By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
“Make your life count — and the world will be a better place because you tried.” —Ellison Onizuka
When people look back at this era of Little Tokyo, Kent Yoshimura’s public artwork will serve as a beautiful, lasting testament to the hopes and dreams of the neighborhood during a turbulent time.
His latest murals, both 50×50 feet, on the north and south walls of the new condominium complex Āto, depict astronaut Ellison Onizuka as a young boy, dreaming of a future of space flight.
Next January will mark 37 years since Onizuka and his crewmates perished in the Challenger space shuttle accident. Onizuka was the 1985 Nisei Week parade marshal and he is honored in Little Tokyo with both a street and a memorial in Weller Court.
For inspiration, Yoshimura researched the astronaut’s life and also the history of Little Tokyo. He also cited the late Ray Bradbury’s short story collection “R Is for Rocket.” The north mural depicts a boy kneeling and holding a magnifying glass exploring the world around him; while the south mural depicts the Kona-born Sansei looking up to the sky, behind him a rocket ship poised for flight.
“I started thinking how can I make a mural that is really central in the Weller Court area of Little Tokyo and have it be about not just Ellison Onizuka as the first Asian American in space, but about the concept of dreams. The concept of what it means to be a resident of Little Tokyo and dreaming beyond what our bounds are, just by being this tiny little town in the middle of this massive county that is Los Angeles,” Yoshimura said in an interview with The Rafu Shimpo.
Āto, which is the Japanese pronunciation of “art,” is located on Onizuka Street across from the DoubleTree Hotel. It will be composed of 77 urban flats crowned by an expansive rooftop amenity deck for residents as well as ground-floor retail space. Pre-sales are underway at Āto with prices starting in the $600,000s.
Scott Oshima, former director of Sustainable Little Tokyo, explained that as Āto was being developed, the Little Tokyo Community Council negotiated a community benefits agreement with the Etco development team, including construction mitigations for the neighboring businesses and public artwork.
“The mural followed Sustainable Little Tokyo’s Public Art Guidelines and our community’s priority for more public art sharing the history, culture, and future hopes for our neighborhood. Kent worked closely with the SLT team and presented to LTCC for ideas and input, before finalizing the work as you see today,” Oshima said.
“Kent’s mural provides a clear visual statement that you are standing here in Little Tokyo. You can see silhouettes of many of our historic landmarks and moments, including LT People’s Rights Organization’s anti-eviction protests at the Sun Building in the 1970s — which used to be located across the street from Ato. But it also includes the next generation looking ahead towards a more just future for our multigenerational community of color.”
Besides the Onizuka murals, Yoshimura painted “To Catch the Moon” at the Terasaki Budokan in September 2020, and a year earlier he created “Through the Blossoms,” which overlooks Frances Hashimoto Plaza. As in those works, Yoshimura has included familiar J-Town icons such as the Sun Building, the historic grapefruit tree, yagura fire tower, Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple and the Friendship Knot.
Taken as a whole, they are a meditation on Little Tokyo and its meaning for the residents and business owners who have called it home.
“It’s the idea of reaching for more. I feel Little Tokyo has always been at the cusp of being gentrified,” he said.
Persistence is something Yoshimura understands.
It took Yoshimura and his team six days to do one side, and 2½ days to complete the other, working in 100-degree heat. The work was finished on Oct. 20. His team included Paul Juno and Julian Carrere.
Juno and Yoshimura were among the artists who lost their work in the fire that destroyed the Little Tokyo Art Complex on Third and Los Angeles streets in 2021. The building was ablaze again last month, just days before we spoke. He recalled getting the news as he was going out to dinner.
“Texted Paul immediately and said, ‘Dude, you can’t believe this,’” Yoshimura said.
Yoshimura’s murals are a reflection on Little Tokyo as it continues to change. For every smoke shop or Shoe Palace that opens, a Terasaki Budokan, Fugetsu-Do or even The Rafu Shimpo remain true to the spirit of the neighborhood.
“We’re always at the risk of our Japanese American identity getting pushed out of Little Tokyo,” he noted. “But somehow our perseverance and ability to keep pushing, it’s almost the history of our culture. It has allowed us to stay rooted there and continue to grow our presence. I think there’s something along those lines that exists in those pieces — the idea of dreaming big.”