Television images of Koreatown businesses being burned and looted during the 1992 riots struck a deep chord within Hyung Suk Kim as he watched from the safety of his La Habra home.
A Korean national, Kim had moved to the Los Angeles area only three years earlier to study graphic design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He was about to graduate and planned to pursue a master's degree that fall when the riots struck.
"I got a bad impression during the riots because the Korean community was targeted," said Kim, 36. "I wanted to help my people in the Koreatown community."
Haunted by images of some of his countrymen losing their American dreams, Kim dedicated his graduate study to determining what had caused Koreatown to become a target of racially motivated violence, and what could be done to prevent another occurrence.
In his research, Kim found that Latinos and African Americans make up most of Koreatown's population and that this non-Korean base felt alienated from Korean business owners for several reasons: their own poor economic conditions, envy of successful immigrants and the language barrier, especially in the form of signs.
"African Americans and Latinos don't understand this signage," he said. "These signs appear foreign to them so they feel uncomfortable."
Kim concluded that changing the signage in Koreatown to include English could be an effective means of letting non-Koreans feel more welcome.
In order to make Koreatown's signage more culturally egalitarian, Kim's graduate thesis proposes bilingual English-Korean signs, with the English message slightly larger than and above the Korean message.
"Korean people here are well-educated," he said. "They understand at least some English, and are familiar with English signs. This would let people know that Koreatown does not belong to Korea, it is part of American society."
Ramon Munoz, Kim's graduate adviser, supports the idea of bilingual signage. "To some extent, when you'd go down the street, you'd almost feel as though you understood Korean, seeing all the translations," he said. "That would make a lot of people who don't speak Korean feel more at ease."
Kim has also designed a master's project consisting of a series of posters calling for harmony in the community, displaying inspirational photographic images juxtaposed against equally balanced English and Korean-language messages.
A sample message reads: "Los Angeles is a unique historical circumstance. We are a diverse city with people from over 100 nations. If we learn to respect other cultures, we can grow as one community. It is like a tree with red, yellow and green leaves. It's more colorful to live in harmony."
Although his project does not include Spanish, Kim said the posters and signs could easily be adapted to include a third language.
Kim, who graduates next week, will display his posters, as well as models of some bilingual signs, from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at Hollytron Electronics, 4641 W. Santa Monica Blvd. The exhibit will run through Aug. 30.
Kim said he hopes to generate interest in his signs and posters from city and community leaders, many of whom he has invited to the opening. However, he acknowledges that many merchants may be reluctant to change their all-Korean signs.
"He found that there were some Korean store owners who were very apathetic to what he was doing," Munoz said. "It's not all open arms."
Although merchants may be unwilling to adopt Kim's bilingual signs, five local businesses and organizations in addition to Hollytron will be showcasing his posters in their storefronts for the next few weeks. Kim hopes the city will take an interest in sponsoring the posters as billboards.
If either of his projects catch on, he said he will stay in the United States long enough to follow it through before returning to Korea to set up his own graphics firm.