“We Don’t Scare That Easily” — Asian American Public Art


Illustration by Joe Bortner.

The baseless dehumanization of one group of people dehumanizes everyone. On January 31, surveillance footage captured a hooded man violently shoving a 91-year-old Asian man to the ground in broad daylight in Oakland, California. The same day, the suspect is said to have assaulted a 60-year-old man and a 55-year-old woman in a similar way… Just two months ago, a man opened fire in several spas in Atlanta and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Dozens of Portland businesses owned by Asians have been vandalized in recent weeks. Violence against the Asian American community has increased dramatically, and with this rise in violence, a resistance through art was born. 

Since the debut of the coronavirus pandemic and the extreme socio-economic disruption, many are looking for someone to blame. With former president Trump’s fueled invective rhetoric labeling the coronavirus the “China virus” which encouraged extant bigotry, many have placed this blame on Asian Americans — especially Chinese Americans. Particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, and throughout the country, these attacks are violent reminders of not only the ingrained, perceived otherness of the Asian American community but also of the divisions within the community itself. Law enforcement agencies have hesitated in calling many of these attacks ‘hate crimes,’ emphasizing instead the mental health challenges that the perpetrators are facing. In this time of heightened tension, this way of talking about the attacks can feel dismissive — instead of extending empathy towards the victims, many are extending empathy towards the perpetrators. 

President Biden and Vice President Harris have stood in solidarity with the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community, but it is not enough to receive validation and support from the government. Inter-and-intra-Asian solidarity is more important now than ever before, and artists across the country are doing their part in promoting it. 

In San Francisco’s Chinatown, artist Kate Tova is painting a series of ‘Street Hearts’ on walls. Her latest work on Grant Avenue is accompanied by the message, “You are loved,” which she translated into several Asian languages after asking an Asian friend instead of putting the phrase into Google Translate. Tova’s friend, Lily Chan, speaks to the call for unity across ethnic borders that she intended her project to speak to: “[…] Part of it is to unite with others who don’t look exactly like me, who want to participate.” Chan highlights an important aspect of the movement against anti-Asian racism: the solidarity among different people unified under a cause that may not directly affect all of them but implicates them as collaborative members of humanity. It is an effort of empathy, and art like Tova’s is intended to make it a national conversation. 

At Lucky Jefferson, Asian identifying artists have always taken the issue of representing themselves seriously. Shang-Te Chen, who illustrated for the issue Riff, creates surreal work that plays with shape and form. Janine Liu, who often illustrates for LJ, creates illustrations with a deep social consciousness. Her pieces document Black Lives Matter, the specter of anti-Semitism, and are a testament to uplifting silenced voices. Other Lucky Jefferson artists like Nayoung Kwon and Katie Le draw on traditional and popular Asian art for their pieces. Though these artists do not directly speak to the extant violence against the Asian American community, the fact that they create art in the first place — that they take up space — is a radical act of autonomy and self-actualization.

On the other side of the coast, the project ‘I Still Believe in Our City’ depicts another push for unity and hope. Murals, many featuring Asian women, were placed in highly public areas of New York, like in the subways. Explicit in their message for inter-Asian unity — the murals feature many types of Asians rather than one simplistic avatar — and are unapologetic in their intentions, these murals have received national attention in the past several weeks. Some of the captions include, “I did not make you sick,” “This is our home too,” and “I am not your scapegoat.” The murals make it clear that the conversation is not intended to be non-Asians versus Asians; rather, the purpose of such public art is to bring everyone closer to the root of the problem. 

Organizations like the Asian Art Museum are continuing these conversations within the institution, but there is something more impactful and assertive about the kind of art one encounters on the street, or on the way to work. The public nature of such art in San Francisco and New York — places that are home to many cultures including Asians — means that it becomes part of the landscape itself. The art takes up space in daily life, asserting that the people it represents are not backing down but are also not being disruptive, unlike their attackers. Supporting the Asian American community is imperative during this time, and one may do that by supporting Asian-interest organizations, like the Asian Pacific Fund or Think!Chinatown. Visiting and browsing Asian art exhibitions like that on the Asian Art Museum’s website is also a way to better understand the goals and circumstances of the movement. Above all, the art encourages action motivated by empathy — it pushes us away from the reductive narrative of difference and instead emphasizes fundamental humanity.

Artwork by Joe Bortner, a writer and artist from Somerville, Massachusetts. He’s an English major at the University of Vermont, and spends 75% of his free time making comic books. He spends the other 25% traveling from place to place and solving silly mysteries for New England townsfolk.

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