Public art, by its definition, is only public when located in an open public space. Increasingly, corporate plazas patrolled by security guards are what often pass for public space and private organizations determine what hours of what days the public are allowed to view “public art” which in many cases could be considered “plop art,” the sort of generic, interchangeable, multi-million dollar abstractions created by international artists to satisfy civic programs which require developers to devote a tiny percentage of their costs to public art. However, at least in the cases of Los Angeles’s two best known Asian-American enclaves, Chinatown and Little Tokyo, the creators of public art have in every case made clear attempts to engage and reflect their surroundings. Because Los Angeles is the world’s great Pan-Asian Metropolis and May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, here’s a look at public sculptures, memorials, and monuments in and around Los Angeles. As always, additions and corrections are welcome!
CHINATOWN GATEWAY (Chinatown)
Hong Kong-born architect Rupert Mok‘s Chinatown Gateway was unveiled in 2001. It features two dragons meant to symbolize luck and prosperity. Mok earned a Master of Architecture degree from the University of British Columbia and is a member of the American Institute of Architects. His architecture firm, Rupert Mok & Architects, is based in Los Angeles.
FILIPINO WORLD WAR II VETERANS MEMORIAL (Filipinotown)
During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt lured 120,000 citizens of the Philippines into the US armed services with the promise of American citizenship. 200,000 Filipinos ended up fighting with US forces and about half were killed. In 1946, after the war’s conclusion, President Harry S. Truman signed Congress’s Rescission Act, which denied military benefits and citizenship to Filipinos. In 1990, congress finally granted US citizenship to Filipino veterans. In 2006, Missouri-born artist Cheri Gaulke‘s Filipino World War II Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Filipinotown.
FRIENDSHIP KNOT (Little Tokyo)
Shinkichi Tajiri‘s Friendship Knot (1972) was originally known as Square Knot and was on display at Tajiri’s home in the Netherlands. It was renamed Friendship Knot by the Friends of Little Tokyo Arts, who procured and relocated the piece and invested it with a new meaning, the “unity between two cultures.” To me it suggests the sort of unity described in the Kama Sutra but who knows what Tajiri was thinking when he made a giant square knot for his home. Tajiri was born in Watts in 1923 and died in 2009.
GO FOR BROKE (Little Tokyo)
Roger Yanagita‘s Go For Broke Monument honors Japanese-Americans who served in the US Army during World War II and lists the names of 16,126 nisei soldiers. It also features an inscription about Japanese-Americans who were interned in concentration camps during the war. Design and construction began in 1991 and it was dedicated in 1999. Although freely accessible to the public, it’s unfortunately depressingly located in the middle of a parking lot.
HARMONY (Little Tokyo)
Harmony (1996) is a mixed-media sculpture designed by Nancy Uyemura and adorns the entrance of the Casa Heiwa Public Housing Project. The piece depicts the “personal journey of the spirit” and “family relationships in balance.” In 2007, deteriorated aluminum panels were replaced with porcelain ones.
JAPANESE VILLAGE PLAZA FOUNTAIN (Little Tokyo)
The Japanese Village Plaza was designed by Korean-American architect David Hyun as part of the revitalizion of Little Tokyo. I’m not sure who designed the fountain, though, although it probably was dedicated with the plaza in 1978.
KOREAN BELL OF FRIENDSHIP (San Pedro)
The Korean Bell of Friendship is a massive bell housed in a stone pavilion located in San Pedro‘s Angel’s Gate Park. The bell, modeled after the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok the Great of Silla, and was a gift from Korea presented in 1976, to mark the US bicentennial.
LA BALLONA (Culver City)
Shanghai-born, Los Angeles-based artist May Sun‘s La Ballona is a mixed-media piece installed in 1995 at Culver City Hall‘s courtyard. It’s meant to suggest Ballona Creek and to commemorate the native Tongva nation.
LISTENING FOR THE TRAINS TO COME (Chinatown)
May Sun’s Listening for the Trains to Come was created in 1992 and installed in 1993. According to the artist the piece “pays homage to the Chinese railroad workers who built the railroad bed for the Southern Pacific.” Somewhat ironically, it’s located in a parking lot… but in 2003, the launch of the Metro Gold Line spelled the return of trains to the area.
MONUMENT TO ASTRONAUT ELLISON S. ONIZUKA (Little Tokyo)
Isao Hirai‘s Monument to Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka was dedicated in 1990. It commemorates the Challenger space shuttle crew, all seven of whom were killed shortly after lift-off in 1986. Among the crew was Onizuka, the first Japanese-American astronaut in space. The artist, Isao Hirai, was then president of Hawthorne‘s Scale Model Company.
MONUMENT TO HAIKU AND TANKA (Little Tokyo)
OMOIDE NO SHOTOKYO (Little Tokyo)
Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Sonya Ishii’s Omoide No Shotokyo (Remembering Old Little Tokyo) was installed in the sidewalk of historic East 1st Street in 1996. The piece includes images, written memories, and historic business listings.
SEVEN STAR CAVERN WISHING WELL (Chinatown)
Liu Hong Kay‘s Seven Star Cavern Wishing Well was created in 1939 out of concrete mimicking natural forms. It’s creator, who also went by Henry, took his inspiration from the Seven Star Cavern in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region — although to my knowledge that cave was never covered with odd colors of paint and tiny wishing wells.
STONERISE (Little Tokyo)
Seiji Kunishima‘s Stonerise was created in 1984, from four, large, black blocks of African granite and seven small black stones of Indian granite. Seiji Kunishima was born in Nagoya in 1937.
TERMINAL ISLAND JAPANESE FISHING VILLAGE MEMORIAL (Terminal Island)
The Terminal Island Japanese Fishing Village Memorial was dedicated in 2002. It was funded by the Terminal Islanders Club, a group of Japanese-Americans who lived in the no longer extant Terminal Island fishing village of Furasato before their forced removal during World War II and the island’s subsequent redevelopment. The memorial was designed by sculptor Henry Alvarez (The Thing, Legend, Robocop, Total Recall), who died in 2012.
TO THE ISSEI (Little Tokyo)
Isamu Noguchi‘s To the Issei was completed in 1981 and is located in Isamu Noguchi Plaza, in front of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904 and died in 1988.
TOWERS OF PEACE, PROSPERITY AND HOPE (Little Tokyo)
Michihiro Kosuge‘s Towers of Peace, Prosperity and Hope is an abstract sculpture consisting of three bronze-topped stainless steel towers meant to suggest “tōrō,” “shichidō garan,” and “origami.” It was dedicated in 1989. Kosuge was born in Tokyo in 1943 and lives in Portland.
TOYO MIYATAKE’S CAMERA (Little Tokyo)
Nobuho Nagasawa‘s Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, dedicated in 1993, depicts an oversized box camera on a tripod and which projects images onto a screen behind a window at the Japanese American National Museum. It’s named after photographer Tōyō Miyatake, who documented the experiences of Japanese-Americans interned at the concentration camp in Manzanar during World War II. Nagasawa was born in Japan and now lives in New York City.
WATER LENS TOWER (Victor Heights)
Carl F. K. Cheng‘s Water Lens Tower was dedicated in 1992 and is located at the Kaiser Mental Health Center and is, although funded by the CRA as public art, fenced off from and effectively inaccessible to the public. Cheng was born in San Francisco in 1942 and received both his BA and his MA from University of California, Los Angeles.
WISHING BELLS, TO PROTECT AND SERVE (Civic Center)
Sook Jin Jo‘s Wishing Bells, To Protect and Serve was dedicated in 2009.The piece was commissioned by the Department of Cultural Affairs, Los Angeles and is meant to honor both the Los Angeles Police Department and the Japanese character of neighboring Little Tokyo. The artist was born in Gwangju and moved to New York City, where she is based.
YAGURA TOWER (Little Toyko)
Yagura Tower mimics the appearance of a traditional Japanese fire tower. It was designed by local architect David Hyun as part of the redeveloped Little Tokyo in 1978. It’s inarguably now the most iconic structure in the neighborhood.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, Boom: A Journal of California, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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