LOS ANGELES — Symbols mean different things to different groups, and what is a harmless geometric design to some becomes a symbol of hate and oppression to others. This is certainly the case with Beau Stanton’s mural of Ava Gardner that adorns the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in LA’s Koreatown. The mural is an homage to the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub which stood nearby, and depicts the Old Hollywood film star in profile, palm trees and moorish architecture overlaid on her face. Behind her head, alternating rays of blue and orange erupt in a sunburst pattern. And that is the problem.
Last month, the Wilshire Community Coalition sent a letter to the Los Angeles Unified School District requesting that the mural be removed. For the group, the pattern was too similar to the Rising Sun Flag of Imperial Japan, a symbol so loaded with pain and trauma for the Korean-American community that they likened it to the “Swastika of German Nazism.” Korea was ruled as a colony of Japan from 1910 until 1945, and the imagery is a bitter reminder of this period for many survivors and their families.
“This work is extremely offensive and threatening to many survivors, descendants and community stakeholders who stand in absolute opposition of the Japanese Imperialism, Racism, ethnic hatred and crimes against humanity committed by the military aggression during the World War II,” a statement on their website reads.
In response to their request, the LAUSD agreed to paint over the mural during winter break, according to the Los Angeles Times. Anti-censorship groups and some members of the art community were disappointed in the decision. “While we appreciate LAUSD’s effort to distance itself from the hateful sentiments the mural’s rays may evoke for members of the WCC, removing the mural in response to their complaints sets a dangerous precedent of submission to public pressure in assessing art and allowing students’ access to diverse viewpoints and ideas,” reads a statement from the National Coalition Against Censorship.
Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight issued a scathing rebuke to the decision calling it “deplorable.” “An innocent artist is being smeared as a promoter of hate speech,” Knight wrote, “his work unfairly attacked for something it is not.” He went on to detail the ways in which the mural differed from the Rising Sun Flag, from the number of rays — 44 vs 32 — to the colors used, and the myriad sources in which similar motifs can be found, including Art Deco designs, the Statue of Liberty, the work of Shepard Fairey, even a recent show of 50 paintings depicting an array of brightly colored, radiating sunbursts by the artist Mark Grotjahn at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). “Deceptive claims have been weaponized to shut down free speech,” he concluded. “The school mural is not the scandal; LAUSD’s imminent censorship is.”
Others in the LA art community have appreciated the pain that the imagery could produce. “I am definitely not a proponent of censorship,” Christine Y. Kim, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at LACMA and a second-generation Korean-American told Hyperallergic via email, “but I understand how this mural’s imagery would feel reminiscent of the radiating sun rays of the imperial Japanese battle flag from World War II, and how it could anger and upset residents of Korean descent, especially those who have fought for justice after decades of brutality and oppression under Japanese imperial rule.”
Korean-American artist Yong Soon Min noted that the flag is not just a historical would, but still used by branches of Japan’s military. “Japan’s rising sun flag continues to be a source of controversy with the Republic of Korea … and continues to be used to the present by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force,” she told Hyperallergic via email. “In addition to the 35 years of Japanese colonialism, the many war crimes that Japan never confronted leaves much raw sensitivity for Koreans to this symbol of Japanese imperialism that in the heart of Koreatown, overrides any consideration of artistic integrity or opposition to censorship.”
As for Shepard Fairey, the street artist who gained national recognition with his Obama “Hope” image, he coincidentally also has a mural on the same building. His work depicts the school’s namesake, fitting since the school is located in the former Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. Over the weekend, Fairey proclaimed that he would insist on the removal of his mural if Stanton’s was whitewashed, in solidarity with the artist.
“Yeah, these things happened and they’re part of a terrible history, but this mural has nothing to do with that,” Fairey told the Los Angeles Times. “What he has in his mural is nothing close to the battle flag. It’s not the same color scheme. It’s not the same focal element. It’s stupid to me. I thought that cooler heads would prevail because this is absurd.”
Kennedy’s children also came out in support of the artist. “Symbols can be hurtful and there are some symbols that should not be displayed,” Maxwell Kennedy told the Times. “But rays of light are synonymous in this country with hope.”
It seems that Fairey’s gambit may have worked, as the school district announced Monday that they would pause their plans to destroy the mural. According to the Times, “district officials have heard from a wider swath of community. Some teachers at RFK have stepped forward to say that the views of faculty and students were never considered.”
For Jennifer Moon, a Los Angeles-based Korean-American artist, the debate over censorship is misguided, and overshadows more complex but difficult issues of audience and reception. If this is a public artwork, which public is it serving?
“Why is this talked about in the context of censorship, which keeps it limited within a binary, when the discussion could be about trauma, which would be more about nuance and connection instead of taking a side?” she told Hyperallergic via email. “My understanding of censorship is that it usually comes from a place of power (the state) when this is a local community stating their feelings. It seems a little misguided to frame this as defending the mural as pro-artistic integrity and anti-censorship when the emotional cost of that stance is paid by the folks who see it most and whose cultural associations with the stripes differ vastly from that of the artist. […] Trauma is difficult to talk about and I too understand that trauma is hard to trust (ex: Shepard Fairey’s comment) but this is exactly why we need to listen and address it.”