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Visual blend of two cultures

Times Staff Writer

JAPANESE American artist Clement Hanami compares his experience growing up in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights to Bruce Lee’s role as the sidekick Kato in “The Green Hornet.”

“Having most of my neighbors being Latino, I was the token, and people called me ‘Chinito,’ ” says Hanami, 44. “It’s kind of good and bad, but after a while it doesn’t faze you.”

Hanami’s upbringing is hardly an anomaly but rather another component to a city in which one can find a Chinese market, Mexican bakery, Thai restaurant and taco truck within two blocks of one another. This intersection of cultures is the subject of the exhibition “Tigers and Jaguars: L.A.'s Asian-Latino Art Phenomenon,” on display at the Craft and Folk Art Museum and in collaboration with the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture. The show, which runs through Oct. 29, looks at how 13 local artists have fused the two in their work.

“We know of this fusion in food, a little in music, but there’s no documentation of this fusion in the visual arts,” says exhibition curator Kathy Mas-Gallegos. A discussion she had with Stan Sosa of the Latino Museum about the large Asian presence in the Southland piqued her interest in curating the show.

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“We have so many artists living and working in L.A. who are consciously or unconsciously using cross influences in their work.”

To convey a sense of how both cultures reflect a strong presence within the local art scene, Mas-Gallegos invited taggers, manga illustrators, conceptual artists and painters to join the show.

One of them is Charles “Chaz” Bojorquez, 57, referred to by many street artists as the godfather of West Coast graffiti art. Latino and Asian cultures have influenced his work since he started tagging in the 1960s. His serigraph “Chino Latino” depicts a Chinese dragon with the names of fellow local artists written in the “cholo style” of Old English script.

Bojorquez knows firsthand about the interaction between the two ethnicities. Born on the edge of Chinatown, he listened to jazz at the Grand Star with his mother, partied at the punk club Madame Wong’s in the early ‘80s and revisited Grand Star when the club Firecracker opened in the ‘90s -- venues frequented mostly by young Asians and Latinos.

“There was always music, there was always art. There was always a connection between the two communities,” Bojorquez says. This mixing of cultures is “an experience we’ve had all the time, but it’s something we’ve only begun to put in our work in the last 10 years.”

Hanami’s work emphasizes this cross-cultural exchange within a social context. His investigations on identity have been informed by his experience growing up in the Eastside. His “Rice Rocket” on display is a working rickshaw tricked out with lowrider-style wire-spoked rims and white-walled tires. Speakers are attached below the seat and play the tunes of War and the Stylistics.

“As an artist, I look at what it is about this experience that is unique and how it impacts being Japanese American or being a minority within a minority,” Hanami says.

“So you have a rickshaw, something I’m not even familiar with. Lowriders are more familiar to me -- even my Japanese American friends had them, because it’s part of L.A.”

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In “Tigers and Jaguars,” the majority of the 13 participating artists were born and raised in L.A. But this is also a city of transplants, and Felipe Smith, the 28-year-old creator of the graphic novel “MBG” whose illustrations are on display, is one of them.

“This is a very interesting city,” the Argentine-born artist says. “People are from all parts of the world, but they all in some way relate to L.A. and the urban life.”

Asian culture has been relevant to Smith since he moved to L.A. six years ago, after graduating from art school in Chicago. To adapt to the adult-oriented market of Japanese manga, he worked at the now-defunct Peppermint karaoke bar on Olympic and Sawtelle boulevards for three years. As the only non-Japanese employee, he learned how to speak, read and write Japanese.

Smith thinks that a show dedicated to artistic fusion is possible only in a city with large and fast-growing Asian and Latino populations. “People here know a little bit more about cultures and have an interest in other cultures.”

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Despite the special role L.A. may have in “Tigers and Jaguars,” the show strives to reveal how art can act as a bridge between cultures within any community.

“We retain certain aspects that we feel are valuable, but we adopt aspects from other cultures because they hold significant meanings,” Hanami says. “There’s a mixing that happens that’s serendipitous.”

Hanami, like the other artists, embraces this melding of cultures in the world of visual arts, but he finds referring to it as a “melting pot” to be an inaccurate description. And, of course, leave it to an artist to point out how aesthetically unpleasing the mental image can be.

“America isn’t a big bucket of mud,” he says with a long giggle. “It’s a mosaic.”

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‘Tigers and Jaguars’

L.A.'s Asian-Latino Art Phenomenon

Where: Craft and Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

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When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays; noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: Oct. 29

Price: $3 to $5; 11 and younger, free

Info: (323) 937-4230, www.cafam.org

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