn.
Why Black images
Freelance artist Mari Shibuya, who painted a portrait of Breonna Taylor, said it’s memorable for her to paint Taylor on her 27th birthday, on June 5. This is the only Black woman’s face among many Black men’s images in the ID. Shibuya has also done a portrait of George Floyd, which was featured in a KOMO 4 news segment.
Andy Panda with his team of six artists painted goPoké, a corner restaurant with several powerful murals, including Asians for Black Lives and Hawaiian greetings. The artists worked on goPoké for six hours.
At the U.S. Postal Service, four artists led by Aileen Granstrom created two compelling images side by side, a Black man with his hands up and a message, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and the other was a little Black child standing next to a Vietnamese woman with her Non la (palm-leaf conical hat) and native outfits. Historically, the hat is mainly used by rice farmers.
Amateur artist Karisa Morikawa painted calligraphy of “Black Lives Matter” on Vital Tea. What inspired her to join the project is her experience working with delinquent “brown youths being oppressed through the system. Asian Americans benefited from the civil rights movement led by Black Americans. Asian Americans should stand up with them to fight for justices.”
Amy Eng of Dim Sum King, whose mural of dumplings was painted before Sehyun’s group was put together, said, “I asked the artists to add ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the other boards. This shows we respect Black lives and racial equality.”
“I love the ID,” said Kendra Azari, who led her daughters, sons, and a friend to paint on Iron Steak. Azair’s words were echoed by other artists.
“We love the ID, I just want to help,” said Rosie Alyen, who painted H. Bistro.
“It’s a way I can give back by putting some of my artwork up,” said Paul Nunn of Urban Artworks, who also worked on H. “It’s a nice event,” he said, as people walked by and talked to him and among themselves. “Those are big moments between people. It empowers you to protect these places.”
What drew Nunn to H. was its front was tagged. And he wanted to get rid of it through his art. What if it’s tagged again after he painted it?
“I would be happy to do it again,” he said.
Illustrator Net Timoney, an ID resident, chose Pacific Herbs as his canvas. Interested in both Eastern and Western medicine, he painted landscapes and pine trees, because the business owner had requested images of trees. Timoney picked a pine tree as it symbolizes a new life and strength.
“It will help the ID to move forward.”
Andy Panda said the community has suffered from the coronavirus and protests.
“I want to do more for the community.”
“An ‘awesome crab and lobster’ was what the restaurant owner asked for, and that’s what I painted,” said Sydney Pertl. She even taught herself how to do Chinese characters for Honey Court’s Chinese name with this reporter’s help.
Honey Court owner said, “I appreciate not only the art, but the artist’s heart.”
Two goldfish grace the entrance of the International House for seniors through the paintings of Jenisa Barr. Goldfish symbolize fortune in Asian cultures.
Chris Liu painted the late Uncle Bob Santos, an ID community activist and leader, for the Eastern building.
Ambrosia Bubble Tea’s mural is painted with a phoenix, a symbol of rising again and overcoming adversity.
While protests were held all over the state over the weekend, several artists toiled in the ID to finish their artwork. Seeing the fruits of their work, “I felt people need to come together (after the protest),” said Sehyun. “Support each other, know each other, work together. It’s an opportunity to understand our life work in a meaningful way. We see change and our authentic self. We see real relationships with real people.
“People thanked me at the end of the day. They are the ones doing the work. It gives us pain and joy (in the project). It helps us to appreciate what the society can give us. You can bring out the best in people [by having them] work together.”
You can’t change the past, but you can illuminate the present with colors, love, and collaboration. The murals have conveyed a distinctive manner for the community to heal together.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.