Kent Yoshimura stands outside the burned-out building that housed Little Tokyo Art Complex on Thursday. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

Walking towards the burned-out remains of the 100-year-old building at 211 E. Third Street, the smell of fire, chemicals and ash still lingers, over a week after a fiery explosion gutted the building. Artist Kent Yoshimura points to blackened, shattered windows on the second floor, the site of what was the Little Tokyo Art Complex.

Paintings fill Paul Juno’s studio at Little Tokyo Art Complex. He is working on a painting mourning the loss for a fundraiser to be held on June 27. (Photo courtesy of Paul Juno)

“Our studio was the last affordable haven for artists and different businesses that brought a bit of culture rather than, say, another apartment building. With it gone, I wonder how the dynamic is gonna shift,” Yoshimura said.

LTAC was a creative, eclectic space for more than 20 local artists who would create art and invite the public for live mural paintings, curations and ArtWalk events. A GoFundMe page has been established and a fundraiser will be held on June 27 at the DurdenandRay gallery.

Yoshimura, whose murals adorn a building overlooking Frances Hashimoto Plaza and the Terasaki Budokan, said he lost two years of artwork, sketchbooks and prints from artist friends. Fortunately, many of his originals were stored at his home.

For Paul Juno, the loss is even worse. He collaborates with Yoshimura, assisting on his Little Tokyo murals. A video posted on his website shows Juno working at LTAC, applying bold splashes of color, like stained glass, to canvas. In the fire, he lost over 100 pieces, totaling seven years of work.

Juno is now working on a painting to commemorate the work that was lost, which will be exhibited at the LTAC fundraiser. Prints will be sold to help the collective of artists to heal and recover.

“Behind every painting was a dozen more. I filled the hallways with paintings because there was no room left in the studio,” he said. “This has hit me really hard. It feels like a loved one has died. This space contained chapters of change, paintings I couldn’t recreate now, things never photographed and the future that had so much more time left.”

Kent Yoshimura (left) and Paul Juno in better times, working on “To Catch the Moon” at the Terasaki Budokan on Aug. 30, 2020. (Photo by Ken Hong)

L.A. Fire Department officials have not released an official cause of the blaze that started inside the building. However, they did report that two businesses sold smoking supplies and bits of shrapnel, the remnants of butane canisters, still littered the ground near the site.

The June 8 fire was the third involving smoke shops along or near Third Street in recent years.

Walking towards the studio, Yoshimura pointed to the many smoke shops that still comprise the south side of Third.

“You see all these smoke shops. There was a fire that occurred one block away, 12 firefighters were injured, one of them lost their hands, and the repercussions [the business owners] faced … were not significant enough to cause any shift in action,” he said.

A hearing for Steve Sungho Lee and the smoke shop Biohazard was postponed until June 25. They face charges related to the May 16, 2020 fire, where investigators found illegally stored hazardous materials and other egregious violations.

Both artists expressed relief that in this most recent fire, no one was injured. But so much was lost that will never be replaced. Yoshimura said he paid $225 for his space that had 24/7 access and utilities. LTAC gave artists a rare place to call home and a sense of belonging in downtown L.A., which has become largely out-of-reach due to gentrification. Yoshimura fears that with the building gutted, wealthy developers will soon be calling.

The one surviving artwork from LTAC is on the east side of the building: a mural by Jesse Fregozo of Kobe Bryant embracing Jackie Robinson.

“With this gone, it’s less so a space being gone, it’s more so the displacement of people who don’t live in L.A. People who live in North Hollywood like Paul. This was his connection to the city, to Little Tokyo, everything that was actually happening and now he’s completely displaced,” Yoshimura said.

The GoFundMe page for LTAC is at www.gofundme.com/f/ltac-fire-fund. The LTAC fire fundraiser will be held on Sunday, June 27, from 1 to 6 p.m. at DurdenandRay, 1206 Maple Ave. #832, Los Angeles, CA 90015.

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