LAUSD Is Asking For Public Input One Last Time Before Modifying That Controversial Koreatown Mural

In this Dec. 13, 2018 photo, the mural by artist Beau Stanton is displayed at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex school in Los Angeles. Stanton's illustration depicts actress Ava Gardner against sun rays. Korean activists say it looks like the Japanese imperial battle flag. (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)

Updated on Sept. 26

The future of the debated mural of Ava Gardner at RFK Community Schools in Koreatown rests in the hands of the artist and a group of students, but they're asking for the community's input first.

Interested folks can send "stories, historic photographs, traditional textile patterns or anything that speaks to the diverse and vibrant cultural fabric of the area," according to the Los Angeles Unified School District. Those will be shared with the artist, Beau Stanton, and students, who will discuss and make a plan for the modified mural in the winter, and actually paint it in the spring.

Community members can send their suggestions via email (RFKMural@lausd.net), snail mail (RFK Mural - Welcome Center, 701 S Catalina St, Los Angeles, CA 90005), or dropped off in person at the school from now until Nov. 30.

The process is the next step in a months-long conversation about the fate of the mural.

And, according to Julie Gonzalez with LAUSD's Local District Central, it's the last opportunity for the community at large to make suggestions before the artist and students work together on designing and painting the modified work.

"There's no other format as far as calling together another community meeting to review the proposal," she explained at a sparsely attended community meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

A vocal critic of the mural, Wilshire Community Coalition president Chan Yong "Jake" Jeong said he believes there should still be an opportunity for community input after Stanton and students create a plan, but before they paint it on the wall.

The offer to modify the mural through an input process like this was announced in May after a meeting organized by LAUSD with Stanton, RFK students and staff, representatives from GYOPO — a group of Korean and Korean American creatives and professionals — and the Wilshire Community Coalition.

"An opportunity that's come out of this is having the students to be more involved in the mural project," Gonzalez said.

Stanton said that the revised work will use the original mural as its base.

"The basic concept is creating layers, either that reference history in the past, present, and future," Stanton told KPCC/LAist in May. "So [the existing mural] is clearly signifying the past, and we're building on that. We're turning the page of this chapter, of this dialogue."

SO, HOW DID WE GET HERE?

When artist Beau Stanton painted screen legend Ava Gardner against a backdrop of radiating red-orange and blue stripes at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Mid-Wilshire/Koreatown in 2016, he didn't expect the debate that followed.

In 2018, two years after the painting was completed, a group of neighbors criticized the mural's pattern for its perceived similarities to the battle flag of the Japanese Imperial Army, which had alternating red and white rays. That imagery reminded some community members of "horrendous, gruesome and inhumane atrocities that occurred under the Japanese occupation," critics wrote in a petition to LAUSD calling for the mural's removal. Stanton has said that wasn't what he intended.

In December, L.A. Unified, responding to the community's criticisms of the mural, announced that the district would paint over it during winter break, sparking criticism from some onlookers about censorship.

"There was backlash," said Local District Central Superintendent Roberto A. Martinez.

Artists like Shepard Fairey came to Stanton's defense.

In the aftermath of that painting-over announcement, Stanton and Wilshire Community Coalition leader Jeong, appeared together on KPCC's AirTalk, along with Fairey.

Larry Mantle asked Stanton back then about modifying the mural. At the time, Stanton said "to change a two-and-a-half year old mural is really dangerous for the rest of my artwork."

Not long after, the district announced that it was walking back its decision to paint over the mural.

"So from that point on, it was just on-going conversations, dialogue, trying to find a way to mediate this situation," Martinez explained.

And that conversation wasn't always easy.

Images on WCC's website compared Stanton's ray-like pattern to the Sanskrit Swastika, which originally indicated "well-being" but bears a resemblance to the Nazi symbol of hate in the same way the group felt Stanton's mural, while not a hate symbol itself, resembled one. Stanton called the images "irresponsible."

"Perspective matters," Jeong said of the comparisons. "And sometimes, it's a matter of impression."

In February, another voice joined the conversation: Korean and Korean-American creatives and professionals from GYOPO.

While unaffiliated with WCC, the group expressed similar concerns about the backdrop of the mural and the feelings it could bring up for community members. The group also brought up the history of segregation the Ambassador Hotel and the Cocoanut Grove, writing "we stand for inter-minoritarian solidarity."

Stanton points out that the school and mural — which features homages to the Cocoanut Grove — are on the former site of the hotel and lounge.

"Much of the conversation up to this point, especially in the media, has centered on why the mural should remain as is (artistic integrity vs. censorship) or why it should be removed (offensive symbolism)," GYOPO wrote in a letter to LAUSD. "We urge you to consider a more community-led approach that leads to community-building, one geared towards healing and growing rather than accusations and hard lines."

SO WHAT CHANGED?

In May, LAUSD held a meeting that Stanton, Kavior Moon from GYOPO, the RFK students and administrators, and a representative of WCC (though not Jeong himself) attended. Warren Brand, who organized the mural festival which featured Stanton's work, also made an appearance, among others.

Moon said she appreciated being able to speak with RFK students, and described the meeting as "humanizing." "They had a professional facilitator to help us have a real dialogue in terms of how people felt about the mural ... why they felt that way, and where they were coming from," she said.

Stanton said that he, too, benefited from the meeting - and wished something similar had happened sooner.

"It was a very nuanced conversation," he said. "I think we could have avoided a lot of this acrimony, if it had this taken place last December."

Jeong, who was invited but did not attend the May meeting, criticized the decision to not open the meetings about the mural to the larger community. He said he believes that if more community conversations had been part of the mural's conception in 2016, a lot of the controversy could have been prevented. Now, he believes, LAUSD is making the same mistake again.

According to Martinez, the district thought last week's meeting was just a step in the mediation process among stakeholders, but at the end of the conversation, Stanton offered a solution: instead of keeping the mural as is - or covering it up - what if he modified it?

LAUSD made the public announcement: Stanton would modify the mural, with input from students and the surrounding community.

WHAT WILL THE NEW MURAL LOOK LIKE?

That's to be determined, though some parameters have been decided.

"The work that is there will not come down, it will serve as a backdrop ... for a new work," Stanton explained.

When Stanton first said he would reach out to community members and students, he said the goal was to get their ideas for imagery that would "speak to the past, present, and future of the school."

Moon, who is also an art historian, said she respected Stanton's decision.

"The idea itself of the mural sort of retaining the history of the controversy and the conversations that happened is an insightful and smart one," she explained, adding that GYOPO will not be prescriptive about the changes.

For Jeong, from the Wilshire Community Coalition, it's a balancing act: respecting the artist's choices, but also wanting to share feedback. He said he worries that if the changes are small ones, "that may still give the same message to the community ... and we may have to go back to where we started."

"I'm trying not to go there," he added.

WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM ALL THIS?

Everyone who spoke to KPCC/LAist said they learned something from the whole experience and the conversations it sparked.

Stanton said the debate about his mural showed him that "it's not always as easy and cut and dry as it seems."

"I feel like today, every conversation ... is so polarized," he said. "And to be able to think about an issue without taking it too personally, without getting too upset, and just think, 'Okay how can I maybe set an example and do something that meets people at a halfway point?'"

Jeong said the experience challenged him to think about what makes something hate symbol and where the line should be drawn.

"It's about understanding each other, especially different communities," Jeong said.

Moon, the art historian, said she appreciated the real-life example of some of the themes she grapples with in her professional work.

"Thinking about how to represent different members of different community groups who might be in the audience of the mural is definitely something to take into account, and should be part of the process for approving a work of public art," Moon said.

Martinez, from the district, said the experience greatly informed LAUSD's approach to its most recent mural festival at Dr. Maya Angelou Community School. For that project, they decided to incorporate a longer community input process.

"We had to make sure that it was deeply vetted, that we took our time: not just trying to put up art, but that everybody was involved," Martinez said.

Warren Brand, who organized both mural festivals, told KPCC/LAist in May that he thinks the conversation surrounding the Ava Gardner mural at RFK may have led to the big community turnout at meetings about the Maya Angelou school murals.

According to Martinez, the district has set aside $20,000 for the revisions to the Stanton's mural in Koreatown.

"Whatever the cost is, we believe that it's for a greater purpose," Martinez said. "We want to ensure that the community is cohesive, that it's harmonious as we move forward."

UPDATES:

September 26, 2019: This article was updated to include details of the district's process to solicit suggestions for the modified work.

This article was originally published on May 31.