Nobody Drives in LA — Asian-American Public Art on Public Transit

Every schoolchild hopefully learns about the 19th century Chinese immigrants who built America‘s rails, the largest network in the world (if embarrassingly outpaced and outdated). The moderately engaged Angeleno will have spied names like Nippon SharyoKinki Sharyo, and Hyundai Rotem our modern (and not embarrassing) local urban trains and correctly surmised that the very trains are Asian immigrants of a non-human sort. If you pay even more attention, or just read this Asian Pacific American Heritage Month-inspired piece, you can find out about a little about the Asian-American artists who created the art in several of Metro‘s bus and train stations.

REUNION (Union Station)

Image: Metro

The six, wing-like, sculptural, glass and metal bus shelters at Patsaouras Transit Plaza, known as ReUnion (1995), were designed by artists Kim Yasuda and Noel Korten in collaboration with architects Torgen Johnson and Matthew Vanderborgh. Yasuda was born in California and is a professor of art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Patsaouras Transit Plaza — part of Union Station — is located in Downtown‘s Civic Center neighborhood and is the city’s main transit hub.

EPOCH (Union Station)

Image: DTLA Rendezvous

Patrick Nagatani‘s collage Epoch (1996) depicts ships, trains, and other forms of transit. It also includes a series of Eadweard Muybridge photos from 1887, which though safe enough for Victorians proved so offensive to some in the 1990s that they were briefly covered with a plastic tarp. Patrick Allen Ryiochi Nagatani was born on 19 August 1945 in Chicago and obtained his Bachelor of Arts from California State University, Los Angeles (UCLA) and his Master of Fine Arts from the UCLA in 1980. In the 1980s he moved to Albuquerque where he teaches photography at the University of New Mexico. UPDATE: Nagatani died 27 October 2017 at the age of 72 from cancer. 

REAL GREEN (Vermont/Athens Station)

Image: Metro

Artist Kim Yasuda and architect Torgen Johnson again collaborated on real green (1995). Its inspiration is the nearby city of Gardena‘s agricultural past and represents a tree which, after protest, was spared by Caltrans when they made the station’s park-and-ride.  The poetic text was penned by Michelle T. Clinton and Rubén Martínez. Vermont/Athens Station is located on the border between the communities of Harbor Gateway North, Magnolia Square, and West Athens at the edge of South Los Angeles’s Westside and the Harbor Area. It is served by the Green line.

SPACE INFORMATION (Redondo Beach Station)

Image: Julie “Do not Feed Guy to Sponge” N.

Carl Cheng‘s Space Information Station (1995) was made in collaboration with Escudero-Fribourg, Architects, and features sculptures of satellites and blue glass meant to evoke the South Bay‘s coastal geography and history of the aerospace industry. Cheng was born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles, where he received his BA and MFA from UCLA. He currently lives in Santa Monica. Redondo Beach Station is located on the border between the suburbs of Hawthorne and Redondo Beach in the South Bay and is served by the Green line.


Image: Subway Nut

May Sun‘s design for the Hollywood/Western Station interior (1999), created in collaboration with Escudero-Fribourg Architects, pays homage to the pan-ethnic heritage of Los Angeles with copper, granite, and porcelain panels combined with text and set in a field of tiled walls.  May Sun was born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong and San Diego. She received a BFA from UCLA and an MFA from the Otis College of Art and Design. Sun formerly taught at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Hollywood/Western Station is located on the border of the Hollywood neighborhoods of Franklin Village, Little Armenia, and Thai Town and is served by the Red line.

THE WHEELS OF CHANGE (Chinatown Station)

Image: One Good Life in Los Angeles

Chusien Chang‘s The Wheels of Change (2003) is based on the 9th century text, , commonly known as the I Ching. The 八卦, an eight-sided Taoist symbol, pays tribute to the Chinese who built the US’s railroads. The design of the station’s benches references the neighborhood’s historic Italian, Croatian, Mexican, and Chinese inhabitants. Chang received her MFA from UCLA. Chinatown Station is located on the border between the Downtown neighborhoods of Chinatown and Dogtown and is served by the Gold Line.

RIVER OF TIME (Monrovia Station)

Image: Cha-Rie Tang discusses the tiles that will be installed at the Monrovia station (Image: Monrovia Now)

The centerpiece of Cha-Rie Tang‘s River of Time (2015) is a sculptural, monolithic rock topping and surrounded by a ceramic and glass tiled motif which extends throughout the station. Tang is a Pasadena-based artist who received a Bachelor of Science in Art and Design from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Master of Architecture from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Monrovia Station is located in the San Gabriel Valley foothill suburb of Monrovia and is served by the Gold Line. 

BUFFER ZONE (Little Tokyo/Arts District Station)

Image: Subway Nut

Buffer Zone (2009) is a collaboration between artist Hirokazu Kosaka and Ted Tokio Tanaka Architects. The station’s canopies are meant to evoke Japanese archery bows whilst the benches are modeled after targets. The platform itself is modeled after a tatami. Kosaka was born in Wakayama, moved to California in 1966 and graduated from the Chouinard Art InstituteLittle Tokyo/Arts District Station is located in Downtown’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. With the completion of the Regional Connector, Little Tokyo/Arts District Station will be supplanted by the 1st Street/Central Avenue Station, currently under construction.

LANDINGS (Soto Station)

nobuho nagasawa_los angeles metro station
Image: River Life

Nobuho Nagasawa‘s Landings (2009) is comprised of stainless steel bird sculptures and a ceiling-mounted fiberglass sculpture, incorporated into an interactive steel, glass, and acrylic setting. New York-based Nagasawa was born in Tokyo and raised in Europe and the USShe studied at the CalArts. Soto Station is located in the Eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights and is part of the Gold Line.


Image: Public Art in Los Angeles

Clement Hanami‘s Through the Looking Glass or Traveling at the Speed of Light (Rail), (2009) is a Lewis Carroll-inspired steel sculpture depicting oversized plants and a giant magnifying glass. Hanami was raised in East Los Angeles and is currently the Art Director at the Japanese American National Museum. East LA Civic Center Station is located in Eastside community of East Los Angeles and is served by the Gold line.

LUCKY CALIFORNIA (Laurel Canyon Station)

Image: Public Art in Los Angeles

Phung Huynh‘s Lucky California (2005) is a series of steel panels and terrazzo decorated with surrealistic depictions of cherubic Chinese taikonauts, flying oranges, and California poppies inspired by China’s charming space program posters of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Huynh is Associate Professor of Art at Los Angeles Valley College, where she teaches courses in drawing, painting, and design. Laurel Canyon Station is located in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Valley Village and is served by the Orange line.

So there you have it, something to look for next time you’re waiting for a bus or train… and something to dream about if you’re at one of the 6,200 bus stops (77.5% of them) which lack any sort of shelter or aesthetic considerations whatsoever! As always, additions and corrections are welcome.

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.
Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from Saatchi Art and 1650 Gallery. Other merchandise is available on Tee Public.
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