By Kathryn Lau and Anya Shukla
Over the past few months, we have seen an uptick in crimes against Asian-Americans due to fears surrounding COVID-19: in Seattle’s International District and Chinatown, for example, Asian restaurants have been vandalized. However, Keoke Silvano, a Filipino photographer and advisor at the University of Washington, recently facilitated an art project to support these businesses. We spoke with him to learn more.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kathryn Lau and Anya Shukla: Could you describe your recent work in the International District?
Keoke Silvano: I was just driving by Jade Garden—that’s a restaurant in Chinatown that I see frequently—and I saw they were putting boards up. I thought they were closing the doors—that’s what you think when you see people boarding up a building—so I stopped and learned that somebody had broken out the windows. I knew that when you have boards up on a building, it’s an open invitation to taggers to just come in and do some graffiti art. I wanted the owner to have a little more control over his property. So I talked to him about painting murals on those boards; I then put a call out for artists on Facebook. And in 30 minutes, people already wanted to come and paint.
KL and AS: Why were you inspired to put out that call to artists?
KS: It just felt like the right thing to do. It wasn’t intentional. It just happened to be a moment where I saw something and wanted to help.
KL and AS: Did you expect the project to have such a large impact?
KS: I wouldn’t have cared if this project didn’t get any attention, but it did get picked up by several news outlets like KOMO and Seattle Eater. We often want to do something on a big scale; we want to make an impact, but sometimes, the very simple thing—something you do out of humanity—could be the big thing you weren’t even expecting.
KL and AS: We also saw that you have gone “viral” before for standing up against racism…
KS: Yes—it was in 2018, at the Beacon Hill station: a white guy started yelling at a black guy. The white guy was 6’ 4”, really broad shoulders, really big, massive. I didn’t know if he had a knife; I didn’t know if he had a gun; there were a lot of variables. But I just reacted. I stepped in between them, and I got my phone out and recorded the whole thing. I was just doing what felt right, but that unintentionally went viral.
There was no intention of these murals going viral either. In both of these situations, I just looked at what was going on in my neighborhood, said “I don’t really like that,” and said, “okay, well, let’s find a solution to make it better."
KL and AS: What was your main role in this project? What variables did you have to account for?
KS: I just coordinated and managed! And I came up with what I thought was a great solution. But crafting in that solution, I had to take into account my stakeholders. That project was in Chinatown. So the stakeholder—one of them—was the owner. But then you have the people from the community to think about. So, for example, if the owner says to the artists, “You can put anything up on the wall,” and my artists use a highly stylized Asian caricature, contextually, that’s not going to work. The people in the community are going to think that’s very racist.
So when I was looking at the project, I had to realize that if I wanted outsiders (people who aren’t part of the Asian culture) to paint something, I had to make sure their work delivered the right message.
KL and AS: Even though you didn’t actually create the art yourself, would you say the project was worth it?
KS: Definitely. Even though you have long days where you’re just watching the artists paint, at the end of the day, these murals are going to be up for a very long time. Even the ones at the Jade Garden—the owner anticipates hanging them up in his restaurant when this is all over.
KL and AS: Do you have any advice for teen artists of color who want to get involved in their communities during this time?
KS: I’m a big proponent for finding something that’s simple. Why not work with a small business in Chinatown? You can crowdsource some paint, put up a call for artists on Facebook, and ask restaurants if you can create some murals. Your project doesn’t have to be massive. Just find one small business—just find one!—and see what you can do to help them out.
Especially right now, we have to remember that we are a collective. We are a community. We are a village.