After three years of arguing, petitioning and back-and-forth conversations, a mural in Los Angeles’ Koreatown was redone and unveiled last Wednesday.
The controversy: In 2016, a mural was put up on a wall of the Robert F. Kennedy Community School in Los Angeles honoring Hollywood icon and actress Ava Gardner. There were no qualms about the actress herself, but in 2018, Korean community groups and protestors took issue with the massive crimson sun rays emanating from her face, comparing them to a swastika or a burning cross, according to the Los Angeles Times.
- Protestors claimed the rays are too similar to the symbol of the imperial Japanese army during World War II — the rising sun. Those groups took offense and called for the mural to be taken down.
- During that time of war, the Japanese Empire subjected Koreans to heinous atrocities and left deep scars within the community.
- The mural’s artist, Beau Stanton, has featured multiple paintings with large sun rays before and said he did not mean to distress anyone with his depiction of Gardner. He said the accents around Gardner’s silhouette, along with the palm trees and the Grecian pillar, were “intended to honor the legendary Cocoanut Grove nightclub” that she frequented and that used to exist near the school, according to LAist.
- The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) initially announced that they would remove the mural amid complaints from the Wilshire Community Coalition and Chan Yong “Jake” Jeong, the coalition’s president and protest organizer against the mural. However, they soon received pushback from artists like Shepard Fairey, who said he would remove his own mural of Robert Kennedy from the campus if they went through with their decision, according to NBC Los Angeles.
What came of it: The community came together, and an initiative was led by “GYOPO, a collective of diasporic Korean artists in Los Angeles,” to revise the mural.
- Stanton redid parts of it and included input from students and members of the Koreatown community.
- “This process and initial public conversation surrounding the original mural has been a challenging and ultimately positive experience,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “I genuinely hope this saga can serve as a constructive example of how to balance the input of local stakeholders with creative free expression in public art.”
- The mural now includes a traditional Korean pattern of a phoenix, a migrant worker harvesting oranges based on a historic photograph, and a uniformed Koreatown hotel worker photographed in 1935 with ties to the school building’s former occupant. Ava Gardner is “crowned with flowers specific to the national origins of many of the students whose families immigrated from Mexico, Korea, Guatemala, El Salvador and other parts of Latin America.” The sun rays are also there but significantly less bold and muted behind the additions.
- “Three years ago, we entered into a space of not knowing what was going to happen when we were informed about the impact that the mural had on our community, on our Korean community,” Roberto Martinez, LAUSD’s senior school district administrator said. “You’ve taught us what the word community means, what leadership means…We have created a space of love and respect.”
- The president of the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council, Kisuk Jun, initially collected 1,400 signatures to get rid of the mural. He approved of the new mural stating, “We came together and now it’s more beautiful—because it symbolizes Los Angeles.”