After a 2½-year delay, an updated mural at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in L.A.’s Koreatown was officially unveiled on Sept. 15.
Beau Stanton’s mural, completed in 2016, depicts actress Ava Gardner and was intended as a tribute to the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which one stood on the site of the school.
In 2018, the sun-ray motif became an issue as some Korean Americans said it was reminiscent of the Imperial Japan battle flag, a reminder of Japan’s decades-long occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
The Los Angeles Unified School District initially agreed to the Wilshire Community Coalition’s demand that the mural be removed, then backtracked. Stanton pointed out that the orange-red and blue rays are a different color and thickness from the Japanese flag, and are a common motif in his works and those of other artists.
Artist Shepard Fairey threatened to have his mural of Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel, removed in solidarity.
Gyopo, a group of Korean American artists and community members, said in a letter to LAUSD that those who think the mural isn’t offensive do not understand the pain and trauma that such imagery elicits for victims of wartime Japanese aggression.
While acknowledging that Stanton did not mean to offend anyone, Gyopo said it was troubled by “the lack of community involvement in the mural’s selection process, the mural’s imagery itself and its memorialization of a whites-only club, and the ways in which the media has directed these narratives.”
In 2019, Stanton said in a statement, “Over the past several months I have had the opportunity to meet with a diverse cross-section of stakeholders regarding my mural at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools,.including students, faculty, fellow artists, and members of the Koreatown community.
“These interactions have allowed me to synthesize a solution that aims to rise above the original binary conversation of ‘keep or remove the mural’ in order to build upon the original work and create something that speaks to the past, present, and future of the RFK campus.
“My proposal involves creating a transformative work utilizing the original mural as a base for layering and weaving additional imagery into the original image much like an urban wall with many historic layers. Parts of the original will remain visible while focusing on themes related to the important conversation that the original work had initiated.
“While I cannot yet speak to the imagery that will become central to the new work, I am interested in hearing from the students and greater K-Town community regarding suggestions for symbols that hold positive personal meaning as well as visual reference specific to the area’s diverse history. These contributions will be collected and integrated into an on-campus workshop where I can work with the students of RFK in order to design final work.”
The new mural retains some of the original design, with the addition of images that celebrate Koreatown’s diverse immigrant community. Also, the stripes have been shortened so that they don’t touch the mural’s borders.
“A lot of students had decorated their caps and sashes with colors and flag designs that were specific to where their family members had immigrated from – Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador,” said Stanton, who incorporated those countries’ flowers into a crown on Gardner’s head.
To pay tribute to Koreatown’s history, he included a Korean hotel worker and a man working in a Central L.A. citrus grove.