S.F. J-Town history mural collects last round of comments before design finalization

THE WRITING ON THE WALL — Rigel “Crayone” Juratovac, the main artist of the proposed San Francisco Japantown History Mural, presents its latest iteration June 12.

The San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League held its final public meeting to discuss the proposed draft of its Japantown History Mural. The meeting, held June 12 at the Japanese American Citizens League’s headquarters in San Francisco’s Japantown, discussed updates and responses to comments on the project since the chapter unveiled its draft design May 11.

The mural will undergo a final set of edits before it goes before the city’s Recreation and Park Commission and Arts Commission.

“So there have been changes. There’s constant changes,” Rigel “Crayone” Juratovac, the mural’s principal artist, said.

Crayone, a renown muralist with roots in San Francisco’s Japantown, walked the attendees through the latest draft of the mural based on comments the project leaders garnered from the previous two meeting on May 11 and May 30. The mural, a chronological series of 11 historic notables who made an impact in San Francisco’s Japantown, would adorn the city-owned blank wall facing Geary Boulevard on the southern border of the ethnic enclave underneath the Peace Plaza.

The artist acknowledged that project organizers considered many more notables for the mural. While their portraits won’t be painted, he said gold and silver origami adorning the mid-block stairwell area will acknowledge these other Japantown notables. A revised draft of the mural will likely be available in a week or so, according to Crayone’s agent Lisa Brewer of Mission Art 415.

Meeting attendees had previously requested tweaks regarding the placement of some elements or how certain aspects of Japantown’s history is depicted, including bringing the Japanese YWCA closer to Yona Abiko, one of its founders and a notable on the wall. One of the major changes included additional work on the mural representing the ethnic enclave’s redevelopment era when much of the community was razed and displaced.

The principal artist added additional visual elements to denote the demolition and redevelopment of the ethnic enclave and added a better photo to represent the Committee Against Nihonmachi Eviction.

The previous iteration incorrectly used a photo from Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo to represent the group.

Following the update from Crayone, organizers gave attendees additional time to examine the mural draft and make comments. Meeting organizers, however, cautioned the attendees.

“We would hope that these comments will be constructive. And what was really difficult for the artists, as well as the full team, was someone took an opportunity to use two post-its to say this mural is ‘so ugly,’” Judy Hamaguchi, president of the San Francisco chapter of the JACL said.

While previous comments from the May 11 and May 30 community meetings involved more critical comments calling for changes or questions about the mural’s design choices, the final meeting featured more approval, particularly from the Black Fillmore community.

“The mural is great, and I hope to see you guys do more projects, as we get to continue to build together,” Erris Edgerly, leader of the Fillmore United Collaborative, said.

The project has faced criticism from the Japantown community in the past, particularly over its decision to focus on the dozen or so “notables” that will be painted in larger than life profiles on the wall.

Emily Murase, a board member of the SF JACL chapter, acknowledged the proposal “violates Japanese cultural norms” on several levels. However, she stressed Crayone’s medium of choice, spray paint, and the mural’s location along Geary Boulevard aims to catch the attention of the public and create an “Instagrammable” location in the ethnic enclave.

“Japanese cultural norms is to not talk about ourselves. But we have been engaged in this two-year process because we believe strongly that the Japantown history story needs to be told,” Murase said. “If we don’t tell it, nobody’s going to tell it.”

Some in the audience agreed.

“I would say to those that are prioritizing Japanese values, I would ask them to exercise those Japanese values by being collaborative and seeking balance and consensus in order to move the project forward. Instead of being nihilist, some of the comments about ‘No faces,’ I feel like that ship has sailed. And we want to move this project forward,” Glynis Nakahara, president of the Japantown Task Force board, said speaking as a community member.

“While I respect the ancient tradition of putting community above individuals, I still feel you got to tell your story, because Japanese culture and history in San Francisco history hardly ever gets talked about,” Jameel Patterson, associate director of the New Community Leadership Foundation in the Fillmore, said. “The reason why I can relate, because as African Americans, I don’t feel like we get included in San Francisco history.”

Patterson and others from the Black community applauded the proposed mural. Many particularly applauded the inclusion of Jimbo Edwards, proprietor of Bop City, a jazz club once located in the heart of Japantown, while others called for more murals and expansion in the future.

Still, several community members continued to stress their concerns and the city’s Recreation and Parks Department reiterated that the project must also address existing criticisms. Beverly Ng, deputy director of policy and public affairs at San Francisco Recreation and Parks, said the tenor of the community’s thoughts following the May 11 meeting indicated the city would likely not move forward with the project since it lacked “broad community support.”

“I do want to make sure we hear from other folks along the way who also have also been in opposition. If the changes that the SF JACL made over the last few meetings meet that piece,” Ng said.

Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, said the SF JACL should mitigate criticisms or face a drawn out process similar to what he faced trying to install the Issei Memorial Garden on Cottage Row several blocks away.

“It took five years to go through this community process, because there were some in the neighborhood who had objections to it. And it took a long time processing things with them. I mean, in the end, their comments were bigoted. That’s what it came down to, but still, we have to address them,” Osaki said. “I really feel everyone here wants to see the mural, but I also feel that there needs to be some discussion between those who have concerns and the board to see what can happen.”

“We have really tried hard to address every single criticism, negative comment that was put up, that was spoken. We have reached out to some of the folks who have made those comments. I don’t want people to think that we are completely ignoring them,” Murase said in response to Osaki. “I think what Crayone was saying about the numerous changes, correcting historical inaccuracies, certainly, but really trying to accommodate all of the hundreds of comments that we did receive. So I just want to let people know that we have taken that very seriously.”

Some of the long standing issues include questions on funding the project. According to Hamaguchi, the project is estimated to cost around $300,000 with $100,000 already earmarked by the JACL chapter to start the process. Mary Ishisaki, a member of the JACL chapter, noted that she was not part of the decision-making process to invest the initial seed money for the project using donations made by the estates of Yo Hironaka, Greg Marutani and Frank Minami. She went on to express her concerns that the project has yet to secure all the funds necessary to complete the project.

“I love art on buildings, but I think that we really need to be fiscally responsible and know that we are going to be able to pay for this and not leave leave it half done with people looking to be paid for their talent in designing it and putting it all together,” she said.

Hamaguchi said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei News that, while the SF JACL has never allocated this much money to a project before in her 18 years on the board, the chapter has typically made such decisions among board members and not with chapter members. Murase also said the chapter was working closely with the Recreation and Parks Department to ensure the project will not be left half finished due to funding issues.

The project will not collect any more money for the project until it gains approval from the city. Until then, the initiative has only collected pledges, with Hamaguchi saying they have already raised an additional $100,000 in pledges. In the future, Hamaguchi said they will pursue additional fundraising efforts to pay for the rest of the mural as well as educational programming surrounding it.

Ishisaki said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei News she is “not happy with the response” the JACL chapter gave regarding the financing during the meeting.

Joyce Nakamura, meanwhile, expressed concern over the design of the mural itself.

“For myself, I supported this mural from the very beginning and I wanted to read a description of the project by the JACL. And that is ‘the proposed mural will depict the 116-year history of San Francisco Japantown, including images of key people, places and events that have shaped (Japantown). The mural will pay homage to the power of community and illustrate the resilience of Japanese Americans in San Francisco,’” she said. “So, for myself, I don’t feel the design encompasses this history. And I would like to see — I have nothing against the 10 notables, or the artists, it’s not a referendum of the artist, OK? But I really feel that the 10 individuals can be there, but put them in the context of history.”

Nakamura previously asked whether the mural should even incorporate the notables’ portraits at all, but the JACL project leaders maintained their original vision, citing Murase’s arguments.

In following up with Nakamura via e-mail, in essence, she said Crayone’s revisions were not yet complete, so she could not offer a comment on them, and the JACL’s latest response to her questions was not sufficient.

Rosalyn Tonai, a member of the advisory committee that selected the notables for the mural, said she felt the JACL had already addressed the questions Ishisaki and Nakamura had raised, however. “I asked those same questions … and the responses I got, to me, were satisfactory, because they had done the research. They had done the preliminary budget projections, and I think galvanizing the community is very important,” she said.

Crayone, meanwhile expressed his commitment to the project.

“I’m telling you right now, out of 40 years of doing murals in the city, this is gonna be the most important mural I’ve ever tackled. Just letting you know how intricate, and how amazing and how deep this is for a lot of people,” the artist said.

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